MLB hits Astros with huge penalties, Houston fires Hinch, Luhnow: Answering all the questions

Major League Baseball announced punishment for the Houston Astros, including one-year suspensions for GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, loss of draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and a $5 million fine, after an MLB investigation found the team used technology to cheat during its World Series-winning 2017 season. Luhnow and Hinch were subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.

ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle, Jeff Passan and David Schoenfield break down the penalties, what they mean for the Astros and what impact Monday’s punishment could have across the sport.

Just how harsh is this punishment compared with what was expected?

There was an awfully large range in the speculation, but unless you felt Jeff Luhnow and/or AJ Hinch might be subject to a permanent ban, the penalties are borderline shocking. That’s true even when you factor in that part of Rob Manfred’s thinking was related to the Brandon Taubman incident. A suspension of several weeks seemed likely, but a full year for the two most important members of a team’s baseball operations group is stunning, almost unprecedented. (Leo Durocher, when he was a manager, was suspended for a year, but there was a gambling element to his situation.) You had to expect a loss of draft picks, but the top two picks for two years is stunning. The $5 million fine seems inconsequential by comparison to those penalties. It’s clear Rob Manfred wanted to send a clear message to teams and fans alike. He has certainly done so. For that matter, so did Astros owner Jim Crane, who quickly moved to terminate Hinch and Luhnow. — Doolittle

I don’t think it’s shocking it all. To steal from the NCAA, you can call it a loss of institutional control, and Luhnow, Hinch and the organization had to pay a severe penalty — and Manfred certainly handed one down. For those arguing that using technology to steal signs is going on throughout the sport and that the Astros don’t deserve to be punished for what everyone else also might be doing, I disagree. The Astros got caught and got caught doing it in a year they won the World Series. This is exactly how you tell an entire sport to knock it off. You go after the big boys and send a strong message that this will not be tolerated. It’s time for baseball to return to a competition between players — not a competition between technology. — Schoenfield

Wait, the Astros just fired Luhnow and Hinch?

Yep. That happened. The Astros have widely been viewed as an organization where the bottom line is everything, which in part led into their recent scandals. Clearly, Crane is not happy with that perception. Whatever else you might think about Luhnow and Hinch, both are at the very top of their respective professions. Crane could have stated that the suspensions were adequate penalties and that the team would proceed with them both next season under a “no tolerance” policy about future embarrassments. He didn’t do that, and good for him. It couldn’t have been easy. His normally implacable demeanor seemed to waver a couple of times during his news conference. — Doolittle

What exactly does Hinch’s suspension mean?

Hinch won’t be running a team this year, and going forward he won’t be running the Astros, since Crane made the decision to fire him. Because Manfred did not implicate Hinch as an instigator of the schemes, the suspension shouldn’t make other teams shy away from hiring him. He’s respected in the game and will be a heck of managerial free agent. MLB’s statement laid out exactly this: “A.J. Hinch shall be suspended without pay for the period beginning on January 13, 2020 and ending on the day following the completion of the 2020 World Series.

“During the period of his suspension, Hinch is prohibited from performing any services for or conducting any business on behalf of the Astros or any other Major League Club. Hinch must not be present in any Major League, Minor League, or Spring Training facilities, including stadiums, and he may not travel with or on behalf of the Club. If Hinch is found to engage in any future material violations of the Major League Rules, he will be placed on the permanently ineligible list.” — Doolittle.

How much impact will this punishment have on the Astros on the field?

The Astros have a lot of work left to do this offseason after sitting out the free-agent market this winter, and now they will do so without Luhnow calling the shots. However, the Astros, perhaps as much as any club in baseball, are a process-oriented organization without an overwhelming top-down dynamic. In other words, given Houston was already unlikely to make any additional large monetary investments in its 2020 club, the Astros should be able to muddle through from a roster-building standpoint. The Astros have turned out a number of general manager candidates during Luhnow’s tenure, including Baltimore’s Mike Elias, so there ought to be qualified candidates in the organization. (Though Crane might want a new voice to head up the operation after this.)

