How one of Dusty Baker's last decisions as Astros manager is probably his best

How one of Dusty Baker's last decisions as Astros manager is probably his best

The Astros won a lot of games with Dusty Baker. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

It sounds like baseball buzzards and talk show callers have mixed emotions about the Astros falling to the Texas Rangers in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

They’re grieving over the Astros’ loss, but some, leaning toward most, fans are relieved over Dusty Baker’s apparent decision to leave his post as Astros field manager.

So while radio listeners and social media posters tap dance on Baker’s resignation and cheer that Baker won’t be around next year to write out weird, head-shaking lineup cards, it’s time for Houston to offer the veteran manager a well-deserved thanks for a thankless job well done.

During the Astros’ historic run of recent success, let’s remember that Baker took over a team in 2020 that was reeling from one of baseball’s biggest scandals. Owner Jim Crane had just fired general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch. The Astros instantly became black hat villains. Would other teams throw beanballs at Astros batters intentionally? Would the Astros be despised by fans in every ballpark they visited? Would the stench of cheating ever go away?

That’s the team Baker took over. He was hired specifically to bring a steady, mature hand and respectability back to the Astros and keep the team on a winning track.

And that Baker certainly did. On Baker’s watch, the Astros appeared in four consecutive American League Championship Series, won three American League West titles, two American League pennants and one World Series. There wasn’t a hint of cheating along Baker’s way. Bottom line, Baker’s tenure in Houston was one of unrivaled success in team history.

Sure there were flies in Baker’s ointment. He turned 74 this season. He didn’t always agree with general manager Dana Brown’s public suggestions on who to play and who to sit. Baker rankled with talk hosts who dared to question his tactics. Fans looked to the heavens when he kept pitchers on the mound too long or failed to pinch hit for certain batters.

Specifically, fans (and management) didn’t like that Baker played catcher Martin Maldonado practically every game in the final two months of the season, despite Maldonado’s woeful offensive and defensive statistics. Maldonado batted .191 in the regular season, coming off two years of batting .186 and .172. Maldonado also led the league in passed balls and had one of the worst marks of throwing out base stealers.

Meanwhile rookie catcher Yanier Diaz batted .282 during the season with more home runs than Maldonado despite being the second stringer. Fans argued that Baker was holding back Diaz’s emergence as a premier catcher, sticking him on the bench despite Diaz being superior to Maldonado by every statistical measure.

Baker lauded Maldonado’s skill at handling pitchers and calling games. Fans replied that Diaz could learn those skills, if only Baker gave him a chance, but Maldonado could never learn to hit like Diaz. It’s widely accepted that Diaz will be the starting catcher next year with a new manager in place.

Baker was also criticized for not playing Chas McCormick more. McCormick had a breakout year, hitting .273 and belting 23 home runs despite frustrating stretches out of the lineup.

Fans questioned: were the Astros successful because of Baker or despite him?

There is a special talent of knowing when to leave the stage with dignity before you’re asked to leave. After Monday night’s Game 7 loss, it was revealed that Baker had told several Astros officials that 2023 would be his last season in Houston. It’s not known how long Baker kept his letter of resignation in his back pocket.

It was obvious that Baker and management were not on the same page and by announcing that he was leaving, Baker made an unpleasant decision easy for owner Jim Crane. Baker did the honorable thing stepping aside. It may have been Baker’s best decision as manager.

It’s also possible that this isn’t the end for Baker as a manager. It’s reported that the Giants and Mets are interested in a certain crusty, hard-headed skipper who’s now available. Taking another manager’s job, his sixth, would be so Dusty Baker.

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The Texans will have to shuffle the o-line once again. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.

“Another one!”- DJ Khaled

That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.

The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.

Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!

One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.

As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.

To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.

I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.

The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.

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