Crane can hit homer with new hires

Astros’ new owner Jim Crane can make a powerful statement by considering minorities for the general manager's job, and if he decides to change his manager.

If the Astros hire Rays GM Andrew Friedman, then more power to them. But new owner Jim Crane shouldn’t count on it, given Friedman’s loyalty to Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and club president Matt Silverman.

No, Crane should count on conducting an extensive search, first for a GM and then, presumably, a manager. Crane, considering the past questions about his hiring practices, could make a powerful statement by naming a minority to either or both positions.

At the very least, Crane seems certain to include minorities in his interview process. Baseball, as I reported last week, is redoubling its efforts on minority hiring. Crane, meanwhile, likely would want to change any negative perception that was created by an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into his Houston-based air freight company, Eagle Global Logistics, in the 1990s.

The investigation accused Eagle of racial and sex discrimination. Crane initially paid $8.5 million to settle the claims, but a US District Court judge returned about $6 million to Crane after a review found that only about 10 percent of the claims were valid. Crane never admitted to wrongdoing, and recently has taken some positive steps toward reshaping his image.

After Crane revealed he wanted to buy the Astros, he met with a local NAACP official and pledged to conduct fair hiring practices, according to the Houston Chronicle. He also included in his investor group several minority business executives, some of whom said Crane advanced their careers.

Now, when it comes to hiring a GM, Crane obviously should pick the best person possible — and if he can get Friedman, it’s difficult to imagine anyone would raise an objection. Friedman is a dream candidate for this job.

The Rays granted the Astros permission to interview Friedman on Monday, according to the Chronicle. Friedman grew up in Houston rooting for the Astros. But remember, he interviewed earlier this offseason with the Angels, a far stronger club, and the talks went nowhere.

So, it stands to reason that the Astros will need to expand their search.

Of the six teams that have changed GMs this offseason, only two announced interviews for minority candidates — the Angels, who met with Kim Ng and Omar Minaya, and the Orioles, who met with DeJon Watson.

Commissioner Bud Selig recently expressed frustration with the number of qualified minority candidates, telling me, “You ask people who we should talk to, they give you a blank stare.” Selig authorized senior VP Frank Robinson to lead an initiative to identify minority candidates for future openings in various positions.

If the Astros replace manager Brad Mills — a strong possibility, considering that they are changing GMs — then they could consider two minority candidates for with ties to either the Astros or the city of Houston.

Yankees bench coach Tony Pena managed for the Astros at Triple A from 1999 to 2001. Nationals third-base coach Bo Porter, who recently interviewed for managerial openings with the Nationals and Marlins, lives in Houston.

THE VOTTO/ALONSO QUESTION

The Reds clearly are willing to move first baseman Yonder Alonso for pitching — a somewhat curious strategy considering that first baseman Joey Votto is under contract for only two more seasons.

First basemen are generally in plentiful supply, so perhaps the Reds’ risk is minimal. But Votto’s future remains a subject of debate — friendly debate — among the Reds’ owners, according to a major league source.

Bob Castellini, the team’s CEO, does not want to trade Votto, apparently believing the Reds can sign the former MVP to an extension, the source said.

Some of the team’s other owners, however, take a seemingly more realistic view, contending that the Reds should at least explore trades for Votto, perhaps after Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder sign their new free-agent deals.

Votto is affordable to the Reds this season at $9.5 million, but his salary balloons to $17 million in 2013. The Reds probably should take the hint — Votto’s three-year deal covers only his arbitration years; he did not give up a single year of free agency.

Alonso, meanwhile, is viewed by rival GMs as a one-dimensional player, not someone who can be the centerpiece of a trade offer for a pitcher such as Athletics left-hander Gio Gonzalez or Rays righty James Shields.

“I don’t know if he has a position,” one rival GM says. “He’s terrible in the outfield. His best position is first base — and he’s not great at first, either.”

Adds another GM: “He has to be one of the top hitters in the game to have significant value. You’ll probably always be looking to move him to DH.”

TEXAS IN SEARCH OF FARM DIRECTOR

The Rangers, who want to hire a replacement for departed farm director Scott Servais by the end of the week, are considering assistant general manager Thad Levine and former Astros GM Tim Purpura for the position.

Levine, who is expected to be a candidate for the Astros’ GM opening, never has been a department head. His resume would be more complete if he ran the Rangers farm system, even if only for a brief period of time.

Purpura, on the other hand, spent seven years as the Astros farm director and three as the team’s GM. He is close with Rangers president Nolan Ryan, who was an Astros minor league owner and special assistant while Purpura was GM.

After his dismissal by the Astros, Purpura became the executive vice president and chief operating officer for minor league baseball. He helped craft the five-year collective-bargaining agreement that MiLB announced with its umpires on Monday.

AROUND THE HORN

• Maybe there is hope for the Cubs trading left fielder Alfonso Soriano.

Teams are “kicking the tires” on Soriano, according to a major league source. The Cubs, to facilitate a deal, are willing to pay a significant portion of the $54 million remaining on the final three years of Soriano’s contract.

Soriano, 35, batted .244/.289/.469 last season with 26 home runs and 88 RBIs. He fits most logically for an American League team that could use him mostly as a DH.

• Teams are calling the Rangers about reliever Koji Uehara, but club officials are reluctant to move him. The Rangers are quite right-handed in their bullpen, and Uehara last season held lefties to a batting line of .130/.194/.278.

Uehara, in fact, was excellent overall, except for the 11 home runs he allowed in 65 innings. He struck out 23 and walked only one with the Rangers. For the season, he struck out 85 and walked only nine and allowed the fewest baserunners per nine innings of any AL reliever.

He is under contract for $4 million next season.

• The market for outfielder Josh Willingham hinges on several other free agents. The Twins could pursue Willingham if they lose outfielder Michael Cuddyer; ditto for the Red Sox if they lose designated hitter David Ortiz.

The Athletics will not attempt to re-sign Willingham, but they are interested in retaining Coco Crisp, another of their other free-agent outfielders, major league sources say.

Crisp’s agent, Steve Comte, has said that Crisp would like to remain on the West Coast, and preferably play for a contender. The Mariners and Athletics are the only two West Coast clubs with clear needs in center field.

• One other name to keep in mind as the Astros put together their front office: Scott Nethery, a former assistant GM with the Reds and special assistant with the Braves.

Nethery is close with Crane, sources say, and scouted the Astros farm system for the incoming owner last season.

• Just to be clear, the new restrictions on international signings will not affect the amount that teams offer Cuban outfielder Yoennis Cespedes.

The restrictions, which are part of the new collective-bargaining agreement, do not take effect until the start of the 2013-14 signing period on July 2, 2013.

Cespedes might command $50 million in free agency.

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