As for losing Hinch, it won’t help. He’s largely thought of as one of baseball’s best managers, from a tactical and a clubhouse standpoint. (Although these penalties don’t speak well to the latter trait.) Still, let’s not forget that bench coach Joe Espada (who will now presumably run the dugout, though Crane didn’t commit to that in his news conference Monday) is highly respected and was already viewed as one of baseball’s top managerial prospects. Now, he’ll get a chance to show his stuff. As for a group of players that is all at once among baseball’s most talented, accomplished and cocksure, this has to be humbling. Manfred made it very apparent that the scandal started with the players, who aren’t being punished. They have a lot to prove and a lot to make up for in terms of their relationships with their manager and their general manager. — Doolittle

What about Alex Cora, will he be punished later?

Yes. Without a doubt. Manfred wrote that he “will withhold determining the appropriate level of discipline for Cora until after the DOI completes its investigation of the allegations that the Red Sox engaged in impermissible electronic sign stealing in 2018 while Cora was the manager.” But this was after he went into extensive detail about Cora’s central role in executing the Astros’ scheme as Hinch’s bench coach. He’ll get hit and hit hard. Given the gravity of Monday’s announcement, it wouldn’t be shocking if Cora joined Hinch on the sideline for the entirety of the 2020 season. — Doolittle

What’s different about the Astros and the Red Sox?

Based on what’s been reported, the allegations about the Red Sox are on a somewhat different level than those regarding the Astros. While the Red Sox supposedly used video to decode opponents’ sign sequences and passed the information along to their players, they did not go the additional step of using some means of communicating this knowledge — such as the Astros’ infamous trash-can banging — to players at the plate from the dugout in most situations. They needed to get a runner to second base to see the sequences and signal them to whoever was at the plate. Still, the allegations against the Red Sox refer to activity during the team’s championship 2018 season, which was after MLB issued clarified rules expressly banning the use of replay rooms for this purpose. — Doolittle

We keep hearing some variation of “everyone does this,” but is that really true?

To think this kind of behavior was limited to one or two teams would be to deny the realities about human behavior in hypercompetitive environments with massive economic stakes in play, especially where policy loopholes and gray areas exist, as they did until very recently. Every team certainly steals signs, as teams always have. Where they draw the line in terms of the kinds of mechanisms they use to do so probably varies from team to team. However, MLB tried to draw distinct lines with policies it has written over the past couple of years, and the alleged behavior of the Astros and Red Sox would certainly cross those lines. We’ll have to rely on MLB investigators to tell us just how widespread this issue actually is and has been. However, it would be surprising or even shocking to find out that the problem was limited to a small minority of teams. — Doolittle

So, is stealing signs against the rules or not?

That’s where things get complicated. The old-fashioned way is not against the rules. In the wake of the Red Sox incident from 2017 and accusations from the 2018 playoffs, when the Indians and Red Sox both discovered an unofficial employee of the Astros pointing a cellphone camera toward the Cleveland and Boston dugouts, MLB instituted new guidelines in 2019 regarding electronic sign stealing. (The Astros claimed the employee in 2018 was deployed in a preventative measure, although Luhnow admitted “it made us look guilty.”

The guidelines in the six-page document created rules concerning placement and usage of center-field cameras, plus TVs and monitors, and mandated screens be on an eight-second delay. MLB also placed league employees at stadiums to monitor activity. — David Schoenfield

What are other players and teams across baseball, especially those who have lost to the Astros and Red Sox in the postseason, saying now?

They’re angry and frustrated and from the start have lamented that this sort of thing happened. They also might be hypocrites, because when you talk with a wide range of people around the game about the pervasiveness of cheating, they all agree and admit it does not begin and end with the Astros and Red Sox. The blurring of lines with regard to the use of video, particularly before the new rules in 2018 and 2019 more clearly defined what was allowed, allowed teams to develop questionable habits. Were those habits blatantly illegal? That’s a question with an expansive gray area. Were those habits morally or ethically objectionable? That’s not entirely clear, either, but if this were to go in front of an unwritten-rules arbiter, the judgment would pretty clearly be: not cool. — Jeff Passan

What’s going to happen with replay rooms? (Could they be scrapped entirely?)

