Astros cheating scandal: Major questions still remain

Rob Manfred’s report answered many questions about the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing. But we have some more questions — and answers:

Q: The Astros were found guilty of illegally stealing signs throughout the 2017 season, including the postseason, as well as the 2018 regular season, and they received considerable penalties. Why didn’t commissioner Rob Manfred overturn their 2017 championship?

A. The Commissioner’s Office made clear from the outset of this investigation that such a ruling wasn’t on the table. Think of the Pandora’s box that would open: Do you take away the 2000 Yankees’ title because ace Roger Clemens allegedly used illegal performance-enhancing drugs that season? What about Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” off Ralph Branca, which was likely achieved via illegal sign-stealing? It’s way too messy.

Q: Will Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch ever work in baseball again?

A: I’ll say yes for Hinch and probably not for Luhnow, based on both men’s first statements in the wake of the news that they had been suspended for a year and fired by the Astros. Hinch took full accountability for not stopping bench coach Alex Cora and players from illegally stealing signs, whereas Luhnow, while “accepting responsibility,” proceeded to deny all knowledge of what went down and neglected to mention that everyone involved entered the organization with his blessing. While Luhnow did brilliant work in building up the Astros, the industry doesn’t lack brainpower.

Q: Since you brought him up, what’s going to happen with Cora?

A: He is in more hot water than a packet of steel-cut oatmeal. Given the confirmed level of his involvement in the 2017 Astros’ scheme, and now on top of that Major League Baseball is investigating the 2018 Red Sox that he managed for similar transgressions, and Astros owner Jim Crane set the bar high with the dismissals of Hinch and Luhnow? It wouldn’t be surprising in the least if he never managed the Bosox again, if he manages at all.

Q: What about Carlos Beltran?

Once MLB decided to grant all players immunity in its investigation, Beltran, a player for the 2017 Astros, found himself in the clear, in terms of discipline, as long as he cooperated, which baseball officials believe he did. Nevertheless, this went down as a bad day for Beltran and the Mets, who introduced their former All-Star as their new manager in November. Manfred’s report named only one player, Beltran, and identified him as a ringleader of the scheme. Suddenly Beltran’s reputation as a baseball savant doesn’t seem as golden. If the Mets are smart, they’ll hold a news conference this week with both Beltran and Brodie Van Wagenen, the man who hired him, and let Beltran offer his story and, presumably, some regret.

Q. The focus has been on the sign-stealing, yet wasn’t this investigation also supposed to cover the October incident involving former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman verbally targeting a female reporter and the organization’s terrible handling of that?

A: Yes, and Manfred did include a nice dig at the Astros in which he connected the two misdeeds, citing “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.”

A.J. Hinch
A.J. HinchAP

Q: Wow, good for Manfred! That’s quite an indictment of team owner Jim Crane, who also has to pay a $5 million fine.

A: You’d think so, right? Except the report twists itself into a pretzel repeatedly to not only exonerate Crane of any wrongdoing — “Like many Clubs with very experienced individuals running their baseball operations departments … Crane and his senior executive team spent their energies focused on running the business side of the Club while delegating control and discretion on the baseball side to Luhnow” — but downright deify him: “Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.” Yuck. So much for the buck stopping at the top.

Q: So what sort of team does Crane have left? Are the Astros still a threat to the Yankees?

A: They are, based on their current core of stud position players as well as veteran aces Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, yet let’s not understate the hits they have taken recently. They lost arguably their three most important baseball operations employees in the last three months, as the team fired Taubman during the 2019 World Series. They lost their first and second picks in each of the next two amateur drafts. And they lost their youngest ace, Gerrit Cole, to the Yankees, of all teams. They stand as vulnerable within their own division, with the young and feisty A’s and the rebooted Angels posing threats, and clearly inferior to the Yankees on the pitching side.

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