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MLB players, execs on sign-stealing scandal — Astros’ tarnished rep, what they knew and more

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Two of the game’s brightest minds, Alex Cora and AJ Hinch, are now unemployed, forced to confront the possibility that their suddenly tainted reputations might prevent them from ever managing again. Two of the sport’s most dominant teams, the 2017 Houston Astros and the 2018 Boston Red Sox, now shoulder the reputation of cheaters, their illegal sign-stealing practices spoiling the memories of their greatness.

It has been an unimaginably dispiriting start to the 2020s for Major League Baseball, and this might only be the beginning.

The Astros have been hit with an array of penalties that include year-long suspensions for their two most important employees, the loss of four draft picks within the first two rounds and the largest allowable fine. But the Red Sox, who got out in front of looming punishment by firing Cora on Tuesday evening, are next. And other teams might eventually be incriminated in one of the biggest cheating scandals in sports history.

Many, as you might imagine, have thoughts. ESPN spoke to more than 15 executives, coaches, scouts and players about key topics surrounding the Astros’ cheating scandal — from the stiffness of the penalties to the perceptions of wrongdoing to potential ways to prevent it. Opinions were provided under the condition of anonymity because MLB asked its personnel not to comment.

The 2020 Astros were not hurt nearly enough

A longtime executive went through the penalties to illustrate how the Astros were not necessarily harmed in a big-picture sense.

• A $5 million fine? Chump change for a team that profited far more than that by winning the World Series, and something that probably pales in comparison to not having to pay Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow during their season-long suspensions.

• The loss of a first- and second-round pick in the 2020 and 2021 drafts? Successful teams pick later, which lessens the value of their picks, and they’re constantly giving up future assets for immediate returns.

The longtime exec called those draft picks “a liquidated cost,” and a veteran scout stated the organization “should have been hammered” internationally — an area where the Astros were not penalized whatsoever.

• The biggest blow, it seems, comes from the suspensions of Luhnow and Hinch, the two foundational pieces in the Astros’ resurgence. Both were subsequently fired by owner Jim Crane, who must find a new GM and manager with only weeks remaining until spring training. But the Astros can simply replace them internally, with bench coach Joe Espada expected to be the new manager and assistant GM Pete Putila probably handling most of the baseball-operations work moving forward.

Firing Luhnow and Hinch grants the Astros “a clean slate,” the executive said — a benefit for Crane, given the fallout.

“In one sense, it was on the lighter side because the commish was clear and then they broke the rules some more,” another executive told ESPN.” So this was the least they could do. If this was isolated, maybe it’s not so bad. But they were brazen in breaking the rules.”


Isn’t a tarnished reputation enough?

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Doug Glanville explains that firing AJ Hinch and Jeff Lunhow was the best move for the Astros so they can set the tone for the organization going forward.

That’s the question a longtime manager posed when asked if the penalties were enough to serve as a deterrent for other teams, making the point that Luhnow and Hinch could struggle to work in baseball again and might never hold such high-profile positions.

“At the end of the day,” the source said, “all we have in this game is our reputation.”

A front-office executive agreed, calling the punishments “stiff” while saying: “I would be surprised if anyone else would want to jeopardize their livelihoods and reputations.”

But some players presented an interesting scenario: If you were to go back in time and tell Crane that he would win the World Series, but then have to suffer through the fallout of this scandal — the fine, the loss of draft picks, the suspensions and subsequent firings of his two most important employees, the public smearing for unethical practices — would he take that deal? The players, emphatically, believe that he would.

And that brings us to another point: The position players who used the system and potentially reaped the benefits were unharmed.

“It’s hard for me not to look at my own numbers against them and be pissed,” a retired major league pitcher said. “Everyone involved deserves to be seriously punished because it’s wrong.”


How can a player-driven scheme not punish any players?

This was definitely on the minds of executives and players alike. And for good reason. One player likened it to giving immunity to a burglar just so he can tell you how he broke into your house and stole your television.

“It makes zero sense,” one rival player said.

But when pushed on how to dole out punishments, that same player was at a loss. Another player might have summed it up best.

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Players who could be surprise additions to Opening Day MLB rosters

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Spring training provides opportunities for players both young and old to make their mark and change their future outlook. Some young players are trying to do enough to make the team. Veterans who have bounced around and might not have a contract are doing the same. Meanwhile, former stars and once-heralded prospects might be working their way back from injury to take a spot that’s far from guaranteed. The players below are all fighting this spring for a place on the roster, or in the rotation or starting lineup, but their performance this spring is worth a look as it will decide their fate once spring is over and the season begins.

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Why MLB players are speaking up about sign stealing like nothing else ever

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Mike Trout — exemplary athlete, polished face of baseball, as uncontroversial as they come — stood in front of an Angels-themed backdrop Monday morning and joined the swelling list of star players taking pointed shots at the Houston Astros. Trout stated that he “lost respect” for peers he once considered friends, called all of this “sad for baseball” and cracked jokes about how “fun” it would be to know which pitch was coming. Twenty-five miles west, at Dodgers camp in Glendale, Arizona, Justin Turner, among the game’s most respected veterans, went out of his way to torch Major League Baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, for the way he seemed to minimize the World Series trophy.

