A Big Mess to clean up in Houston

by Dan M | Posted on Friday, January 17th, 2020

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BY DIC HUMPHREY                                                                                                                                        DHUMPHREY24@GMAIL.COM

     The investigation of the Astros illegal sign stealing has been ongoing since October, and last Monday, the results were in and the hammer finally came down.  Houston’s General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch each received a one year suspension.  The Astros were fined $5,000,000, the maximum allowed, and the Astros will also forfeit their first and second round draft picks in the next two June Amateur drafts.  The story didn’t die there as the aftershocks continue to roll through baseball, and there’s the feeling that a lot more is to come.  

     The Astros’ owner, Jim Crane acted swiftly.  Later last Monday, he fired both Luhnow and Hinch.  Crane also said that he is reviewing the situation with other lower level employees and coaches such that there could be more firings.  

     The penalties on one hand are unprecedented in the history of baseball.  On the other hand, there are a number of teams that feel like the penalties were not harsh enough.

     MLB’s report also noted that 2017 Astros’ bench coach Alex Cora was an active participant in the sign stealing system.  Cora moved on to become manager of the Boston Red Sox for the 2018 and 2019 seasons,  and now the Red Sox are being investigated for similar allegations in the 2018 season, when they, like Houston in 2017, won the World Series.  Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred chose not to discipline Cora preferring to wait until the Red Sox investigation is complete.  The allegations though put pressure on the Red Sox to take matters into their own hands, and they did.  Red Sox ownership announced in a Wednesday press conference that the team and Cora had mutually agreed to Cora stepping down as the team’s field manager.  The press conference was reported by those in attendance as very tense.  It is obvious that no matter how they couched the departure as a mutual agreement — Cora was fired.  

     The only player mentioned in the report was Carlos Beltran, who has since retired from playing baseball and was named manager of the New York Mets this off season.  His reign as manager was very brief however.  On Thursday, the Mets followed suit with the Red Sox.  Mets’ Chief Operating Officer Fred Wilpon announced that management had met with Beltran Wednesday night and Thursday morning, and it was “mutually agreed” that Beltran would also step down.  When Beltran interviewed for the job, the investigation was underway, which leads to the belief that Beltran was not forthcoming about the situation during the interview process?  

     By week’s end, the carnage has three teams looking for a new manager, and one of those is also looking for a general manager.  There are time pressures on all three of these teams to hire new managers.  Spring Training camps open in about a month.  Getting a manager in place is imperative.  

     In the Houston situation, owner Jim Crane and his son are effectively the general manager at this point.  They seem more intent on getting a manager in place first, and a general manager later.  There will be plenty of interest in both jobs.  Crane has been a great hands off owner allowing his employees to do their jobs, and the organization has a lot of baseball talent with a team that has been to the World Series twice in the last three seasons and a strong farm system.

     Crane may or may not look for an internal candidate for his new GM.  The Houston front office lost Michael Elias after the season.  He’s now the Orioles GM, and took at least one other top person in the Houston front office with him.    

     Brandon Taubman, another Houston front office employee, was fired last fall after inappropriate comments toward female reporters covering the team.  His future in baseball is probably over, but Commissioner Manfred sealed his fate for the immediate future by placing him on the ineligible list.  At some point, he may be eligible for reinstatement which would allow him to be rehired, but it’s doubtful that any team will be interested.  Crane may want to go outside for his next GM anyway to change the culture.

     Houston made a list of managerial candidates available to the media.  Most of the external candidates have managed in the Majors previously.  Buck Showalter, who previously managed four teams including the Rangers, interviewed Wednesday.  John Gibbons, who has two stints of managing the Toronto Blue Jays, interviewed Thursday.  Gibbons notably is a native of San Antonio.  Another former Ranger – Jeff Banister – is also on the Astros list.

    One reason the Astros announced their list may have been to deflect the focus away from the scandal.    

    Some have questioned why the big deal over sign stealing?  Hasn’t sign stealing been part of baseball forever?  Yes.  Sign stealing using eyes and brains is still a respected art in baseball.  The difference this week is the use of electronics.  The Astros’ system had a camera placed in center field with video access in or near their dugout.  Once someone monitoring the video deciphered the pitch calling code, it was just a matter of communicating to batters in a timely manner.  If the pitch was a fastball, there was a garbage can that got banged.  No bang meant an off-speed pitch.  

    In retrospect, it’s surprising that opposing benches didn’t pick up on the fact that a garbage can was being banged when fastballs were being called.

    Prior to the 2017 season, there were very specific rules put into place prohibiting electronic sign stealing.  The Astros disregard for the rules fits with the perception that the team management is arrogant.  Crane will also be dealing with changing this culture in his organization, making it more likely that he looks outside the organization for his new field manager and general manager. 

    As for where the story goes from here, there are likely to be charges against specific players.  Already, a Twitter account accused Astros’ infielders Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman of wearing an electronic device under their jerseys that could be buzzed to transmit pitch information.  The Twitter account was supposedly Beltran’s niece, but Beltran has shot that one down.  Most likely, the source was another suspicious player using a fake account.

     It is interesting that Beltran was the only player mentioned in Manfred’s report.  On one hand, many players were granted immunity in the investigation to gain their cooperation.  Surely more players will be identified in the future.

     There is no immediate timetable for when the Red Sox investigation will conclude, but surely there will be more cheating participants identified.  There is also every reason to believe that the Astros and Red Sox are not the only teams involved in electronic sign stealing.   

    The Rangers held a press conference on Wednesday to introduce newly signed free agents Todd Frazier and Robinson Chirinos.  Most of the questions raised at the press conference related to the Astros and the sign stealing scandal.  That’s an indication of the power of this story.  It’s not going away anytime soon.  

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  1. Bob Morris says:

    MLB should have stripped the Astros of more draft choices, i.e., no draft choices for the next 3 years. Also for players that were involved that did not get immunity they should be suspended for the first 3rd of the next season.

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