Major League Baseball announced punishment for the Houston Astros, including one-year suspensions for GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, loss of draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and a $5 million fine, after an MLB investigation found the team used technology to cheat during its World Series-winning 2017 season. Luhnow and Hinch were subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.
ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle, Jeff Passan and David Schoenfield break down the penalties, what they mean for the Astros and Red Sox — and what impact Monday’s punishment could have across the sport.
Just how harsh is this punishment compared with what was expected?
There was an awfully large range in the speculation, but unless you felt Jeff Luhnow and/or AJ Hinch might be subject to a permanent ban, the penalties are borderline shocking. That’s true even when you factor in that part of Rob Manfred’s thinking was related to the Brandon Taubman incident. A suspension of several weeks seemed likely, but a full year for the two most important members of a team’s baseball operations group is stunning, almost unprecedented. (Leo Durocher, when he was a manager, was suspended for a year, but there was a gambling element to his situation.) You had to expect a loss of draft picks, but the top two picks for two years is stunning. The $5 million fine seems inconsequential by comparison to those penalties. It’s clear Rob Manfred wanted to send a clear message to teams and fans alike. He has certainly done so. For that matter, so did Astros owner Jim Crane, who quickly moved to terminate Hinch and Luhnow. — Doolittle
I don’t think it’s shocking it all. To steal from the NCAA, you can call it a loss of institutional control, and Luhnow, Hinch and the organization had to pay a severe penalty — and Manfred certainly handed one down. For those arguing that using technology to steal signs is going on throughout the sport and that the Astros don’t deserve to be punished for what everyone else also might be doing, I disagree. The Astros got caught and got caught doing it in a year they won the World Series. This is exactly how you tell an entire sport to knock it off. You go after the big boys and send a strong message that this will not be tolerated. It’s time for baseball to return to a competition between players — not a competition between technology. — Schoenfield
Wait, the Astros just fired Luhnow and Hinch?
Jeff Passan reacts to the Astros’ firing AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow and breaks down some of the fallout for the franchise going forward.
Yep. That happened. The Astros have widely been viewed as an organization where the bottom line is everything, which in part led into their recent scandals. Clearly, Crane is not happy with that perception. Whatever else you might think about Luhnow and Hinch, both are at the very top of their respective professions. Crane could have stated that the suspensions were adequate penalties and that the team would proceed with them both next season under a “no tolerance” policy about future embarrassments. He didn’t do that, and good for him. It couldn’t have been easy. His normally implacable demeanor seemed to waver a couple of times during his news conference. — Doolittle
What exactly does Hinch’s suspension mean?
Hinch won’t be running a team this year, and going forward he won’t be running the Astros, since Crane made the decision to fire him. Because Manfred did not implicate Hinch as an instigator of the schemes, the suspension shouldn’t make other teams shy away from hiring him. He’s respected in the game and will be a heck of managerial free agent. MLB’s statement laid out exactly this: “A.J. Hinch shall be suspended without pay for the period beginning on January 13, 2020 and ending on the day following the completion of the 2020 World Series.
“During the period of his suspension, Hinch is prohibited from performing any services for or conducting any business on behalf of the Astros or any other Major League Club. Hinch must not be present in any Major League, Minor League, or Spring Training facilities, including stadiums, and he may not travel with or on behalf of the Club. If Hinch is found to engage in any future material violations of the Major League Rules, he will be placed on the permanently ineligible list.” — Doolittle
How much impact will this punishment have on the Astros on the field?
Doug Glanville explains that firing AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow was the best move for the Astros so they can set the tone for the organization going forward.
The Astros have a lot of work left to do this offseason after sitting out the free-agent market this winter, and now they will do so without Luhnow calling the shots. However, the Astros, perhaps as much as any club in baseball, are a process-oriented organization without an overwhelming top-down dynamic. In other words, given Houston was already unlikely to make any additional large monetary investments in its 2020 club, the Astros should be able to muddle through from a roster-building standpoint. The Astros have turned out a number of general manager candidates during Luhnow’s tenure, including Baltimore’s Mike Elias, so there ought to be qualified candidates in the organization. (Though Crane might want a new voice to head up the operation after this.)
