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The Astros May Have Been Punished for Sign Stealing, but the Cheaters Still Won

After a months-long investigation into reports of sign stealing during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Rob Manfred hammered Houston. But that may not mean much to a franchise that still owns a World Series victory.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Monday afternoon, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred released a summary of the findings of the league’s investigation into the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing enterprise, as well as details about the first round of punishment for the people responsible. And like so many opposing pitchers who fell victim to Houston’s setup in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Astros are getting absolutely hammered.

Houston will lose its next two first- and second-round draft picks, and will be required to pay the maximum fine Manfred is allowed to impose, $5 million. General manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch were both suspended for one season, and shortly after the report was released, Astros owner Jim Crane fired them both.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was the Astros bench coach in 2017 and one of the ringleaders of the sign-stealing operation, is also likely to face disciplinary action once MLB completes its investigation of the Red Sox for a similar sign-stealing operation during Cora’s tenure. And former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman would have been suspended, Manfred wrote, were he not already serving a season-long league-imposed ban for menacing three female reporters in the Astros locker room.

Even without the benefit of a high-definition camera rig in center field, it’s obvious that Manfred is throwing the book at the Astros organization. These penalties are among the harshest Manfred has ever imposed, rivaled only by his 2017 decision to ban Braves GM John Coppolella for life and declare 13 Atlanta prospects free agents after finding that Coppolella had violated international free agency rules by signing players as young as 14. The loss of draft picks, as well as full-year suspensions for Hinch and Luhnow, are clear attempts to deter copycats. And while Manfred is normally measured, even equivocal, in his rhetoric, his statement on Luhnow, Hinch, and the Astros is unsparing.

“[W]hile no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics,” Manfred wrote, “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.”

The report states that Hinch did not devise or participate in the sign-stealing scheme, and that he expressed his disapproval, even damaging the offending dugout tunnel video monitor twice. But Manfred found that “there simply is no justification” for Hinch being in a position of authority and failing to act.

That appears to be a refreshing bit of ethical clarity from an organization—MLB—that has too frequently profited from its own amoral and anticompetitive tendencies. It sends a clear message that not only is electronic sign stealing out of bounds, but nobody in baseball operations will be able to anoint a fall guy and escape punishment.

Losing the top two picks in two draft classes will significantly limit the team’s incoming amateur recruitment haul, and the loss of slot bonus money from those high picks will also have deleterious effects throughout Houston’s next two classes. Plus, halfway through the offseason, the Astros are now left scrambling to replace both their GM and their field manager.

But these are inconveniences, not an SMU football–style gotterdammerung. No players are being suspended. Manfred said it would be too complicated to determine both culpability and punishment given that some of the offending parties have moved on to other teams. And though one player who was identified as a principal culprit—Carlos Beltrán—is now manager of the Mets, he won’t be disciplined either.

Even more crucially, there’s no way to correct the statistical record. No way to make things right for pitchers who were demoted or cut after surrendering home runs to hitters who knew what was coming. Manfred could have attempted to vacate the Astros’ 2017 World Series title, a favored remedy of such famously redoubtable governing bodies as the NCAA, IOC, and UCI. But that wouldn’t have undone the damage—and he was wise not to pretend that it could.

The sign-stealing operation didn’t make the Astros into a good team. I doubt that Cora and Beltrán could’ve turned last year’s Tigers into a 100-win team with a Best Buy gift card. But when championships are won on such fine margins, the assumption will always be that cheating put the Astros over the top. And while the punishments handed down to Luhnow and Hinch might deter future managers and GMs, the Astros’ final calculus reads as follows: In exchange for a World Series title in 2017 and a trip to the ALCS in 2018, the Astros lose their GM, their field manager, four draft picks, and $5 million.

Here I’d like to return to an idea from earlier in this column: “Nobody in baseball operations will be able to anoint a fall guy and escape punishment.” The key phrase here is in baseball operations. Crane, who as Astros owner is 1/30th of Manfred’s boss, was explicitly exonerated in the commissioner’s report. Manfred expressed his disgust with the baseball operations department’s handling of the Taubman incident—a response that was, in fact, directed by a PR staff that worked under Crane and then–team president Reid Ryan, not Luhnow. And the very next sentence after the condemnation of the Astros’ rotten culture reads: “The comments in this paragraph relate only to the baseball operations department.”

Crane, gleaming with personal absolution and still in possession of his World Series ring, waited about an hour and a half before he cut his fall guys loose. After the firings were announced, Crane was asked whether the 2017 title was tainted.

“Absolutely not,” he said. He didn’t say whether he’d trade four draft picks, two high-up employees, and $5 million for another one.