Richard Justice and Jose de Jesus Ortiz had items in yesterday’s Chron representing everything that, to me, is wrong with the Astros. And it’s not so much that I disagree with Justice or Ortiz, it’s that I disagree with what they write. Because I see them as writing what the great minds running the Astros think.
I’ll start with Ortiz’s story on how Carlos Lee will not and should not be traded.
Lee won’t be traded because he has a no-trade contract. But this means nothing. When the team and/or money are right, just about any player will wave that no-trade clause. It’s possible that Lee would refuse; after all, according to Ortiz, Lee turned down more money with the San Francisco Giants to play here so that he could be closer to his cattle ranch.
This is why I have such a big problem with Carlos Lee. The guy seems more concerned about cattle than he does baseball. And the fact that Drayton lets him skip out of spring training to come to Houston for the rodeo every year just continues to show to me how little Drayton understands the game. Personally, I’d like for once to read about Lee’s passion for baseball, or about how he is consumed with winning. But I don’t think I’ve read anything like that about Carlos Lee.
This is Carlos Lee’s tenth season in baseball, and he’s been to the postseason just once. You’d think that as he starts aging as a player, he’d be consumed with getting on a winning team and getting to the World Series. But not Carlos Lee. He wants to be close to his cattle.
And supposedly, Lee shouldn’t go anywhere because he’s a team leader in the clubhouse. I wonder then if he’s going to be held accountable for the Shawn Chacon situation. If he were truly leading that clubhouse, that incident should have never happened.
Or perhaps it’s his leadership which led to that situation. After all, we’re told in this same story that he argues with his manager about playing time. So if Lee gets to argue, why shouldn’t Chacon? And Ortiz has written that the clubhouse is toxic. How would the clubhouse have become toxic if not for the help of, or lack of, Lee’s leadership?
And Richard Justice says that firing Cecil Cooper is a silly idea. Justice is correct with his assertion that “Day by day, this baseball season is becoming a referendum on Cooper's competence.” And he’s also correct that Cooper’s primary problem is that this is a lousy team. And he’s correct that Drayton probably won’t fire him because he’s still paying off Phil Garner. But what Justice is further expressing are the thoughts of the Astros front office that firing Cooper is a silly idea.
As Justice writes, Cooper is quickly losing his clubhouse and has yet to do anything to distinguish himself as a manager. There’s open rebellion among his pitching staff. He lets his emotions dictate his moves, and according to Justice’s clubhouse sources, Cooper’s instituted silly rule after silly rule which has done nothing to earn the respect of his players.
So why is it silly to fire Cooper?
Sure, Cooper’s got a bad club. But I’ve always read that the job of a baseball manager is to put his players into the best possible position to win the game. And I don’t see how Cooper has done this. The St. Louis Cardinals roster isn’t exactly filled with All-Stars. Yet the Cardinals are winning. It’s not because Tony La Russa is a great guy. It’s because he’s created an environment that puts his players in the best possible position to win games.
I’m not saying Tony La Russa would have the Astros challenging for a National League Wild Card berth, but I am claiming that a manager like La Russa would have the Astros playing better baseball. La Russa would not have kept Miguel Tejada batting in the third spot for most of the season. He would not have had communication problems with his pitching staff. And Carlos Lee would be hustling for a few of those balls in left field or else his ass would be sitting on the bench.
Both Justice and Ortiz are right. Lee is not going to be traded. Cooper is not going to be fired. But that doesn’t mean those of us thinking these moves should be made are silly or misguided.
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The reason to trade Lee is simple: this team needs to get younger and better. There’s no one in the farm system, so you’ve got to trade people for whom you can get talent. Lee is one such person – though because of his salary I doubt that could happen anyway. And with such a toxic clubhouse atmosphere, it’s evident that Lee’s leadership is not really that valuable.
As for Cooper, his firing would be a much-needed message from Drayton that he’s taking back control of his team. It is one thing for a clubhouse to be run by a Jeff Bagwell whose only concern is winning games. It’s another thing for that clubhouse to be a run by a guy who’s more concerned about his cattle.
Jeff Bagwell is long gone, and I’ve seen nothing from Drayton McLane to indicate that he understands what is happening with this team. I don’t agree with what Ortiz and Justice wrote, but it’s clear they represent the thinking of the top people in Astros management. And it’s this thinking that’s got to change. Not the thinking of those of us who think a Lee trade or a Cooper firing is a silly thing.
But I wouldn’t count on any of that changing. – John Royal