Houston Astros: Rob Manfred got it basically right

Commissioner Rob Manfred levied strong penalties against the Houston Astros, who responded by firing both GM Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch.

Major League Baseball slapped the Houston Astros powerfully and appropriately Monday for the sign-stealing scandal. While it is certainly possible to justify Commissioner Rob Manfred slapping even harsher penalties, those that were imposed are likely to serve the primary purpose: deterring future such activity.

Commissioner Rob Manfred Monday imposed a series of penalties, the most notable of which were year-long suspensions issued to both general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch. Manfred also stripped the Astros of their first and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts and levied a $5 million fine, the maximum amount possible under the game’s Constitution.

Following the finding, Astros owner Jim Crane announced that he had fired both Luhnow and Hinch.

The Astros were accused of utilizing electronic means to steal opposing team’s signs during the 2017 season. The commissioner also found that the practice continued in modified form for at least some time into the 2018 regular season.

Although the Manfred report did not implicate either Luhnow or Hinch directly in the creation or operation of the sign-stealing system, it did determine that Hinch knew of it, and it did hold both men accountable for their oversight responsibilities. “The club’s general manager and field manager are responsible for ensuring that the players both understand the rules and adhere to them,” the commissioner wrote. He added that “the club’s bench coach (Alex Cora) was an active participant in the scene, and the club’s manager was aware of the scheme and did nothing to stop it.”

Determining whether those penalties are sufficient ultimately comes down to whether they serve the primary purpose, which is the deterrence of future similar activity. If they do, then they’re strong enough; if officials of other teams are not moved to take active steps to ensure that their players do not engage in electronic sign-steal methods, then the penalties needed to be stronger.

I won’t take strong issue with anyone arguing that Manfred could have justified longer suspensions, or even ineligibility, against Luhnow or particularly Hinch given the finding that he had guilty knowledge. At the same time, year-long suspensions against off-field personnel are relatively rare. It’s also possible that Manfred’s actions were taken with advance knowledge of the actions Crane planned to take in response and factored that into his own decision-making.

If I were a manager or general manager of a major league team, I would be intimated to action by the example set in these cases, and with the awareness that penalties for the next such violation are almost certainly to be even tougher still. That intimidation is only enhanced by Crane’s action Monday in ridding the organization of both Kuhnow and Hinch.

The impact of the loss of draft picks, while not as decisively preventive as the suspensions, should not be overlooked. Just in the past decade, the Astros have used picks at those levels to obtain Alex Bregman (2015), Carlos Correa (2012), Lance McCullers (2012) and George Springer (2011), collectively much of the core of the team’s 2017 World Series winner.

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It is entirely plausible to expect that the penalties issued Monday will serve their primary deterrence function…and in that most vital of characterizations will be appropriate.

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