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Astros exec suggested using cameras to spy in ’17, sources say

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A high-ranking Houston Astros official asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts leading up to the 2017 postseason, hoping to steal signs and suggesting the potential use of cameras to do so, sources familiar with the request told ESPN.

The reaction among those who received an email from Kevin Goldstein, a special assistant to Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, was mixed, sources told ESPN. Some were intrigued by the idea, sources who received the email said, while others were bothered with the thoughts of pointing cameras toward opposing teams’ dugouts, a plan that could have earned them scorn within the scouting community if caught.

The email, which was first reported by The Athletic and confirmed by recipients to ESPN, is the first indication of Astros front-office involvement in potential cheating and further reveals the scope of Houston’s attempts to gain advantages through intercepted signs. Major League Baseball is investigating the organization’s methods of sign-stealing after pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic that during its World Series-winning 2017 season the team used a live video feed to steal catchers’ signs and transmit them to hitters by banging on a trash can.

Goldstein, who did not return a message seeking comment, wrote in the email: “One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can [or can’t] do and report back your findings.”

MLB’s investigation ramped up this week as interviewers spoke with on-field and front-office staff from the Astros and other teams. As the investigators attempt to confirm the allegations by Fiers, they continue to lay groundwork for other tentacles of alleged cheating, which people around baseball fear has grown into an epidemic in recent years.

“Technology and stealing info is going to be the black eye of this generation,” one longtime Astros employee said. “It’s really the last frontier that isn’t banned. It’s a way to get a competitive advantage without altering the actual players.”

The Pandora’s box of technology use, even with new rules put into place before the 2019 season, continues to vex a sport that encourages teams to meander into gray areas. Sign-stealing long has been a part of baseball, supported by players and scouts alike, particularly runners on second base eyeing the catchers’ signals and relaying them to the batter.

The use of cameras to do so is regarded as unethical by many and due to recent rule changes is now codified as illegal by MLB. The level of punishment for those involved in the Astros’ alleged 2017 sign stealing might depend on commissioner Rob Manfred’s interpretation of a rule against using technology for “stealing signs or conveying information.” In 2017, the league fined the Boston Red Sox for using an Apple Watch in their dugout.

The breadth of the Astros’ willingness to use technology for on-field advantages continues to come into focus. During the 2018 postseason, Kyle McLaughlin, an Astros baseball operations staffer, was removed from the camera wells next to the dugouts of the Cleveland Indians and Red Sox during the postseason after pointing a cell phone into the dugout. Luhnow said the Astros simply were running a counterintelligence operation against the teams to ensure they were not cheating.

The 2017 plans relayed by Goldstein involved a pro scouting department that since has been gutted, with the Astros’ analytics-scouting balance since then tilting wildly to the side of analytics — “99 to 1,” according to a person familiar with the team’s resources. Much of the Astros’ scouting work today, sources said, involves cameras and video.

On-field personnel that has drawn the interest of the league includes Red Sox manager and former Astros bench coach Alex Cora, New York Mets manager and former Astros DH Carlos Beltran, Astros manager A.J. Hinch and Red Sox bullpen coach Craig Bjornson, who had the same job with Houston in 2017.

MLB’s probe follows years of cheating allegations by teams regularly reported to the league office because of suspicious actions or anomalous results. The league has looked into past allegations against the Astros by Oakland last August and the McLaughlin incidents in October and cleared Houston of wrongdoing. The scope of the investigation is expected to include other Astros teams, including the 2019 version that lost the World Series in seven games.

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Padres get Tommy Pham, Jake Cronenworth from Rays for Hunter Renfroe

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The San Diego Padres, intent on winning in 2020, have finalized a trade for outfielder Tommy Pham and two-way prospect Jake Cronenworth from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for outfielder Hunter Renfroe and prized second-base prospect Xavier Edwards.

The Rays also received a player to be named later.

The trade, which the sides officially announced Friday upon the completion of medical reviews, sends Pham, who turns 32 in March, to a Padres team in need of an offensive catalyst who gets on base. The Padres, who had the fifth-lowest on-base percentage in the majors last season, already acquired outfielder Trent Grisham and second baseman Jurickson Profar in trades this winter and are expected to continue dealing to alleviate an outfield glut as the winter meetings approach this week, sources said.

“We tried to address every area of our ball club, and we feel we’re improved at this point,” Padres manager A.J. Preller said.

Tampa Bay, which bowed out to the Houston Astros in a tight five-game division series this season, will get Renfroe and Edwards, an athletic middle infielder with excellent bat-to-ball skills who is a favorite among evaluators.

For the better part of a year, Renfroe, 27, has been part of Padres trade talks, with his sub-.300 career on-base percentage a red flag for teams. But his prodigious power, well-above-average defense, elite throwing arm and four years of club control were strong selling points for the Rays.

After buying low on Pham in a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Rays sold relatively high, as he will earn more than $8 million in arbitration this season and become a free agent after 2021. Still, the Padres, in win-now mode, see Pham as a strong enough upgrade to warrant giving up a high-floor, higher-ceiling prospect such as Edwards.