Players everywhere, from Arizona to Florida, in spring training camps dotted throughout both states, have been outspoken in ways a buttoned-up sport like this has never seen. The scathing remarks, aimed at both their peers and the man who oversees their sport, have come from household names and fringe major leaguers, each new voice empowering the other, every day producing new triggers. By the time Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon held court Monday, Trout’s comments had already gone viral, adding more fuel to a fire that seemingly won’t stop burning.

Maddon called for a moratorium.

“At some point,” he said, “we have to stop talking about it. I mean, it’s been hashed, rehashed and triple-rehashed. If you watch TV, which I don’t do a lot of but they put it on in my office — my goodness, how many different ways can you dissect this? Wounds have to heal. They have to scab over. But if you keep picking at it, it never heals. We have to get to that point where you allow the healing process to begin.”

This, perhaps, is part of the healing process. Probably the initial stage of it. Some of the players’ comments have been flawed and reckless and hyperbolic, which merely provides a snapshot into the way most of us process anger — emotionally, not rationally. Today’s baseball players are displaying a transparency and honesty rarely seen by athletes of their stature. It’s humanizing them in ways that fans should appreciate.

“I figured they would get backlash,” Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon said of the Astros, “but the anger that’s been coming out is definitely surprising.”

Rendon was born and raised in Houston and grew up rooting for Astros teams featuring Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. He spoke less than five months after his Washington Nationals defeated the Astros in seven World Series games and sounded more sympathetic than most.

“None of us are perfect people,” Rendon said. “We’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all fallen short.”

That same morning, Boston Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez struck a similar tone.

“I understand players’ frustration and stuff like that, but I think, in my opinion, it’s already getting a little bit too much,” he said. “We have to move past it at some point.”

A mere 24 hours later, Atlanta Braves right fielder Nick Markakis stated that every Astros player “deserves a beating” and New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge said their 2017 title doesn’t “hold any value.” Before them, Trout vouched for stronger punishment. Before Trout, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen called the cheating scandal “worse than steroids.” Before Jansen, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant deemed the Astros’ apologies “a disgrace.” Before Bryant, Cincinnati Reds starter Trevor Bauer provided a 1,500-word soliloquy disparaging his sport. And before all of them, reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger talked about how Jose Altuve “stole” the 2017 AL MVP Award and how his entire team “stole” the championship.

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Aaron Judge speaks about the Astros sign-stealing scandal and believes Houston should be stripped of its 2017 title.

The opinions have been diverse but have mostly followed these common themes:

1. Stealing signs the way the Astros did, and knowing which pitch was coming, is a big deal and should not be diminished.

2. Astros players should have been punished.

3. The Astros — particularly owner Jim Crane — have not shown enough contrition.

4. The Astros’ illegal sign-stealing practices extended into the 2019 season, even though MLB’s investigation stated otherwise.

5. Manfred, entering his sixth season as the sport’s commissioner, didn’t act quickly enough, wasn’t firm enough and hasn’t been forthright enough.

Before fielding questions from the assembled media at a ballroom in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Tuesday afternoon, Manfred apologized profusely for referring to the World Series trophy as “a piece of metal,” a choice of words that drew the ire of Turner and Jon Lester. Later, Manfred was asked if he had ever experienced such vitriol within his sport.

“I’ve been around a long time,” Manfred said, “and I’ve never seen this kind of commentary from players about other players in the entire time that I’ve been involved.”

Most of the anger is rooted in self-interest, as is typically the case. It stems from a belief that nothing in sports is more difficult than hitting major league pitching. More specifically: that nothing is more difficult than deciphering spin coming out of a pitcher’s hand and reacting quickly enough to meet the barrel with the baseball, particularly in an era of unprecedented movement and velocity. Hitters dedicate their lives to shortening that reaction time; pitchers obsess over ways to keep them guessing.

“You see guys who maybe got kicked out of the league because they got beat by Houston in 2017, you got guys who maybe should’ve won an MVP, or whatever it may be, or stats that are changed,” Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw said. “It’s just a bad feeling because you feel kind of helpless about it. I think guys don’t really know how to feel just because it’s never really happened before, so you’re seeing a lot of different responses from a lot of different people.”

There’s a lingering fear, amid all the noise, that all of this anger has disjointed the players’ union at a time when it must come together for a brewing labor fight. One player rep made a counterpoint — most of the players are actually together, both in their anger toward Manfred and in their anger toward the Astros, whose members make up only 3% of their union. But what if the criticism continues, and suddenly other teams are outed for similar crimes, and the distrust among players escalates?

“Yeah,” the player rep said, “that would be bad.

It illustrates a predominant fear, one represented by the question several coaches, managers and front-office executives have posed in recent days: When, and how, will this end?

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Fantasy baseball – Everything old is new again

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I’ve got nothing against Luis Robert, Gavin Lux, Jo Adell or any other top prospect on the verge of blossoming onto the big-league baseball scene in 2020. Perhaps it is simply assumed they will be fine but Minnesota Twins DH Nelson Cruz actually hit 41 home runs in 2019. OK, everyone homered a lot, but Cruz also hit .311 with a career-best 1.031 OPS (fourth in baseball). Yet, there is no shortage of high-profile young hitters going ahead of Cruz in most drafts (Gleyber Torres and Yoan Moncada among them) all of whom he bested on the final 2019 Player Rater.

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