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Astros Fire Manager Cecil Cooper

astrosIf you were to write up a job description for the incoming manager of the Houston Astros in order to replace Cecil Cooper, who was fired yesterday, it would be a pretty long one. Must be able to work with handsy owner. Must be willing to work with mouthy veterans. Must be willing to play with an iffy roster until Ed Wade gets the farm system worked out. Must contend, no matter what.

SAN DIEGO - MARCH 31:  Manager Cecil Cooper of...
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The big question for Astros fans (and Astros bloggers) today is, with about 15 hours of hindsight, what happened to Cecil Cooper? By every single account, Cecil Cooper is a good man. By almost every paragraph following that statement, Cecil Cooper was a pretty terrible baseball tactician, and also had issues communicating with his players. I’ve been waiting for Cooper to get fired for about two months now, but I’m kind of sad he’s gone; because while he didn’t really do anything to save his job, he was put in a precarious position.

Many in the Houston media see this as a referendum on Ed Wade, who made splashy moves like trading five players for Miguel Tejada…the day before the Mitchell Report was released. Or signing Kaz Matsui, who has been a complete flop. Or signing Mike Hampton. Or signing Russ Ortiz. Or in 2008, when he signed Shawn Chacon, who later choked him in the clubhouse. Cooper just tried to win with them, and did (171-170 record at the time of firing), just not enough.

To me this is more of a referendum on hands-on owner Drayton McLane, who has now fired 18 managers since 2000 (approximately). McLane has never been one to rebuild, a plan that should have been in action two seasons ago – or at least before Carlos Lee got $100 million. It was Ed Wade who offered Randy Wolf $29 million over three years in the last off-season before that offer was pulled. McLane wants the Astros to contend, and is willing to spend to do it – the 2009 payroll is around $107 million – but it just was not spent well. In this post from April 5 (http://www.astroscounty.com/2009/04/breaking-down2009-payroll.html) Astros County broke down the 2009 payroll to see where it was spent. Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee, and Miguel Tejada made 61.3% of the total payroll. That might work for GoldmanSachs, but it doesn’t work so well for a baseball team. It was just noted that Coop’s record was 171-170. Setting aside the 2007 season, which he finished after Phil Garner got canned, Coop managed the Astros to a 156-154 record. If you go by the Pythagorean W-L, the Astros should have gone 142-168.

SAN DIEGO - MARCH 31:   Manager Cecil Cooper o...

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That said, there were four instances I can think of off-hand that were handled poorly this season with Cecil Cooper. (1) April 19 – Astros pick up Cooper’s option for 2010. This was – obviously – a terrible decision. Not only do the Astros owe Cooper $850,000 to not manage the team next season, it only shows that whomever comes in to replace Cooper isn’t going to have a stable job. McLane/Wade could sign Miller Huggins to a 10-year deal, and in the back of Huggins’ mind, he would wonder about getting canned 18 months into it.

(2) May 15 – The Houston Chronicle called out Cooper for continually running reliever Geoff Geary out to the mound, even after he complained of soreness. Geary was placed on the DL on May 14, activated on June 10, and sent to Round Rock – and didn’t pitch in Houston again. This is actually part of a larger issue in which Cooper mishandled his pitching staff. Jerking Felipe Paulino back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen; doing the same with Russ Ortiz; continually sending Jose Valverde out to the mound with a bum leg, leading to a more-extended stay on the DL than perhaps necessary; letting Brandon Backe throw 20 more pitches in his first start since coming off the DL than his previous two appearances…combined; letting Wesley Wright throw 51 pitches in relief at Wrigley Field at the end of July, resulting in Wright suffering from dehydration and leaving the clubhouse in an ambulance. You can list Geoff Geary, Russ Ortiz, and Brandon Backe as three pitchers who had an issue with Cooper, or had questions about their usage, who are not on the 40-man roster.

PHOENIX - JUNE 14:  Manager Cecil Cooper of th...
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(3) May 26 – Cooper throws Roy Oswalt under the bus. Oswalt tried to stop a comebacker with his pitching hand, which was bruised by said comebacker. Oswalt got shelled in the next inning and was pulled. Cooper said, “With your (ace) on the mound, you figure if you don’t have it you got a pretty good chance of getting it. And we let two leads slip away there. We just need him to step up to be who he’s supposed to be.” This was not the first – nor would it be the last – instance in which Cooper was in trouble for handling his players in the media. Five days later Nick Cafardo said, “Cooper has the rap, true or not, that he throws players under the bus in the media and never fully has their trust.” That’s hard to live down. Later in the season, Cooper would have to apologize in a team meeting for not congratulating Pudge Rodriguez after he broke the all-time record for Games Caught. Is that nitpicky? If Cooper had the support of his players, would it have happened? Maybe not. But you have to know when you’re treading thin ice, and take advantage of opportunities to increase your standing among the guys who can get you fired – and Cooper did not do that.

(4) Aug 11 – Cooper walks Nick Johnson to get to Hanley Ramirez, who hit an RBI single that broke open an 8-6 Marlins win. This was actually the second stupid walk in eight days, as on August 3, Cooper walked Albert Pujols to get to Matt Holliday, who was then hitting .586 with the Cardinals. As fans without access to the manager, it’s hard to know when a managerial decision pays off and wins a game. But sometimes it’s pretty easy to spot the decisions that lose you a game.

The bottom line is that Cooper looked overmatched throughout the season and never seemed comfortable. It’s not hard to see why, because Tracy Ringolsby put him on the hot-seat on January 30 (http://www.astroscounty.com/2009/01/tracy-ringolsby-is-gunning-for-coops.html), and he was on the chopping block approximately ten minutes after the Astros picked up his option. So am I sad that Cooper is no longer managing the Astros? Not necessarily – Cooper wasn’t given much of a chance, though the chances he was given were not taken advantage of. I just hope the next manager gets a little more support and integrity from the organization – from Drayton to the players themselves.

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