In December of 2011, when the Astros first hired Jeff Luhnow as general manager, he took over a directionless 106-loss team with a farm system widely considered below average.
The transformation of the Houston franchise into a player development leader, perennial contender and eventual World Series champion was something to behold. And, as it turns out, the downfall of that front office has been just as riveting (though far more swift).
On Monday, commissioner Rob Manfred announced some precedent-setting discipline after an MLB investigation into the electronic sign stealing the Astros used on the way to their 2017 title. The penalties include:
• one-year suspensions without pay for Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch
• the loss of first-round picks in 2020 and 2021
• the loss of second-round picks in 2020 and 2021
• a $5 million fine, the maximum allowable by MLB rules
In addition to those MLB-issued penalties, Astros owner Jim Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch soon after the league’s announcement.
Those penalties and subsequent firings give rise to a whole new set of questions. From the day-to-day operations in Houston to potential suspensions elsewhere to the future of sign stealing, the impact of this discipline will be wide-reaching.
Of course the impact will be felt most strongly in Houston, where a championship-calibre core remains despite the front office’s fall from grace and the loss of Gerrit Cole in free agency. The loss of a GM and manager would hurt under any circumstances, and that’s especially true here. For all of their faults, Luhnow and Hinch were undoubtedly well above replacement level in many ways.
Now, Crane will have to replace them just as teams are gearing up for spring training. It’s one thing to interview a team’s bench coach for a managerial opening in October, but by now teams are gearing up for the season ahead and interviews would be more disruptive and potentially more difficult to secure. Plus, there’s limited time remaining with spring training set to begin in less than a month.
Under those circumstances, the Astros could consider promoting Joe Espada, a well-regarded bench coach who has interviewed for multiple managerial openings in recent years. He spent the 2017 season as the Yankees’ third base coach, clearing him of any links to the current controversy.
Meanwhile, an already-depleted front office now faces further uncertainty. Soon after the Astros turned their franchise around, executives David Stearns and Mike Elias left to run the baseball operations departments of the Brewers and Orioles, respectively. More recently, the Astros fired Brandon Taubman for unacceptable actions of his own and dismissed Luhnow. That’s a lot of industry knowledge gone in a short period of time.
From a legacy standpoint, the Astros’ 2017 title has clearly been tainted. While we don’t know how much of an impact the sign stealing had, we can safely guess they wouldn’t have risked punishment unless they believed their system was helping.
Even so, there would have been little sense in stripping the Astros of their title. They were a legitimately great team and we all watched them celebrate. There’s no sense denying they won it all, but we know now they got to the top by breaking the rules.
Beyond Houston, the biggest impact may be felt in Boston, where an uncertain future awaits Alex Cora, the current Red Sox manager who was Houston’s bench coach in 2017. Described by Manfred as “an active participant in the scheme,” Cora will presumably face significant discipline of his own.
While Cora was mentioned 11 times in MLB’s nine-page report, Dave Hudgens’ name was not mentioned once. Hudgens, now the Blue Jays’ bench coach, was Houston’s hitting coach in 2017 when the Astros used trash cans to tell hitters what pitches were coming. MLB questioned Hudgens in November, but the report doesn’t mention him or other coaches, stating instead that the system of banging on the trash cans “was, with the exception of Cora, player-driven and player-executed.”
Some baseball people find it hard to believe that a hitting coach would be unaware of sign stealing this extensive, but the MLB report hints at no evidence implicating Hudgens. Regardless, it’s perhaps too soon to say he’s fully in the clear.
Meanwhile, newly-hired Mets manager Carlos Beltran appears to have avoided any discipline. He was still playing in 2017 and MLB decided not to punish players since determining “discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical.”
Manfred’s report sends a far stronger message to team decision makers. According to the document, Luhnow “denies having any awareness” of the sign stealing scheme. But because a club’s GM and manager “are responsible for ensuring that the players both understand the rules and adhere to them,” Manfred issued year-long suspensions for Luhnow and Hinch.
For GMs and managers in other markets, the message is clear: if you don’t make sure your players are following the rules, you might pay with your job. Even after these suspensions end, the job prospects of Luhnow and Hinch will surely be impacted.
If Manfred has calculated right, that message will resonate in front offices and within coaching staffs around baseball. Ideally, the precedent set here would be enough to steer any potential rule breakers away from the temptations the Astros chose not to resist.