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New Astros GM James Click stays upbeat, deflects questions about implicated front office members

New general manager James Click would not commit to a plan for the two current Astros front office members implicated in the cheating scandal. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The man tasked with resuscitating the Houston Astros from baseball’s worst scandal in a generation was determined to be a source of light on this dark day for the organization. James Click, their 42-year-old new general manager, strode toward a scrum of reporters with a smile shining through his red beard flecked with gray. If he sensed the weight of what happened before he arrived — a strained news conference with owner Jim Crane and Manager Dusty Baker, a tense hour in a locker room full of half-apologizing players — he did not let on.

“I don’t know if there’s enough fire hoses out there for me to drink from,” Click said cheerfully of his first week on the job. “It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been exciting.”

The Astros hired Click this month because he is not Jeff Luhnow, the disgraced GM fired in the fallout from the team’s sign-stealing scheme that consumed the sport’s offseason. Click resembles his predecessor — an Ivy Leaguer who began his career outside a baseball franchise — but does not have the hard-edge business reputation. After Yale, Click wrote for Baseball Prospectus, an analytics website, before joining the Tampa Bay Rays as an intern in 2005. He climbed to vice president of baseball operations in 2017 before the Astros rang.

Baseball wanted accountability and remorse from the Astros. That didn’t happen.

The missing piece of Click’s résumé — experience leading a front office — might not have appeared as a weakness to Crane. The owner has rejected the part of Major League Baseball’s sign-stealing report that found the Astros had serious cultural issues in the front office, and he found the person perhaps closest philosophically to the last regime. The Astros still have the talent to become the first team in history to win 100 or more games in four consecutive seasons. Crane is asking Click to steer the ship Luhnow left behind.

“He came from a very progressive team that does a lot with a little,” Crane told reporters at Click’s introductory news conference Feb. 4. “Hopefully he can do a lot with a lot here."

It’s unclear how much power, if any, Click has to reshape a front office still stocked with the old regime’s personnel. If it’s his call, he must decide how much turnover his team can withstand so close to the season. This is a pressing question because the Wall Street Journal this week implicated two remaining members of the front office — director of advance information Tom Koch-Weser and senior manager for team operations Derek Vigoa — as central characters in the cheating plot. A reporter asked whether Click could retain them given their history.

“Any new GM coming in would want to take a full view of the baseball operations staff, the whole staff, and figure out how we take the awesome people that we have here and maximize them and put them in the right position for all of us to succeed,” he said. “It’s something that’s definitely on the front burner.”

Another reporter followed up: Do you have a policy to cleanse your organization of the people responsible for this sign-stealing scheme?

“It’s a good question,” Click started. “I’ve just gotten here; it’s my first week. I want to get to know people.”

Do you want them to stay?

“It's a good question,” he repeated, “and I'm not going to know the answer to that until I talk to the staff.”

The interview soon lapsed. Click looked downcast from the earlier challenge. Then he rebounded.

“Anybody want to talk about the three-batter minimum?” he said, grinning, referencing a new rule MLB instituted for pitchers this season.

Astros say they are sorry but draw a line when it comes to questioning 2017 World Series title

No one did, and soon Click was talking around the finer points of how much cheating could actually help. He had given the topic some thought. Four months earlier, the Astros ended his old club’s season in the decisive Game 5 of the American League Division Series. The Astros beat the Rays, 6-1, in large part because they pounded starter Tyler Glasnow for four runs in the first inning. Apparently, the right-hander was “tipping,” a baseball term for telegraphing his next pitch by a mannerism with his body or glove. MLB’s two-month investigation found no evidence the Astros cheated in the 2019 postseason, but the performance left questions.

Click said he believed the Astros didn’t cheat in the ALDS. He established a vision for winning now while building a core despite MLB forcing them to forfeit their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. He praised the players for their emotional clubhouse meeting Wednesday, the first time they had been together since the scandal broke.

“It was as honest and sincere contrition and taking [of] ownership and responsibility as I ever could've hoped for,” he said. “It exceeded my expectations.”

The questions petered out. A public relations staffer asked whether the reporters had any more. There was a moment of silence.

“No?” Click said, crestfallen. “No three-batter minimum?”

He turned away, grinned and then said, almost to himself, “I was all prepped on that.”

What to know about the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal

The Houston Astros engaged in an extensive sign-stealing scheme throughout the 2017 season, including during their World Series victory, and in the 2018 season, using cameras and video monitors. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed the scheme to The Athletic in November.

What is sign stealing? It’s a long-standing baseball practice in which one team tries to decode the signs of its opponent. It’s not illegal, but the way the Astros went about stealing signs is.

What’s happened since? The Astros fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow in January after MLB suspended both for their roles in the scheme. Dusty Baker and James Click were hired to replace them. Owner Jim Crane and several Houston players, including stars José Altuve and Alex Bregman, apologized at the start of spring training; Crane said players shouldn’t be punished.

• Read more: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred defends his decision not to punish Astros players

How does the rest of baseball feel? Many around the league weren’t satisfied with the Astros’ apology, and some opponents have been outwardly angry, saying they’re ready to dole out justice of their own. Here’s what baseball’s stars are saying about the Astros.

Go deeper …

The Astros want to ‘move forward.’ The rest of baseball isn’t eager to let them.

This was the time for the Astros to own their cheating. Maybe they missed the sign.

Cheating ruins everything about sports. The Astros got what they deserved.

Baseball has a problem, and the Astros are only a symptom