Astros Organization Saves the Day for Houston as Rockets and Texans Wallow in Uncertainty

Astros front office soars while Rockets and Texans fail

Composite photo by Jack Brame
Astros World Series photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Knowing when to give a contract extension is a skill, just like running the front office of a professional sports franchise is an art form. It takes a special set of characteristics to be able to balance finances, evaluate talent, execute contracts and manage people and personalities on a day-to-day basis. It is with that in mind that I can't help but shake my head in disappointment and disbelief when I look at the landscape of Houston sports and the three major sports teams that operate in our fair city. From ownership to the team operations side of the equation, the Astros are the saving grace for Houstonians as they continue to press all the right buttons, pull all the right strings and compete for a championship year after year. The Rockets and the Texans are a different story and the way they have gone about their business lately, to quote Vince Lombardi, has a lot of people wondering what the hell is going on around here?

Astros Jeff Luhnow and Jim Crane Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Thank goodness for the Astros! Owner Jim Crane has perfected the balance between letting his decision makers do their jobs and make the moves and trades and deals necessary to create a championship caliber club while knowing when to get personally involved in situations where his support, financial backing, and commitment were the difference between success and possible long term failure. He dug deep to trade for and then extend Justin Verlander. Without that one trade, at the last minute, this city may still be searching for its first World Series title. He committed the money and the contracts to lock up George Springer and Alex Bregman early when most owners would have let those players perform on bargain contracts until he absolutely had to pay them. He locked up Jose Altuve in a similar fashion and has never let finances get in the way of an opportunity to better his ball club. He promoted and extended Jeff Luhnow and key members of his staff that orchestrated the moves, drafts, and signings that have led to his organization being poised to compete for a championship this year and for years to come. There is harmony and communication throughout the process between ownership, management, the coaching staff, and the roster on a daily basis that has led to move after move that bettered the team and protected the clubhouse. From the savvy acquisition of Ryan Pressly to the controversial move to bring in Roberto Osuna. There was a lot that could have gone wrong, but because of the people involved, there has been so much that continues to go right.

Bill O'Brien, Denver Broncos vs. Houston Texans Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

To try and make sense of what is going on with the Texans these days you would need to get into the head of the man seemingly in control of everything the franchise does, head coach Bill O'Brien. A man who went from running the football team to somehow overseeing everything the organization does from a personnel and football perspective. A guy that was rightfully on the hot seat a little over a year ago after several mediocre seasons that all ended in disappointment.

Somehow and inexplicably, he was given a multi-year extension by the team instead of letting him play out the remainder of his contract as he tried to prove he was worthy of continuing on with the franchise. Bob McNair gave him that job security just as easily as he gave him his first NFL head coaching contract when he hired him hired to work with GM Rick Smith and create a culture similar to the one he helped develop in New England with the Patriots. Fans sat back and watched as the so-called "Quarterback Whisperer" brought in re-tread after re-tread to be the next signal caller for the squad, including several that used to play for him with the Pats. The one common thread they all shared was that they all failed miserably and quite noticeably.

Bill blamed Smith and Smith paid the price for it as he was reassigned and eventually stripped of his GM title and decision making power. O'Brien would not face any scrutiny. Instead, he would be empowered to lead the process of hiring Smith's replacement. That would lead to the hiring of one of his former colleagues, Brian Gaine. Gaine had worked with the Texans and O'Brien in the past and was someone that head coach raved about as he was introduced to the fans and the media. It was a fresh start and a new beginning in many ways for the franchise and the two men trusted to lead it into the future. The fairy tale scenario wouldn't last long as the team once again suffered another crushing home playoff loss after an up and down regular season. This offseason Gaine was criticized for his inability to land a top tier free agent and for failing to move up in the draft while he selected a player many thought would have been available later on. Last week, to the surprise of just about everyone, Gaine was fired less than two years into a five-year deal. Now O'Brien is once again in the middle of another search to find a GM that he is compatible with while the fan base and city shake their collective heads and wonder how this man that has been average at best as a head coach, not only still has his job, but is in charge of just about everyone else's employment as he runs the operation his way. You can't help but think he's actually running the organization into the ground as he continues to hire more ex-Patriots staffers, including the person he hires to be the next GM. They may get the title but Billy somehow has all the power.