As for losing Hinch, it won’t help. He’s largely thought of as one of baseball’s best managers, from a tactical and a clubhouse standpoint. (Although these penalties don’t speak well to the latter trait.) Still, let’s not forget that bench coach Joe Espada (who will now presumably run the dugout, though Crane didn’t commit to that in his news conference Monday) is highly respected and was already viewed as one of baseball’s top managerial prospects. Now, he’ll get a chance to show his stuff. As for a group of players that is all at once among baseball’s most talented, accomplished and cocksure, this has to be humbling. Manfred made it very apparent that the scandal started with the players, who aren’t being punished. They have a lot to prove and a lot to make up for in terms of their relationships with their manager and their general manager. — Doolittle
Why did the Red Sox decide to part ways with Alex Cora now?
Based on the season-long suspension given to AJ Hinch, it became clear Cora will likely receive a similar suspension — if not something longer — once the investigation into the 2018 Red Sox is completed. Given his complicity with both clubs, Cora may receive an even longer suspension. The Red Sox couldn’t have that hanging over the franchise for an entire season so they had to move on. — Schoenfield
What’s different about the Astros and the Red Sox?
Based on what’s been reported, the allegations about the Red Sox are on a somewhat different level than those regarding the Astros. While the Red Sox supposedly used video to decode opponents’ sign sequences and passed the information along to their players, they did not go the additional step of using some means of communicating this knowledge — such as the Astros’ infamous trash-can banging — to players at the plate from the dugout in most situations. They needed to get a runner to second base to see the sequences and signal them to whoever was at the plate. Still, the allegations against the Red Sox refer to activity during the team’s championship 2018 season, which was after MLB issued clarified rules expressly banning the use of replay rooms for this purpose. — Doolittle
What punishments are the Red Sox expected to receive?
It could be harsher than what the Astros received, given the Red Sox had already been fined in September of 2017 for using Apple Watches in a different sign-stealing scheme. If they then moved forward with illegal use of the replay room in the 2018 season, the commissioner’s may double down on a team that already had been punished. While MLB rules limit the maximum fine to $5 million, they could lose draft picks as well as the ability to sign international players (many in the game felt the Astros got off easy in this regard).
We keep hearing some variation of “everyone does this,” but is that really true?
To think this kind of behavior was limited to one or two teams would be to deny the realities about human behavior in hypercompetitive environments with massive economic stakes in play, especially where policy loopholes and gray areas exist, as they did until very recently. Every team certainly steals signs, as teams always have. Where they draw the line in terms of the kinds of mechanisms they use to do so probably varies from team to team. However, MLB tried to draw distinct lines with policies it has written over the past couple of years, and the alleged behavior of the Astros and Red Sox would certainly cross those lines. We’ll have to rely on MLB investigators to tell us just how widespread this issue actually is and has been. However, it would be surprising or even shocking to find out that the problem was limited to a small minority of teams. — Doolittle
Are the Mets going to fire Carlos Beltran?
The Mets are certainly in a difficult position. While the commissioner didn’t punish any of the players on the 2017 Astros, Beltran was also the only player specifically mentioned in the report. The implication was clear: Beltran was not just potentially benefiting from the scheme, but along with Alex Cora was one of the key figures in establishing the entire system. Now he’s in a position of authority as the Mets’ first-year manager. The wide speculation is the Mets will have to fire Beltran, but so far the club has been silent since the report was issued, with Buster Olney reporting they are gauging Beltran’s future. It’s possible Beltran can weather this initial storm, feign some sort of excuse (“We were just doing what everybody else was doing”) and claim that he’s not here to talk about the past.
So, is stealing signs against the rules or not?
That’s where things get complicated. The old-fashioned way is not against the rules. In the wake of the Red Sox incident from 2017 and accusations from the 2018 playoffs, when the Indians and Red Sox both discovered an unofficial employee of the Astros pointing a cellphone camera toward the Cleveland and Boston dugouts, MLB instituted new guidelines in 2019 regarding electronic sign stealing. (The Astros claimed the employee in 2018 was deployed in a preventative measure, although Luhnow admitted “it made us look guilty.”
The guidelines in the six-page document created rules concerning placement and usage of center-field cameras, plus TVs and monitors, and mandated screens be on an eight-second delay. MLB also placed league employees at stadiums to monitor activity. — Schoenfield
What are other players and teams across baseball, especially those who have lost to the Astros and Red Sox in the postseason, saying now?
Tim Kurkjian is concerned that the Astros’ scandal is a sign that some of the new-age executives in MLB think they can outsmart the game.
