Elmore Leonard's novels are full of guys and girls who think they're smarter than everybody else. Crooks, con men and cops who know better than their rivals. Who have figured out all of the angles. They're arrogant about this genius, bragging to anyone who'll listen about just how damn smart they are. But then the plan's put into play and things fall apart. The mark doesn't respond properly. A confederate chickens out. Or, usually, it's because the hero or heroine, who's been dismissed as a plodding fool, figures out the genius's plan and pounces on the mistake. And there are always mistakes.
The Houston Astros would be the perfect antagonist of a Elmore Leonard novel, were Leonard still alive, and were he to have written about baseball teams and not petty criminals. The team's an arrogant bunch of wise guys convinced they're smarter than everybody else and they're not afraid to tell everyone about just how damn smart they are. They're a bunch of guys who have failed to win anything and who, in fact, built a team that for the past several years has been known more for tanking games to get high draft choices than it has for being a competitive on-field product. And just like Elmore Leonard's villains, the so-called smartest guys in the room have started making mistake after mistake.
Let's start with the known facts. The baseball team inherited by Jeff Luhnow was awful, both on the major league level and on the minor league level. His predecessor, Ed Wade, had made some trades attempting to restock the farm system, and it was Wade's group that drafted George Springer and Jason Castro. Luhnow and his group of gambling rocket scientists have worked diligently on building the farm system, taking it from the worst in baseball to the best. And with the first draft under his charge, Luhnow was able to get the team's first pick, Carlos Correa, to accept a highly discounted signing bonus that allowed the team to play games and sign two other players at numbers that would otherwise have been above the MLB-allowed cap.
But here's the thing about being the so-called smartest guy in the room: At some point, you have to actually prove you're the smartest guy in the room. The Astros like to talk about how smart they are, but if you're going to talk to Sports Illustrated about improving on Billy Beane's so-called Moneyball system despite once again competing for the worst record in baseball, you'd better be able to prove that you're actually improving upon what Beane's doing in Oakland.
But the Astros have yet to show they're improving upon Moneyball. The free agent acquisitions have been questionable, the team overpaying for a mediocre back of rotation starting pitcher and trying to turn him into a staff ace while wasting millions of dollars on back-end bullpen guys, one of whom was injured when signed, who have barely pitched this season. The major league roster is still awful, with the only real points of light being players drafted/acquired by Wade or by the man Wade replaced, Tim Purpura. The Astros have gone on to anger other major league teams for the subpar major league product. They've angered fans because of the subpar major league product. They've angered the Players Association because of the treatment of George Springer. There's been internal dissent over the major league product, and there've been embarrassing incidents like Bo Porter's hissy fit over Oakland's Jed Lowrie bunting against the shift and the hacking of the team's internal communications system and the accompanying release of those communications.
Then add in the fiasco of failing to sign Brady Aiken, the team's No. 1 draft pick, and the pissing off of Aiken's adviser, said adviser being one of the most powerful, most respected agents in baseball, and supposedly triggering another grievance from the Players Association, which is also upset about the Astros' treatment of Jacob Nix. Aiken and Nix had the same adviser, and both also agreed to deals with the Astros, only to have the geniuses pull the offers -- Aiken's because he supposedly suffers from an elbow issue and Nix because the Astros tried to game the system, and gaming the system would have worked only if Aiken signed.
As in a Leonard novel, the antagonist has been bragging the entire book about how smart he is and about how perfect his plan is. He's belittled those who either couldn't, or wouldn't, recognize his genius. But he's never actually accomplished anything, and now that everything's been put in motion, the plan's falling apart. Now it's not about getting away with millions of dollars, now it's all about staying out of jail.
The Astros might think they're the smartest guys in the room. But the team still sucks, the moves aren't working, the draft choices aren't signing and the team is angering the guys it needs to keep happy. It's one thing to think you're the smartest guy in the room, but deeds are greater than words, and so far, the Astros are all words and no deeds. And at some point, it has to become not about Sports Illustrated articles proclaiming your genius, but about keeping your job.
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