Daryl Morey

Unlike the Texans, the Rockets have been really good the last several years, including the last two seasons where they were arguably the second-best team in the NBA, falling to their nemesis the Golden State Warriors. Along the way, they set the franchise record for wins in the regular season and James Harden was the league's Most Valuable Player. Unlike Bill O'Brien, Head Coach Mike D'Antoni and his high powered offense set the world on fire by scorching the nets on a nightly basis, scoring seemingly at will, while setting records for 3-point shooting and made triples in a game and a season. Also unlike O'Brien, D'Antoni has been unable to get an extension that he has seemingly earned and instead has been the main focus of scrutiny and blame for what went wrong and is wrong with the team.

New Owner Tilman Fertitta is playing hardball with his tough talk after the tough loss to the Warriors that ended their season and for his handling of the negotiations with his head coach. GM Daryl Morey fired almost all of the teams assistant coaches, video department and player development staff, further creating turmoil for a team that should be looking to add talent this offseason instead of dismissing it.

On the subject of Morey, how is he not the recipient of more of the blame for the franchise's postseason failures? Unlike Rick Smith and Brian Gaine, Morey received a multi-year extension this year even though he publicly took the blame for this year's disjointed roster and lack of depth.

After all he was the one that brought in James Ennis and Michael Carter Williams to replace Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, just as he was the one that signed Clint Capela to a huge deal when he seemingly had no other teams bidding for his services. He also was the man who shook hands and agreed to the massive Chris Paul contract that will handcuff and potentially strangle the franchise financially for the next three years. The team has $95 million dollars wrapped up in four players for next season, putting them way over the salary cap and limiting what they can do to upgrade and improve their roster and Morey is the man who made those deals. Sure, James Harden deserves his contract and has earned every penny, but Paul, Capella, and Eric Gordon are not going to win a title without acquiring more help to fill out the roster. Last season Morey lucked out when Kenneth Faried and Austin Rivers chose Houston after being bought out, even though he received all the credit for orchestrating their arrival in Houston.

If fans have to hope the buyout market is their savior next season it may be hard to keep hope alive. Morey is going to have to earn his money this offseason while the rest of the league looks on at a franchise that seems to be at a crossroads, if not in disarray. Free agent players are watching with keen interest as there is uncertainty with the coach, the staff, the roster and maybe most importantly, the two best players.

There are plenty of reasons to watch

An exciting week ahead for the Astros

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After the disappointing 12-0 blowout loss to the Blue Jays on Father's Day to end last week, Houston will turn the page to a new one with some compelling components to look forward to in the next seven days. With a full seven-game week ahead, here are some of the things to be watching for:

The Alvarez roadshow

We are six games into the Yordan Alvarez experience, and over those six games, he has homered in four. Some of those would have been home runs nearly anywhere, but this week we will get to see how he handles leaving the confines of Minute Maid Park.

Luckily for Alvarez, both Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and Yankee Stadium in New York provide a boost for left-handed hitters, especially Yankee Stadium with its short porch in right field. He'll also potentially get to face some pitchers who have been struggling with the long ball in Tyler Mahle for the Reds and J.A. Happ for the Yankees. It should shape up to be another big week at the plate for Alvarez, maintaining his at-bats as being much-watch TV.

Pitchers hitting in Cincinnati 

Houston will make their first trip to a National League park in 2019 to start the week with a three-game series with the Reds. The inter-league matchup presents the rare opportunity to see the DH-less Astros send their pitcher to the plate to try and contribute on offense.

