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MLB’s Astros punishment was extraordinary, and still not harsh enough

Let’s make sense of the fallout from the Astros cheating scandal.

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Major League Baseball levied one of the most significant punishments in the history of the sport on the Houston Astros for cheating during their championship season in 2017. Executive Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended for the 2020 season, while the team was stripped of four draft picks and fined $5 million.

This Astros discipline somehow achieved the opposing feats of being unprecedented in scope yet also not punitive enough.

What hurts

The loss of draft picks is huge, and will probably do the most long-term damage of any of the penalties laid out by Major League Baseball. Given where the Astros will likely pick in the 2020 and 2021 drafts (late in the first round; this is still a very talented team coming off three consecutive 100-win years), using FanGraphs’ valuation tool has those picks — first- and second-rounders in the next two drafts — worth roughly $25-30 million in net present value.

Houston’s roster is filled with homegrown talent, including Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, who were drafted very early in the first round back when the Astros were tanking on purpose. But later first-round picks, closer to where the Astros will probably pick in the next two drafts, were used to get Justin Verlander (Daz Cameron) and Zack Greinke (J.B. Bukauskas, Seth Beer) in trades. Losing those four picks not only removes four potential prospects, but also limits the total pool of bonus money the team is allowed to spend. This is a significant developmental loss.

Managers and general managers don’t grow on trees

Luhnow and Hinch took the biggest hits, as they were not only suspended without pay for a season by MLB on Monday but subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane as well. Both signed contract extensions during the 2018 season, a year after the team won the World Series in seven games. Luhnow was signed through 2023, and Hinch through 2022. Now, they need to be replaced, after every other team has filled its vacancies in those two spots this offseason.

Hinch is only the third manager in the last 100 years to be suspended for at least one season, joining Leo Durocher (1947) and Pete Rose (1989), per Jayson Stark.

For the Braves’ international and amateur scouting transgressions in 2017, general manager John Coppolella was banned for life and the team lost one first-round draft pick and saw their spending limited in two international signing periods. The combination and volume of draft pick loss plus the suspension of not only the Astros GM and manager make Houston’s punishment the most severe in baseball since the Black Sox scandal in 1919.

Hinch was found by MLB to not have participated in the trash-can-banging scheme in 2017 nor the Astros’ usage of the video replay room to relay signals to the dugout in 2018. Hinch, per MLB, even went so far as to “signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the monitor on two occasions, necessitating its replacement.” But his culpability came in knowing about both plans and doing nothing to stop it.

In addition to the integrity-damaging proof through this investigation that the Astros cheated during the postseason that ended with their championship, the timing of this is key. During the 2017 season, the Yankees complained to the commissioner’s office that the Red Sox were illegally using electronic equipment to relay signs from their video replay room to the dugout. The league released a memo on Sept. 15 that year confirming the Red Sox violation, which came with an undisclosed fine, and the warning 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.”

The Astros, who by this point already implemented their own sign-stealing scheme against baseball’s rules, continued to use the system in the playoffs. It was a direct violation after MLB already warned that they would turn this car around right now if any of you kids keep this up.

Luhnow was not implicated in the sign-stealing scheme, but was found through MLB’s investigation to have knowledge of it, and his failure to try to stop it was his undoing. Commissioner Rob Manfred also made note of Luhnow’s “problematic” baseball operations department:

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 relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic. At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the Club’s admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.

Taubman, an assistant general manager under Luhnow, aggressively taunted a group of female reporters in the Astros clubhouse regarding closer Roberto Osuna — who was acquired as a distressed asset by Houston in 2018 while he served a 75-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy — all while celebrating the club’s ALCS win over the Yankees in October 2019.

The Astros bungled the response to the incident, including accusing Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein of fabricating the story. An apology from Luhnow didn’t come until five days later, and on Monday he continued that trend with a statement bereft of remorse.

Luhnow’s statement began with “I accept responsibility,” then proceeded to list the ways in which he was not responsible. He was sure to note the video decoding of signs “was executed by lower-level employees working with the bench coach,” which brings us to who could perhaps face the biggest penalty of all.

Alex Cora was the bench coach for the Astros in 2017, and was found through MLB’s investigation to have arranged a video monitor just outside the Astros dugout, showing the center field camera feed. The explanation further notes the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme was player-driven, with Cora the only member of the coaching staff involved in the plan (along with some team employees in the video room).

“Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players’ conduct,” Manfred wrote.

As if the direct culpability in the Astros’ schemes weren’t enough, Cora is also the subject of MLB’s current investigation into whether the 2018 Red Sox engaged in impermissible electronic sign stealing. Cora won the World Series as Boston’s manager that year.

MLB hasn’t yet determined Cora’s penalty, with an investigation ongoing, but he figures to get punished at least as much as Hinch and Luhnow just for his Astros’ involvement alone.

Cora, who was signed with the Red Sox through 2021, with a club option for 2022, was fired one day after the commissioner’s report regarding Cora’s time with the Astros.

“Given the findings and the Commissioner’s ruling, we collectively decided that it would not be possible for Alex to effectively lead the club going forward and we mutually agreed to part ways,” a Red Sox team statement read.

What about the players?

You might be wondering if what the Astros did was against baseball rules, and if their sign-stealing scheme was player driven, why weren’t any players suspended or even fined for their transgressions?

Manfred for one correctly noted that it’s the responsibility of the general manager and field manager to make sure players know and follow the rules, and that’s why Luhnow and Hinch took the fall. Also, though unsaid, suspending players would be met with pushback from the players union, and with a looming labor battle and a collective bargaining agreement that expires after the 2021 season that’s probably an extra fight MLB wants little part of.

It’s also a logistical nightmare.

“It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability,” Manfred wrote. “It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other Clubs.”

Keep in mind that this was a thorough investigation, in which 68 people were interviewed and “tens of thousands of emails, Slack communications, text messages, video clips, and photographs” were reviewed. 23 of those interviewed were current or former Astros players. It’s unclear if any sort of immunity was promised by MLB to get these players to talk, but that so many cooperated certainly helped the investigation.

Everything is fine

The final Astros punishment was a fine of $5 million, which is the largest allowed by the Major League constitution. It’s also a drop in the bucket for a franchise valued (by Forbes) at $1.775 billion in 2019, a 161-percent increase from Crane’s $680 million purchase price in 2011.

Even if the fine was $50 million, the Astros made much more than that by virtue of their three extended postseason runs the last three years (they also made the World Series in 2019, but won none of their four home games).

There is no going back in time and stripping the Astros of their World Series title. The games happened, the memories exist, and changing the past doesn’t really do anything. The best MLB can hope for is to prevent this type of scandal from happening again, and the way to do that is to make an owner piss their pants when they see a cost that is actually prohibitive.

Because if the cost for electronically stealing signs is $5 million, four draft picks, and one-year suspensions of the manager and general manager, I’m not sure that’s steep enough to outweigh all the benefits that come with winning a World Series.