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Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider

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The Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal isn’t going away anytime soon.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has handed out the penalties: fining the Astros $5 million, taking away their first- and second-round draft picks in the next two years and suspending Houston manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for one year. Astros owner Jim Crane then fired Hinch and Luhnow and the team has since hired new leadership.

The club apologized (kind of) on the first day of spring training. The commissioner has also gone on tour to try to explain his actions and justify his investigation and the discipline he handed out, as well as the rational for his decision to not vacate the Astros’ 2017 World Series championship title and to explain future deterrents. 

Yet there is still plenty of unrest in the baseball world.

The most surprising aspect of the entire scandal – the Astros used a video camera to decode signals between opposing pitchers and their catchers and then relayed the information to their batters during the 2017 season – is the player-to-player anger. The angry statements from around the game have been over the top.

Los Angeles Dodgers players have had a lot to say because they believe they lost the World Series to the Astros because of the cheating. The New York Yankees feel cheated as well, since they lost to Houston in the American League Championship Series. The rest of the league is angry that Houston took shortcuts to winning while every other club was willing to pay the price of success. Some players don’t believe the Astros have been contrite enough. Others believe that the whole story has yet to be told. 

But almost everyone is upset because none of the players involved have been suspended, especially since the investigation determined that it was a player-driven scheme.

The commissioner is under attack and receiving plenty of backlash for his handling of the affair. The media, fans and players believe that he bungled the whole thing. Even L.A. Lakers star LeBron James chimed in on social media earlier this week. They all don’t like Manfred’s decision-making process or his explanation of the scandal. 

But they are all wrong.

 

Manfred has actually made the best of a bad situation. He has done the right thing at every turn. He hasn’t always handled the explanations perfectly – even referring to the World Series trophy as a “piece of metal” but later apologizing for his choice of words – but when you are talking to an angry audience, they sometime hear what they want to hear. 

The two biggest gripes are:

1. Astros players got immunity for their testimony to investigators and none were suspended (although former Astros DH Carlos Beltran was the only player named in the official MLB report for his role in the scheme);

2. The commissioner didn’t vacate the Astros’ 2017 World Series title. 

Firstly, the commissioner did not suspend the players because he knew that if he tried to do so, the Major League Baseball Players Association would file grievances on their behalf and they would win. 

This is why he took that approach:

The commissioner sent a letter to every owner and general manager laying out the new rules and potential discipline for using electronic devices to steal signs after the Boston Red Sox’s Apple Watch cheating scandal during the 2017 season. The letter called for every GM to make sure that his manager, coaching staff and players were aware of its contents. 

The investigation into the Astros showed that Luhnow never funnelled that information down to his clubhouse, so Houston’s players were never informed about the rules or potential consequences for breaking them. Once that became clear, it meant that player suspensions would not hold up in a grievance hearing.

The players were offered immunity so MLB could get to the bottom of the cheating scandal. The commissioner wanted to fully understand what they did and how they did it. An investigation without immunity would not have provided the details of the cheating and players still wouldn’t have been able to be suspended. Manfred made the right decision. 

Complaints about the commissioner not suspending players are misdirected. If players around the game have a problem with the fact that the Astros players didn’t get punished, they need to take it up with their own union. It was the MLB Players Association that told the Commissioner’s Office that there were no grounds for disciplining players. Manfred wanted to do something, but it would have been a losing battle. 

Secondly, as far as vacating the 2017 World Series title, this is what the commissioner had to say:

“I felt, and continue to feel, that the best thing we can do for our fans is to give them the facts and put them in position to make their own judgment as to what happened in 2017, what the significance of that particular World Series is. I’m also very concerned about opening the door to altering results that took place on the field. There are a lot of things that have happened in the history of the game that arguably could be corrected. I think it’s an impossible task for an institution to undertake.”

I completely understand Manfred’s position on this as past World Series have been impacted and won by players who used performance-enhancing steroids. Records have been broken by players who cheated in the steroid era. Games have been won by pitchers who have doctored baseballs. Vacating the 2017 championship could lead to a significant unravelling of the history of the game in numerous areas.   

The reason that so many want this title vacated is the fact that the Astros still seem reluctant or even defiant to acknowledge that their 2017 title is tainted by their cheating. The organization has apologized but it appears to be only a half-hearted apology.

The most impactful move right now would be if the Astros ownership opted to remove any recognition of the 2017 World Series championship from their stadium. That would at least show an acknowledgement of the stain of the cheating scandal on the game itself. Keep your rings and playoff shares, but at least let us know we are being heard. 

We all want a specific target for our venom in situations like this. Manfred is an easy target, but he actually did the best he could under the circumstances and I believe he has created deterrents for future cheating. 

(EDITOR’S NOTE: MLB is continuing its investigation of the Boston Red Sox to determine if illegal sign stealing occurred during the 2018 season. Former Red Sox manager Alex Cora was fired by the team last month after Manfred implicated him in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal as he was a bench coach in Houston in 2017. He is awaiting his penalty from MLB. As for Beltran, he was hired by the New York Mets during the off-season to manage the team but was let go prior to spring training after more information emerged about his role in the Astros’ scandal.)

Spitting Seeds

- The impact of the late Tony Fernandez, who died on Sunday at the age of 57 from kidney complications, has been felt all over baseball. It is uplifting to see and read all of the tributes on social media. The flashy Blue Jays shortstop left an indelible mark on Toronto baseball as he’s among the career leaders in many categories. He left us far too soon.

- The Jays’ signings of Hyun Jin-Ryu and Tanner Roark, the trade for Chase Anderson and the return from injury of Matt Shoemaker has certainly upgraded the starting pitching not only in quality but also in depth. The challenge for the Jays will be to find enough innings to allow Shun Yamaguchi, Trent Thornton, Jacob Waguespack, Anthony Kay, Ryan Borucki and T.J. Zeuch to compete fairly and prepare appropriately for the fifth starter’s spot in the rotation. 

- Nate Pearson is going to steal the show this spring in Dunedin. He will start the season in Triple-A Buffalo, but he is going to excite the staff, players and fans in dramatic fashion. It is a matter of time before he’s up with the big club and leading this rotation. Be grateful though that he won’t be called up on Opening Day! You want to maximize his time in Toronto and to do that he has to start the season in the minor leagues. The Jays aren’t winning the World Series this season. They will have a better chance six years from now though and that’s when fans will be glad that the team put themselves in a position to delay his free agency by a year. 

- This is a make-or-break year for both Teoscar Hernandez and Randall Grichuk. They are either going to finally prove they are everyday players, or they will be extra outfielders for the rest of their career. On a better team they would have already been relegated to a backup role, but in this rebuild they will get one more shot.

- The American League East has already seen a pretty significant amount of player attrition and the season hasn’t even begun. The Red Sox traded Mookie Betts and David Price and now don’t even have a predictable fifth starter on their depth chart. The Yankees have already lost starting pitcher James Paxton for the beginning of the season to back surgery and more recently outfielder Aaron Judge has indicated he has a sore shoulder. On Thursday, the Yankees shut down right-hander Luis Severino due to forearm tightness. The Yankees won’t fall far enough back in the pack for the Jays to catch them, but Toronto could make things interesting as some AL East teams slide down the standings due to injuries.