They’re angry and frustrated and from the start have lamented that this sort of thing happened. They also might be hypocrites, because when you talk with a wide range of people around the game about the pervasiveness of cheating, they all agree and admit it does not begin and end with the Astros and Red Sox. The blurring of lines with regard to the use of video, particularly before the new rules in 2018 and 2019 more clearly defined what was allowed, allowed teams to develop questionable habits. Were those habits blatantly illegal? That’s a question with an expansive gray area. Were those habits morally or ethically objectionable? That’s not entirely clear, either, but if this were to go in front of an unwritten-rules arbiter, the judgment would pretty clearly be: not cool. — Passan
What’s going to happen with replay rooms? (Could they be scrapped entirely?)
And force managers to — gasp! — make decisions on calling for replays without the help of an expert winding back the tape and looking at it in extreme slow motion? They wouldn’t.
They could, of course, and the public probably wouldn’t know the difference. MLB did install an attendant for each replay room last year, though depending on the city, the competence of the attendants varied, according to sources. Is that enough? Enough to prevent players — who potentially will do anything to gain a competitive advantage — from accessing the room? Probably not. Which means maybe a harsher question is in order: Should MLB just ban in-game video use altogether? Players wouldn’t like it, but here we are, in this position because of players’ choices. — Passan
Have there been any past punishments for sign stealing?
The Red Sox were fined an undisclosed amount in 2017, with commissioner Rob Manfred issuing a statement at the time that “all 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.” — Schoenfield
Could more punishments come down during the season?
Probably not. It seems more likely that Manfred will want any lingering investigations — such as the one regarding the Red Sox — to be wrapped up before the season starts. Understandably, he has to want this issue to be settled before Opening Day so we can all focus on baseball. That said, it remains to be seen whether additional players will come forward or other teams will be implicated in unrelated incidents. — Doolittle
If MLB “monitors” weren’t monitoring very well, could they be implicated or punished in any way?
They could be implicated if there were any sign that they were part of the scheme. There has been none. As for punishment: Incompetence often leads to joblessness, so if they’re not fulfilling the job’s duties and get fired, that’s a pretty bad punishment. — Passan
Do we just need to go the PED route and say if it’s electronic cheating, then it’s a 50- or 100-game suspension? Skip the nuance, hand out a set penalty?
The hope from the league is that the penalties here are so harsh that nobody would dare consider doing this in the future. Which … sounds an awful lot like what happened when the league first instituted penalties for PEDs. The problem here is that cheating runs on such a wide-ranging continuum whereas PED use is extraordinarily binary. There are either drugs in your urine or there aren’t. If there aren’t, you’re cool, and if there are, you’re suspended. There is blatant cheating. There is mild cheating. There is in-between cheating. There are central figures. There are secondary figures. There are outsiders who are slightly involved in the plan. Electronic cheating tends to be a multiperson exercise from two different populations — players and team employees — and standardizing suspensions is almost impossible, even if knowing for certain the hammer was going to be laid might deter some from even considering it. — Passan
If stadiums are outfitted for cheating, can MLB bring owners into punishment?
You mean the owners who employ baseball’s commissioner? That seems unlikely in a situation that doesn’t involve anything that’s illegal in a non-baseball context. The teams involved will pay stiff penalties, and that will hit owners in their most tender spots — their wallets (in the form of fines) and their egos (with lost draft picks impacting their ability to compete). Some harsh conversations will take place, but those will be behind closed doors. Although a formal punishment for Crane or Boston’s John Henry, among others, seems unlikely, it will be interesting to see whether this leads to some acrimony among the ownership groups. The Guggenheim group in Los Angeles, which owns the Dodgers and lost back-to-back World Series to the teams at the forefront of the allegations, can’t be too happy with some of its counterparts right now. — Doolittle
In Euro soccer, a way to cripple teams for cheating is to ban, in essence, participation in free agency and the draft. Can MLB go that route?
Such draconian steps might represent a loss of perspective, and when you kneecap a team’s ability to compete, you’re not just penalizing that team — you’re penalizing its entire fan base. There are many who feel like this issue has been blown a bit out of proportion already. (And many others who feel like it hasn’t been harped on enough because two World Series winners were involved.) Still, the focus has to be on creating barriers against this becoming an ongoing toothache for the game, because if history tells us anything about those who work in baseball, it’s that they will never stop looking for an edge. The obvious solution is to find secure, reliable technology that would allow pitchers and catchers to communicate with each other. We all love the timeless mime routines catchers go through, but there has to be a better way during a time when we can literally measure everything that happens on the field. Technology got us into this mess, and it can get us out of it. — Doolittle
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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.
Cubs, Giants to raise minor league pay early
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer and Giants baseball executive Farhan Zaidi confirmed the wage hikes Tuesday.
