Wednesday, August 2, 2017

On Keuchel's Comments

At the risk of beating an already beaten-to-death horse, this has been on my mind today: Let's talk about Dallas Keuchel, Jeff Luhnow, and the Astros' trade(less) deadline. To be clear, these opinions are my own, so don't sully the name of Astros County James. But he left the keys in the blog again, so I'm taking it out for a spin.

By now, we've all seen the video or read the comments from Dallas Keuchel about his disappointment with the front office failing to make a big splash on Monday. As soon as the video began to circulate, many fans stepped up to shout down the Astros ace, saying he was whining or immature, and that his comments were out of line - "it's fine to have opinions, but keep it in the clubhouse." Many then also praised Carlos Beltran for his answer, basically dodging the same question: "We have a good team, we're in first place. At the end of the day, the GM is the one that dictates the moves they have to make."

"Whining" and "immature" are subjective judgments, as is anyone's opinion (certainly including mine). But in my view, Keuchel's comments are not whining at all. I get why many will disagree, but I have no problem with what he said or how he said it, because I understand where he's coming from.

Personal anecdote: I worked at my previous job for 8 years. I hate changing jobs, and for a long time I loved it there, so I long had no intention to ever leave. But our lead executive retired, another was hired, and the new guy was clearly not great with employee relations. He was a numbers-driven micro-manager, and he began to institute a series of new policies that ranged from irksome to burdensome to clearly distrustful of anyone underneath him. Employees tried speaking up, offering feedback and asking for changes, but that feedback was never acted upon. Time went by and the burdens got worse, employee morale sank, and employee complaints got louder. Going to work felt like gearing up for combat. One day my team lead spoke his mind openly, in a huge meeting in front of management and everyone else. He was a folk hero to all of us who felt the same way, but still nothing came of it, and soon thereafter, he found another job and left. Then I left, and many more after me.

Now, I'm not a pro athlete, and speaking up in a meeting is not the same thing as speaking out to the media. But being a paid athlete in a major team sport is a very public profession. Keuchel and Carlos Correa both went on the record this season before the trade deadline, publicly expressing a desire that team management would go out and add another big pitching piece. The Chronicle's Brian T. Smith has been in the Astros clubhouse, and he said that "it was noticed" there last year when management made no big moves in July. Jeff Luhnow had told the media numerous times this season that the team was exploring options to improve; even owner Jim Crane said over the winter that he wanted to add another ace. So an expectation had been set.

Then no big move happened. It's well documented now that Luhnow and Crane have said that the team was close on more than one deal, only to be vetoed - by ownership (Angelos?), or no-trade clause (Verlander?), or some other circumstance, we don't know. Fan backlash at the front office was over-the-top and embarrassing, generally slandering Luhnow and declaring the World Series over and done on July 31. Knowing that fans were frustrated, and knowing that Keuchel himself had wanted/expected to see a move, of course the question was asked how he felt. If fans are so frustrated by something that doesn't even directly affect them, how do you expect an employee under that management to feel?

So Keuchel spoke out. And I don't blame him. Not because I believe in airing every bit of dirty laundry to the press - that's dumb. But it's clear from his comments that, at least in that moment, he felt betrayed by the Houston front office. We have no way of knowing how many other players in the clubhouse felt the same way, but I'd be willing to bet it's not just him. We have no way of knowing either how many private conversations happened with management before now; probably there were some after last year's trade deadline too. Now Keuchel is seen as "whining," but as a leader of the team, maybe he saw this as the only way left to get management's attention.

It is absolutely true that trades are not automatic. If I'm Billy Beane, I tell the Astros, "I want Prospects X, Y, and Z for Sonny Gray." Then I tell the Yankees, "I Want Prospects A, B, and C for Sonny Gray." Then maybe Jeff Luhnow and Brian Cashman both call me back and say, "OK," but I like Prospects A, B, and C better. So Luhnow loses even though he met the demands, and that's not at all his fault. Players know how the business works, and Luhnow says that the Astros' guys know that he tried. But if my management already has a black mark in my mind, hearing "I tried" with no results sounds like an empty promise, and it doesn't do much to boost my morale.

People far better with numbers than I have trotted out tons of statistical proof to show that in-season trades usually only improve your postseason chances by a couple of percentage points at best. And that's statistically true. So even if Luhnow had not tried to make any moves at all, it would be unfair to say that his approach to the deadline was "wrong." But the perspective is plainly different for players in the dugout than for fans in the stands. Baseball players are human beings, not just numbers on a spreadsheet, and baseball teams are their employers.

The Dodgers - 40-7 since June 7 - were likely the only team with fewer needs than the Astros at the deadline, but their management went out and added an ace and two LH relievers to boost their chances anyway. The Astros - 27-21 since June 7, and 9-9 since the All-Star Break - only added a reliever with a 5.88 ERA to a bottom-10 bullpen. Houston is pretty beaten up right now, and they could have used a boost. It should be easy to see then why I might be frustrated seeing the other guy's boss give him a bonus, while I'm doing the same work and all my boss gives me is, "I tried."

Dallas Keuchel is still under team control through next season. As arguably the best pitcher in the American League, it would be great to see him stay in Houston well beyond that. As fans, it's easy for us to say that the franchise should hold onto top prospects in order to improve their chances in the long term. As a player, though, knowing that I may only be here one more season, how do I feel reading that a 19-year-old kid is "untouchable," so the team refused to do what they might have done to improve our chances at a championship right now.

Do I believe that the Astros players vs. management situation is completely toxic? No, I don't. But there's still far more about this whole mess that we don't know than what we do. Keuchel's comments, whether on his own or on behalf of a group, were intended to put Houston's front office on notice. Hopefully the frustration is temporary, any issues can/will be addressed, and a missed opportunity won't unravel what is still lined up to be the Astros' best season ever. Keuchel didn't invent bad press about Luhnow; fairly or no, it was already out there after the deadline before he said a word. It's up to everyone in the organization now - from the office to the dugout - to change that narrative with a championship.