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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Astros proceed with unified voice

Strained relations between front office and Porter lead to skipper's dismissal

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HOUSTON -- Two springs ago, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow gathered his players to introduce his new manager, Bo Porter.

That very day, some players foresaw trouble.

"It was extremely uncomfortable being in that room," one remembered.

Players and coaches remember a weird dynamic between the two men.

"Bo kept interrupting Jeff," one player said. "He seemed to think he was the boss. If you'd been there, you would have known it wasn't going to work."

It really never did.

That Porter held the job for 300 games -- he was dismissed on Monday -- reflects the fact that Luhnow simply had other priorities.

Luhnow was rebuilding the Astros from top to bottom and treating the big league roster as sort of a tryout camp as he searched for players who might be able to stick around once the organization turned a corner.

Still, there seemed to be little question that a reckoning day was coming. Once Luhnow believed the Astros were on the verge of respectability, there was almost certainly going to be a new manager.

That decision figured to come after this season as the Astros move forward with an influx of young talent. But Porter may have forced the decision himself in recent days with what Luhnow probably viewed as insubordination. So on Monday, Luhnow made a change.

Luhnow named Tom Lawless, a Minor League hitting instructor and fill-in Minor League manager, to be the interim manager. In a sharply worded statement, Luhnow made it clear that he was looking for a new direction and a new voice.

"I made this decision because I believe we need a new direction in our clubhouse," Luhnow said. "What we will seek going forward is a consistent and united message throughout the entire organization."

Luhnow said the team's won-loss record -- 110-190 under Porter -- was his responsibility, which is damning to Porter on several levels. In other words, he didn't dismiss Porter for losing too many baseball games. Luhnow dismissed Porter because he no longer respected his leadership skills and his ability to be a team player in the organization.

From the beginning, there was a disconnect. In that first Spring Training, Porter did things that struck the front office as silly.

For instance, Porter had the walls papered with motivational sayings and placed mirrors in each locker to remind players to look at themselves first before blaming a teammate. He had players turn their chairs away from their lockers, his way of telling them to look forward.

If Porter had been managing a Little League team, that stuff might have played well. Adults? Not so much. When one coach left the big league staff, he went directly to Luhnow and said, "You had better get that guy away from your young players."

Similar things have been said by other former players and coaches, but it was impossible to know which of the comments were valid and which were from people bitter at how things worked out.

Luhnow clearly believed some of the things he was hearing, and although he never criticized Porter, he was clearly displeased with the team's preparation and execution, and especially by how Porter was perceived in the clubhouse.

Luhnow may have second-guessed Porter's in-game decisions, but that kind of thing probably happens with half the teams in baseball. Tension between the manager and GM has been going on for years in baseball. Some of it is healthy because it can lead to an open discussion of every decision.

What Luhnow -- and Astros owner Jim Crane -- had to decide was whether Porter was the right guy to lead the Astros going forward. They decided he was not.

Managing has changed dramatically in the last decade. On many teams, including the Astros, the front office has a significant voice in lineups, defensive alignments and bullpen matchups.

This is a byproduct of reams of data that most teams' analytics departments generate. On some teams, the manager still has the final say, but the front offices would prefer that everyone be on the same page.

Baseball is still in the midst of a cultural war as a segment of coaches, executives, scouts, etc., believe analytics is voodoo. Others, though -- the smart ones; the ones with the ability to adapt and change -- know that it's simply a better way to evaluate players and prepare clubs for games.

No team has been all in with analytics the way the Astros have been. Thus, there's a segment of the game -- let's call that segment "the old school" -- who pray that they fail because things have been done a certain way for a century. Change is scary.

Luhnow is determined to show the world that his analysts know the game better than the old-schoolers. Stay tuned.

Porter seemed fine with input from the front office, but he apparently bristled that he had so little input in some decisions.

Perhaps the breaking point came a few weeks ago when Luhnow had right-hander Mark Appel, the No. 1 pick of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, come to Minute Maid Park for an early morning bullpen session.

Luhnow perhaps should have personally informed Porter that Appel, who'd struggled terribly at Class A Advanced, would be at the park. His thinking seemed to be that Appel would come and go before Porter and his coaches showed up for work.

Luhnow thought the throwing session was important because he wanted the big league pitching coach, Brent Strom -- the organization's mechanics guru -- to get a firsthand look at Appel.

Porter apparently felt he'd been put in a bad position and forced to answer questions about something he had no role in. His bench coach, Dave Trembley -- also dismissed on Monday -- was also upset.

OK, so Luhnow should have told Porter about Appel's throwing session. That it became a flash point in the Luhnow-Porter relationship tells you how much their bond had already deteriorated.

Then last week, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports wrote of ongoing tension between the two men. At that point, Luhnow knew someone in the organization had leaked information that seemed designed to force a decision.

Thus, he made one on Monday.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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