MLB informed teams on Friday that it would be raising minimum salaries for minor leaguers in 2021, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press. Those increases, ranging from 38% to 72% depending on the level, mean players will earn between $4,800 in rookie ball to $14,000 at Triple-A.
Hoyer said the Cubs’ pay bumps will take effect this season and will mirror those made by the Blue Jays in 2019, when Toronto became the first club to boost pay by giving all minor leaguers 50% raises. Hoyer said the idea was pushed by the Ricketts family, which owns the franchise.
“They obviously had read about all the teams talking about changing it,” Hoyer said. “They read about the Blue Jays and they’re like, ‘We need to do this.’ We put a tremendous emphasis on player development. We put a tremendous emphasis on our minor league talent, and the Ricketts family were pretty adamant that we treat them as well as anybody.
“So that’s the move we’re going to make, and we’re proud to do it. I’m really happy and proud that they wanted to do it and they just sort of took it on as kind of an ownership project, which is great.”
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Giants’ pay bumps will be slightly more aggressive than the MLB-mandated minimums, with Triple-A players earning $15,000 for the five-month season. By comparison, the major league minimum is $563,500 this year, and the top players make over $30 million annually.
A group of minor leaguers filed a lawsuit against major league teams in February 2014 claiming their meager salaries violated minimum wage laws. While the case has not yet gone to trial, Congress passed legislation in 2018 stripping minor league players from protection under federal minimum wage laws.
San Francisco, which already had a reputation among minor leaguers as being relatively player-friendly after eliminating clubhouse dues and providing nutritious food, is also giving players a hand with housing. Rookie-ball, short-season and low-Class A players will be provided free housing. Class A Advanced players will be placed with host families, and Double-A and Triple-A players will be given $500 housing allowances each month.
Zaidi, entering his second season as president of baseball operations with the Giants, said the club would take feedback from players and could make further adjustments in 2021.
“There was really some momentum behind it before I came into the organization, but just from a personal standpoint, I’m excited that we were able to do it,” he said. “I think that it does a lot of good for the organization. I think it’s the right thing to do, and we’re kind of looking forward to having it in place.
“It’s a quality of life issue,” he added. “It’s a convenience issue. It’s a time issue, and just getting a better sense of all that, something we’ll continue to evaluate.”
MLB’s mandated raises come as the league is negotiating with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the governing body of the minors, to replace the Professional Baseball Agreement that expires after the 2020 seasons. MLB proposed cutting 42 of the 160 required affiliated teams during those negotiations, a plan criticized by small-town fans and politicians at the local and national level.
MLB also has sought assistance from minor league teams in paying salaries and for facility upgrades in those negotiations.
Rockies GM Jeff Bridich says he’s yet to sit down with Nolan Arenado
Bridich displayed no worries about his relationship with his best player Tuesday night when he spoke at the Cactus League media day.
The executive says he’ll have a conversation at some point with Arenado, who recently said he felt “disrespect” from Bridich and disappointment in the Rockies’ direction.
“Today was Day Two, (and) yesterday was Day One with him in camp,” Bridich said. “We’ve seen each other. We haven’t sat yet, but I trust that we will. He’s just like all the other players. We’ll find time to sit down and interact, both with myself and others, so I trust we’ll find the right time for that.”
Arenado and the Rockies are one week shy of the anniversary of the five-time All-Star’s agreement on an eight-year, $260 million contract extension with his only big league club. The three-time NL homers leader’s relationship with the Rockies has undeniably deteriorated in the ensuing months, with Arenado being frustrated by hearing his name in trade rumors and by Colorado’s relatively inactive winter.
Bridich publicly believes he can smooth over any differences with his most important player and asset.
“I think it’s a natural part of being a team and competing as a group from year to year,” Bridich said. “You try to be on the same page as much as you can, and that takes a conversation. It takes time, and sometimes there are natural disagreements or there is miscommunication over time, and so you continue to work to right the ship.”
Bridich didn’t acknowledge he’s got to do any repair work with Arenado, and the GM remains confident in Arenado’s professionalism. He doesn’t expect any on-field reflection of the slugger’s dissatisfaction.
“You think back to less than a year ago when you were on the dais and you’re talking about (Arenado’s) extension,” Bridich said. “All those things we said publicly in terms of the elite level of talent, the elite level of production, the elite level of work ethic, the elite level of his own expectation to play well and to be one of the best players in the game, all of that still rings true right now. I mean, there’s absolutely no wavering in the confidence in him.”
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