And force managers to — gasp! — make decisions on calling for replays without the help of an expert winding back the tape and looking at it in extreme slow motion? They wouldn’t.

They could, of course, and the public probably wouldn’t know the difference. MLB did install an attendant for each replay room last year, though depending on the city, the competence of the attendants, according to sources, varied. Is that enough? Enough to prevent players — who potentially will do anything to gain a competitive advantage — from accessing the room? Probably not. Which means maybe a harsher question is in order: Should MLB just ban in-game video use altogether? Players wouldn’t like it, but here we are, in this position because of players’ choices.– Passan

Have there been any past punishments for sign stealing?

The Red Sox were fined an undisclosed amount in 2017, with commissioner Rob Manfred issuing a statement at the time that “all 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.” — Schoenfield

Could more punishments come down during the season?

Probably not. It seems more likely that Manfred will want any lingering investigations — like the one regarding the Red Sox — to be wrapped up before the season starts. Understandably, he has to want this issue to be settled before opening day, so we can all focus on baseball. That said, it remains to be seen whether additional players will come forward or other teams will be implicated in unrelated incidents. — Doolittle

If MLB “monitors” weren’t monitoring very well, could they be implicated or punished in any way?

They could be implicated if there were any sign that they were part of the scheme. There has been none. As for punishment: Incompetence often leads to joblessness, so if they’re not fulfilling the job’s duties and get fired, that’s a pretty bad punishment. — Passan

Do we just need to go the PED route and say if it’s electronic cheating then it’s a 50- or 100-game suspension? Skip the nuance, hand out a set penalty?

The hope from the league is that the penalties here are so harsh that nobody would dare consider doing this in the future. Which … sounds an awful lot like what happened when the league first instituted penalties for PEDs. The problem here is that cheating runs on such a wide-ranging continuum whereas PED use is extraordinarily binary. There are either drugs in your urine or there aren’t. If there aren’t, you’re cool, and if there are, you’re suspended. There is blatant cheating. There is mild cheating. There is in-between cheating. There are central figures. There are secondary figures. There are outsiders who are slightly involved in the plan. Electronic cheating tends to be a multi-person exercise from two different populations — players and team employees — and standardizing suspensions is almost impossible, even if knowing for certain the hammer was going to be laid might deter some from even considering it. — Passan

If stadiums are outfitted for cheating, can MLB bring owners into punishment?

You mean the owners who employ baseball’s commissioner? That seems unlikely in a situation that doesn’t involve anything that’s illegal in a non-baseball context. The teams involved will pay stiff penalties and that will hit owners in their most tender spots — their wallets (in the form of fines) and their egos (with lost draft picks impacting their ability to compete). Some harsh conversations will take place, but those will be behind closed doors. While a formal punishment for Crane or Boston’s John Henry, among others, seems unlikely, it will be interesting to see if this leads to some acrimony among the ownership groups. The Guggenheim group in Los Angeles, which owns the Dodgers and lost back-to-back World Series to the teams at the forefront of the allegations, can’t be too happy with some of their counterparts right now. — Doolittle

In Euro soccer, a way to cripple teams for cheating is to ban, in essence, participation in free agency and the draft. Can MLB go that route?

Such draconian steps might represent a loss of perspective, and when you kneecap a team’s ability to compete, you’re not just penalizing that team — you’re penalizing its entire fan base. There are many who feel like this issue has been blown a bit out of proportion already. (And many others who feel like it hasn’t been harped on enough because two World Series winners were involved.) Still, the focus has to be on creating barriers against this becoming an ongoing toothache for the game, because if history tells us anything about those who work in baseball, it’s that they will never stop looking for an edge. The obvious solution is to find secure, reliable technology that would allow pitchers and catchers to communicate with each other. We all love the timeless mime routines catchers go through, but there has to be a better way during a time when we can literally measure everything that happens on the field. Technology got us into this mess, and it can get us out of it. — Doolittle

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