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Astros Fire Jeff Luhnow, A.J. Hinch

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By Jeff Todd | January 13, 2020 at 2:06pm CDTIn the wake of severe MLB discipline arising out of the Astros sign-stealing scandal, team owner Jim Crane announced that he has fired both GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch. It’s a stunning end to a notable tenure in Houston for both men.
The Astros organization has been a lightning rod ever since Luhnow took over in December of 2011. But the swings in fortunes have reached dizzying levels in recent months. The club bungled a self-created controversy even as it prepared for the World Series, then lost consecutive home games in spectacular fashion, thus failing to win a second title in a three-year span.
It turned out that was only the beginning. It started out as a normal-enough offseason — some change was afoot with top starter Gerrit Cole reaching free agency and Crane suggesting the team might tighten up payroll. But things took a calamitous turn when allegations emerged in mid-November that the Houston organization had improperly utilized technology to ascertain opposing teams’ signs and then convey them in real-time to Astros hitters during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
The resulting league investigation unfolded even as public evidence emerged to fully confirm the claims. It became undeniably clear that the Astros had acted in a manner that fell well outside the traditional sign-stealing culture of the game and clearly broke the rules. Commissioner Rob Manfred had made clear previously that he’d come down hard on any teams that misused technology.
While a big punishment had been anticipated, this nevertheless rates as a momentous decision for the organization as well as for the game generally. The fallout will be immense and can’t be fully known at the moment.
From the Astros’ perspective, the firing unquestionably taints the team’s successes in recent years — even if Crane declined to acknowledge that fact in his press conference. And it raises huge questions about the future. It takes out the club’s baseball architect in Luhnow, even as his top understudies have already departed the organization. (Brandon Taubman was fired. Previously, David Stearns and Mike Elias left for GM jobs elsewhere.) There had already been some degree of uncertainty regarding the team’s precise direction this offseason and beyond. Now, the club’s top leaders are gone and more could still follow. Crane said he was still assessing the culpability of other personnel and deciding how to fill the void for the departing leaders. He’ll personally oversee baseball ops for the time being. Whether there’ll be an impact to the roster isn’t yet known.
Across the league, there’ll surely be a strong desire to avoid a similar fate. Available information and scrutiny — both publicly and within the game — are obviously reaching new heights. Manfred’s statement made clear that, despite the lack of a smoking gun linking Luhnow to the cheating effort, he and Hinch were being punished for overseeing a baseball operations department and uniformed staff that pursued it. As Crane told reporters today, it was obvious that both men were aware of and did not intervene to stop the sign-stealing. The onus will now be on other top organizational leaders to halt any untoward behavior, at risk of severe consequences. Beyond that, any changes to the course of the Houston organization will obviously impact the broader player market and their competitors in the American League West.

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Ryan Braun Discusses Future – MLB Trade Rumors

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Franchise icon Ryan Braun is entering the final guaranteed season of the contract extension he signed with the Brewers nearly a decade ago. Now 36, the former MVP is nearing the end of a storied career. In fact, it’s not out of the question that 2020 could prove to be his final season, he acknowledged to reporters (including Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) today at Fan Fest.
“I don’t take for granted this could be my last year playing baseball,” Braun told reporters. “It’s definitely a possibility,” he elaborated when asked if he would contemplate retirement after the 2020 season. “We’ll see how the year goes, see where I’m at physically. Obviously, my family’s always my top priority, so we’ll see how everything’s going then.”
Needless to say, that’s hardly a declaration that he’ll certainly hang up the spikes. He added that he doesn’t anticipate making a final decision until after this season, when he can reevaluate his health and family situation as well as the team’s outlook. Braun’s contract does come with a $15MM mutual option for 2021, but mutual options are rarely exercised. Typically, the price point is either high enough that the team would prefer to buy the player out or low enough that the player would rather explore free agency. In Braun’s case, it seems likely the Brewers would buy Braun out for $4MM rather than exercise their end.
That’s not to say, however, that Braun won’t be a key factor on Milwaukee’s 2020 outlook. He’s coming off a strong 2019 effort, in which he hit .285/.343/.505 (117 wRC+) in 508 plate appearances. The club anticipates him taking a similar number of plate appearances this season, he told reporters today. The longtime corner outfielder confirmed that some of that work figures to come at first base, where he’s played just 18 career games (all in 2018). Milwaukee’s corner outfield mix is crowded, with offseason signee Avisaíl García joining MVP candidate Christian Yelich and Ben Gamel. Yelich, notably, is at full strength for spring training after a knee injury ended his 2019 season in September, he told reporters today (including Haudricourt).
Today’s comments from Braun are perhaps unsurprising; that a 36-year-old player may at least entertain thoughts of retirement after the season won’t raise many eyebrows. Nevertheless, it’s notable to hear Braun verbalize the possibility. He is, as mentioned, still a productive hitter. In all fourteen of his MLB seasons, he’s been above-average at the dish by measure of wRC+. He’s certainly unlikely to return to the vaunted offensive force he was in his prime, but Braun still figures to be a valuable player in 2020. Should he again produce at the plate, he’d no doubt draw interest from teams next offseason, if he chooses to keep playing.

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Astros Interview Mark Kotsay For Manager

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The Astros interviewed A’s quality control coach Mark Kotsay last week as part of their ongoing search for A.J. Hinch’s replacement, reports Brian McTaggart of MLB.com (via Twitter). Kotsay becomes the ninth known candidate in Houston’s wide-ranging managerial search.
Kotsay also drew consideration from the Giants and Pirates for their vacancies earlier in the offseason, but he ultimately lost out to Gabe Kapler and Derek Shelton, respectively. He has no MLB managerial expereience, but he’s worked in the Padres’ front office and on the Pads’ and A’s coaching staffs since retiring as a player in 2013.
Kotsay joins Joe Espada, Eduardo Pérez and Will Venable as potential first-time managers to sit down with Houston. The Astros have also interviewed former MLB skippers Brad Ausmus, Dusty Baker, Jeff Banister, John Gibbons and Buck Showalter.

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