Imploding Stars

Houston’s problems will continue for the foreseeable future, with ripple effects throughout the league. Commissioner Rob Manfred said throughout MLB’s investigation that the punishments for the Houston Astros were going to be ‘unprecedented,’ and it turns out, he meant it.

Today, The Athletic reported that severe punishments had been handed down in the investigation into the Astros engaging in a complex method of electronic sign-stealing during the 2017 regular season and postseason. A short time later, Astros owner Jim Crane decided to blow up his own ship rather than be taken hostage by Manfred’s punishments, so he held a press conference, and dropped a bombshell of his own:

He fired general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch.

This move, of course, largely negates a substantial portion of the punishments, which were/are as such:

  1. One-year suspensions for now-former general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch. If either of them are found to be in violation of any of the Major League Rules in the future, they will be placed on the permanently ineligible list.
  2. Loss of first- and second-round draft picks for the next two years.
  3. A $5 million fine, the maximum.
  4. Former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman was placed on MLB’s ineligible list in November, and will remain there through the end of the 2020 postseason, at which time, he can apply to the commissioner for reinstatement. If he is found to violate any MLB rules in the future, he will be placed on the permanently ineligible list.

Manfred also made his feelings about the Astros’ toxic culture clear, stating,

“But while no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relationship with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic.”

(via MLB official press release)

There’s a lot to unpack here. The Astros’ punishments are harsh, much harsher than expected, though not all of the punishments accurately fit the crime, or rather, the perpetrators.

By firing Luhnow and Hinch, Crane can now hire a new GM and field manager. It’s likely he had already planned on firing one or both of them, and was only waiting until MLB handed down their judgement so as to avoid receiving additional, alternative punishments. Crane just circumvented half of the punishment, and can now jumpstart his franchise’s next chapter. It’s a bit of a blow to Manfred, though it still leaves the Astros with a lot of organizational rebuilding.

Meanwhile, no players are being disciplined, not even Carlos Beltrán. Beltrán, who retired at the end of the 2017 season after a 20-year career, is heading into the first season of his managerial career with the New York Mets. While it is clear that investigating each individual player would’ve taken too much time, Beltrán is in a different boat than his former teammates, both because of his role in the scheme, and his new position. He is the only Astro listed by name in the section of the release focused on which players suggested stealing signs, and he is the only one now in a leadership role. The plan was largely arranged by then-bench coach Alex Cora, but the release make it clear that players masterminded and abetted throughout the season and postseason, going so far as to move and hide television monitors. It seems counterproductive that Manfred is attempting to eliminate electronic sign-stealing across baseball, but is allowing someone involved in exactly that kind of illicit activity to ascend to a position of leadership. Hopefully, the severity of this situation is enough to deter Beltrán from spreading this toxicity to his new franchise.

The decision not to discipline individual players feels like a cop-out by MLB, but an understandable one; they wanted the investigation to be resolved as quickly as possible, and that would not happen if they had to investigate each player individually and deal with the Players’ Association. It’s not 1919, and the Astros are not the Black Sox. Manfred stated today that he remains firm on his stance from two years ago:

“I will not assess discipline against individual Astros players. I made the decision in September 2017 that I would hold a Club’s General Manager and Field Manager accountable for misconduct of this kind, and I will not depart from that decision.”

However, there really is no precedent for ‘misconduct of this kind.’ To compare the Red Sox Apple Watch situation to which Manfred alludes in the release, or any team misusing video-replay rooms for the last half-decade, to the complicated scheme the Astros devised and carried out for multiple seasons, is a ludicrously unbalanced attempt at comparison. Now there is no incentive for these players to abide by the rules, and no real deterrent from cheating again. MLB needed players to give them honest statements in order to properly complete their investigation, and gave them their immunity in exchange.

A question mark in all of this is now-former manager A.J. Hinch, whose role in the whole scheme is somewhat murky. He also made jokes about allegations of cheating when asked about it in press conferences last fall, but the release details Hinch’s knowledge and disapproval of his team’s behavior, with him even going so far as to damage the video monitors his players used to cheat. But apparently, he never explicitly told them not to cheat. Players interviewed for the investigation stated that they would not have engaged in the illicit behavior if Hinch had told them not to. There’s a bit of irony there: Hinch chose not to manage his team, and was subsequently the scapegoat, because he was their manager.

Hinch’s statement

A punishment for former Astros coach and now-Red Sox manager Alex Cora has yet to be announced, but things are looking bleaker by the hour. News broke last week that Cora also was involved in a more simplistic electronic sign-stealing endeavor with the Red Sox during the 2018 regular season. Tonight, Jeff Luhnow called him out in a statement released through his attorney. Based on the punishment the Astros received today, it’s clear that Manfred is not pulling any punches; given Cora’s involvement in both situations, it’s likely he will receive at least a year suspension, probably even worse. MLB will announce his punishment upon completion of their Boston investigation, but it already seems to be a moot point. The Red Sox need to fire him, and it seems likely they will, as an anonymous Sox executive referred to him in a text message as “a dead man walking.”

Jim Crane set the precedent this afternoon, and the Red Sox would be wise to follow suit. Cora remaining at the helm makes it impossible for Boston move forward with any respect from their peers and fans. The only way to prove that they are serious about playing the game the right way is to separate themselves from anyone who does not. They need to clean house of any and all offending personnel, issue a serious apology, and work towards regaining everyone’s trust.

Sometimes, the mess has to get messier before it gets clean. That’s clearly the case for baseball, as baskets upon baskets of dirty laundry continue to be aired. But it’s encouraging that Manfred followed through on his promise to thoroughly investigate and punish the Astros. MLB is placing a value on integrity that it feels like has been missing from baseball for a long time. Hopefully, each team and the league as a whole continue moving into the light, in all aspects of the game.

Sourced with gratitude to The Athletic, the Office of the Commissioner of MLB

4 thoughts on “Imploding Stars

  1. I’m not a Dodgers fan but feel bad for the Dodgers. By all accounts, they did things the right way, and they lost to two teams that cheated. Even with punishments, it’s not like LA will now be listed as winners of the 2017 and 2018 World Series.

  2. When you read a column from you, You seem to touch at every angle. Absolutely wonderful As usual. I always tell you this, with great pride, but you do, literally, getting better and better and better!!

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