Preller said the Padres have had their eyes on Pham and Cronenworth for a few seasons. He said he likes Pham’s “fire” and “pitch-to-pitch grind.”

Pham told the Tampa Bay Times via text message that he was “a little sad” to be leaving the Rays.

“I enjoyed my time as a Ray,” Pham said. “My teammates helped me open up and have fun as a professional. I’m gonna miss going to battle with that group of guys.”

Edwards was No. 46 on ESPN insider Keith Law’s midseason top 50 prospects list. Although he hasn’t developed power in his first two minor league seasons, Edwards has top-end speed and will play almost all of the 2020 season at 20 years old. The Rays could play him at shortstop, though a scout who saw Edwards multiple times this season says he believes he could be a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman.

To complete the deal, the Padres and Rays both dipped into their farm systems, which are considered the two best in baseball. Cronenworth, who turns 26 in January, is one of the more interesting prospects in baseball, even if he is not as highly regarded as Edwards. He can play second base, shortstop and third, though he spent most of 2019 at shortstop in Triple-A, where he hit .334/.429/.520. Cronenworth also pitched in seven games, six of them as an opener, and finished the year with a 0.00 ERA, though he walked eight in 7⅓ innings.

He could break camp with San Diego as a versatile back-of-the-roster player for a team in need of a turnaround.

After a frustrating 2019 in which they finished 70-92 and were in last place in the National League West, the Padres fired manager Andy Green, hired Jayce Tingler and have taken an aggressive tack to reflect owner Ron Fowler’s mandate to win next season.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Chicago Cubs agree to 1-year contract with reliever Dan Winkler

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CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs and reliever Dan Winkler agreed Friday to a one-year contract that pays $750,000 in the majors.

The 29-year-old right-hander is 8-2 with two saves and a 3.68 ERA in 117 relief appearances over five seasons with Atlanta. He was 3-1 with a 4.98 ERA in 27 outings for the Braves last year before getting traded to San Francisco for pitcher Mark Melancon on July 31. Winkler spent the rest of the season in the minors.

The Cubs went 84-78 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Winkler gets a $200,000 if he’s in the minors. He can earn $750,000 in performance bonuses for games pitched: $50,000 each for 30 and 35, $75,000 apiece for 40 and 45, $100,000 each for 50 and 55, and $150,000 apiece for 60 and 65.

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Yankees GM rappels building, gets fan’s message on Gerrit Cole

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STAMFORD, Conn. — While Brian Cashman was descending the outside of a building Friday, the New York Yankees general manager came across a message taped to a 10th-floor window from a fan: Please sign Gerrit Cole.

Cashman, whose rappelling adventure has become a holiday tradition, confirmed he met with Cole in California on Tuesday and spoke with another free-agent pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, the following day.

“It was a great opportunity, clearly it was very public, that we met with Gerrit Cole and Strasburg while I was on the West Coast,” Cashman said. “At least, that’s who you all are aware of so far. Who knows who I met with?”

The Yankees have made signing Cole their clear offseason priority and have ownership-level approval to offer him a record-setting deal, sources familiar with their plans told ESPN’s Jeff Passan on Thursday.

Cole and Strasburg are the top pitchers on the free-agent market. The Yankees would like to add an ace to a rotation that already includes Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ.

Along with Cashman, assistant GM Mike Fishman, manager Aaron Boone, new Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake and former Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte made the trip to speak with both pitchers, who are represented by Scott Boras.

The Yankees’ fondness for the 29-year-old Cole, whose fantastic 2019 season with the Houston Astros set him up to smash David Price‘s record $217 million contract for a pitcher, was only reinforced during the meeting, sources told ESPN.

New York and the Los Angeles Angels, a team similarly smitten with Cole and in even greater need of pitching, are preparing for a bidding war that executives expect will reach well beyond $250 million, according to sources. The Los Angeles Dodgers‘ interest in Cole is acute as well, though they are also considering bids for Strasburg and third baseman Anthony Rendon, sources told ESPN.

Cashman offered little about possibly signing either pitcher, declining to discuss how much the Yankees might spend.

“I think it was an important part of the process for them,” Cashman said. “It sounds like they have met with many teams, and obviously I can’t predict the future or the timing of their futures; only really they control that.”

Cole was 20-5 with an American League-best 2.50 ERA and a big league-high 326 strikeouts this year for the AL champion Astros. He was originally drafted by the Yankees with the 28th overall pick in 2008, but he declined to sign a contract and opted to attend UCLA.

Strasburg was the MVP of the World Series for the Washington Nationals and was the first overall pick in the 2009 draft.

Cashman will return to California for the baseball’s winter meetings, which begin Monday. First, he’ll attend Sunday’s Heights and Lights, where he will dress as an elf and again descend the Landmark Building.

“I’ll be flying back out after this event and in the meantime staying engaged,” said Cashman, who declined to say if another meeting with either pitcher was planned.

“I’m open to do clearly whatever, as always, is important for the Yankees. If there are certain steps that need to be taken, or conversations on the phone, like any club we are fully prepared to do what’s necessary.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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