The three pitchers we will get to see: Wade Miley, Justin Verlander, and Gerrit Cole. Miley has a career batting average of .155 including one home run from back in 2013 with the Diamondbacks. Last year with the Brewers he hit .185 with five hits and a walk over 27 at-bats.

Cole is no stranger to the batter's box, playing the first five years of his career in the National League for Pittsburgh. He's a career .168 hitter and hit a home run in three out of his five seasons with the Pirates. However, he lost a little bit of his swing last season, going 0-for-9 with eight strikeouts for the Astros in his first season as part of his new American League team.

Then there's Justin Verlander. He has played in the AL his entire career, making him mostly a stranger at the plate. That makes it no surprise that his batting numbers aren't quite at the level of his dominant pitching numbers, hitting just .104 in his career. He has notched an RBI, though, getting the first of his career in 2017 for the Tigers before coming over to Houston.

So with that, it should be an entertaining series to start the week, and will likely make fans of the American League relish the fact that they get to have a Designated Hitter in the lineup every day.

Two starts for Verlander

While he may not be an All-Star with a bat, he's definitely on track to a lot of awards this year on the mound. Verlander is scheduled to make two starts this week, one on Tuesday night against the Reds, then another on Sunday in New York against the Yankees.

Not only does that mean two chances to see if Verlander can keep up the breakneck pace he's on in 2019, but it will also mean moving up another spot on the all-time strikeout list. At 2,831 in his career, he's just one away from tying, and two from passing, Mickey Lolich for the 19th spot on the famed list. Lolich has a connection with Justin, as he pitched thirteen seasons with the Tigers between 1963 and 1975.

Once Verlander takes over that spot, next up will be Jim Bunning who sits in 18th with 2,855 strikeouts, 24 ahead of the Astros' ace. Considering he threw 15 Ks in his last start, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could be tied or in sole possession of that 18th spot before the week is over, though to do so he'll have to have a fantastic game against a very potent Yankees lineup.

Potential pieces coming back into place

We should know more after tomorrow's game which will be a back-to-back start for the former-MVP, but the Astros are expected to have Jose Altuve rejoin the team while on this road trip. Not that the Astros have been horrid on offense without him, but having him back on the field will provide an uptick in performance, and moral.

Two other players in similar situations as Altuve and expected to come back up are Max Stassi and Collin McHugh. Stassi will likely retake his roster spot as the backup catcher, meaning Garret Stubbs will make the trip back to Round Rock. As far as McHugh, we will have to wait and see if he makes some appearances out of the bullpen to ramp things back up before going back into the rotation, or if AJ Hinch has other plans going forward.

In any case, getting some of these players back means the team is getting healthy again. George Springer has been ramping up activities, and we should hear about a rehab assignment for him soon. Carlos Correa, however, remains sidelined and the Astros should remain conservative with his recovery.

Huge weekend series in the Bronx 

After the three-game set in Cincinnati against the Reds, the Astros will travel to New York for a big four-game weekend series with the Yankees. The Yankees made a big splash in the trade market this past week, taking advantage of a liquidating Mariners team who was willing to deal Edwin Encarnacion to New York for a lone prospect player along with some cash trading. Encarnacion currently leads the American League in home runs, giving the Yankees yet another mighty bat in their lineup.

Two of the other powerful batters that are scheduled to make returns to the lineup this week: Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Both are currently on rehab stints and expected to rejoin the major-league team before this week is over. The Yankees will catch the 3-4-5-1 spots in Houston's rotation, which will be an intriguing matchup on both sides.

In any case, no matter who we see back in the lineups this weekend, it's going to be a fun and high-intensity matchup with these two teams currently both in the top four in win-loss records in the league. Also, the Yankees will likely be out to even the score after the Astros swept them in Houston in a three-game series in early April.

It sets up to be what many consider a preview of an ALDS or ALCS matchup between two of the best teams not only in the American League but the entire league.

Where will the Astros stand, both in their record and in roster spots, when this week concludes? It's hard to predict, but regardless, it should be a fun week to catch some Astros games on TV.

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