Answering the biggest questions from the Astros' sign-stealing fallout
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Major League Baseball threw the entire freaking library at the Houston Astros on Monday, saddling them with a historic host of penalties after an exhaustive investigation determined the club electronically stole signs during its 2017 World Series championship run.

The specifics of Houston's sign-stealing chicanery were outlined in a nine-page report penned by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, but here are the primary points:

  • Early in the 2017 campaign, the Astros began using the live game feed from the center-field camera to identify opposing teams' hand signals and conveyed the signals to hitters by banging on trash cans.
  • The Astros continued to steal signs in this manner throughout that postseason, even after being notified by Manfred in September 2017 that they'd be held accountable for violating league policies covering sign-stealing.
  • Houston continued to steal signs in this manner for at least part of the 2018 regular season until players felt it was no longer effective.

"The conduct described (in the report) has caused fans, players, executives at other MLB clubs, and members of the media to raise questions about the integrity of games in which the Astros participated," Manfred wrote. "And while it is impossible to determine whether the conduct actually impacted the results on the field, the perception of some that it did causes significant harm to the game."

Manfred ultimately suspended Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the entirety of the 2020 season, stripped Houston of its first- and second-round picks in each of the next two amateur drafts, and handed the club a $5-million fine - the largest fine the commissioner is empowered to levy.

Still, questions remain in the wake of Manfred's judgment. Let's try to answer the biggest ones.

Were the penalties harsh enough?

Yes and no.

On one hand, Houston's penalties should deter other clubs from trying to pull something like this again. Specifically, the one-year suspensions handed down to Luhnow and Hinch should ensure against further systemized, institutional cheating. Forget vacated titles and forfeited draft picks; the best way to prevent another such episode is by making sure those with the most power, those responsible for shaping their organization's culture and practices, are held accountable for any cheating that happens on their watch. Manfred recognized that and thus sentenced the Astros' two most powerful men to the longest suspensions ever issued to a general manager or manager. (A lifetime ban, like the one Pete Rose received in 1989 for betting on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds, isn't really a suspension, is it?)

It's a bold precedent to set, especially given Manfred's uncertainty over what Luhnow knew and didn't know, and his finding that Hinch "neither devised the banging scheme nor participated in it." The subsequent decision by Astros owner Jim Crane to fire both of them further buttressed Manfred's message: If you cheat - or if any cheating happens on your watch - you're going to pay with your career.

But while Luhnow's and Hinch's fates may engender greater diligence and accountability on an institutional level moving forward, the discipline does nothing to specifically deter players themselves from using technology to cheat. According to Manfred, most of the position players on Houston's 2017 roster either benefited from "or participated in the (banging) scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can," yet none of them received so much as a fine. Assessing who was culpable, and to what degree, was "both difficult and impractical," the commissioner wrote. Though that conclusion is as understandable as it was predictable, it could nevertheless undermine the effectiveness of the Astros' penalties as a deterrent.

Moreover, if Manfred wanted his punishments to be, you know, punitive, it feels like he came up short. In addition to the suspensions, the Astros will forfeit their first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 amateur drafts, and they'll have to pay a fine of $5 million. That's simply not going to hurt them enough.

The Astros earned more than 10 times that amount in postseason revenue in 2017 alone as they banged their way to a World Series title. In 2018, throughout which the Astros continued to steal signs (they abandoned the can-banging scheme but still used the center-field camera feed to decode signs in their replay review room before relaying the information to players in person), the club generated $368 million in revenue, according to Forbes. A $5-million fine feels like, to borrow a baseball term, eyewash; it's for optical purposes only and has no value as a deterrent or punishment.

Stripping Houston of its four highest draft picks over the next two years isn't quite so toothless, but the Astros' long-term future certainly won't be derailed by the loss. Their position in the upcoming draft was already lousy following a 107-55 finish in 2019, and their outlook would still be plenty bright if they forfeited all of their picks in the next two drafts.

Ultimately, though, no punishment could undo the damage done to the teams and players victimized by Houston's cheating. Had the Astros played fair, perhaps the New York Yankees - whom they beat in seven games in the American League Championship Series - would've snapped their AL pennant drought. Had the Astros not cheated, perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers would've hoisted the Commissioner's Trophy for the first time in almost three decades. And perhaps the myriad pitchers Houston battered along the way would've received larger salaries in arbitration or kept their spots on big-league rosters.

What does this mean for Alex Cora?

He's in serious trouble.

According to Manfred's findings, Cora, who served as Houston's bench coach for the 2017 campaign before the Boston Red Sox hired him as their manager, was "involved in both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs." He wasn't disciplined Monday only because Manfred's team is still investigating allegations that the Red Sox, under Cora's stewardship, stole signs electronically during their 2018 championship season.

Even if Cora is somehow cleared of any wrongdoing in that second investigation, there's no chance he manages the Red Sox in 2020. There's a strong possibility he never manages again. The commissioner's report unequivocally depicts Cora as a key cog in the operation, and the lone non-player involved in the 2017 banging scheme. In other words, he was far more culpable than either Hinch or Luhnow, and, as bench coach, he was in a position of considerable power. As such, expect him to receive a suspension of at least one year, with an accompanying fine. It wouldn't even be shocking to see him receive a lifetime ban from baseball. Manfred has meted out such punishment before, banning former Atlanta Braves general manager John Coppolella in 2017 for multiple violations in the international market.

Will Luhnow and Hinch work in baseball again?

Luhnow probably won't. Hinch might.

Despite his obvious talents for assembling a top-notch baseball team, Luhnow's reputation now seems beyond repair, and hiring him would surely embroil his new club in a public relations nightmare. Under Luhnow, who took over the club's baseball operations department in 2011, the Astros' culture became increasingly toxic; victory always took precedence over integrity. Their acquisition of Roberto Osuna at the 2018 trade deadline - when the All-Star reliever was serving a suspension for violating the league's domestic violence policy - evinced that approach, and assistant general manager Brandon Taubman's explicit pro-Osuna tirade following Houston's 2019 ALCS victory made abundantly clear the dubious values that permeated the organization with Luhnow at the helm.

"It is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic," wrote Manfred. "At least in my view, 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, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the club's admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred."

If Luhnow does manage to find another job in baseball, he won't be working in nearly as prominent a role.

Hinch's prospects, however, look a bit brighter. Unlike Luhnow, Hinch seems well-liked and respected throughout the game even now, and though his role in this scandal will forever color how he's perceived, Hinch has nevertheless enjoyed considerable success as a big-league manager.

Again, Hinch was more complicit than culpable in the sign-stealing scheme, and he "expressed much contrition" in his exchanges with Manfred and MLB's investigators for not doing more to stop it. Hinch didn't prevaricate after Monday's firing, either, owning up to his shortcomings in a statement and vowing to turn this scandal into a learning experience.

"While the evidence consistently showed I didn't endorse or participate in the sign-stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry," Hinch wrote. "I apologize to Mr. Crane for all negative reflections this may have had on him and the Astros organization. To the fans, thank you for your continued support through this challenging time - and for this team. I apologize to all of you for our mistakes but I'm confident we will learn from it - and I personally commit to work tirelessly to ensure I do."

Don't be surprised if Hinch is back managing in the big leagues in the near future. Even if nobody offers him a managing gig, it seems likely he still finds his way back to professional baseball.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

Answering the biggest questions from the Astros' sign-stealing fallout
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