On Jan. 13, 2020, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred released his findings and announced the Houston Astros‘ punishment for electronically stealing signs during the team’s 2017 World Series run. Manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were each suspended one year by MLB before they were both fired by the Astros, and even in a pandemic, the fallout of the scandal has been in the headlines throughout the 12 months since.
One year later, we asked our panel of MLB experts to weigh in on how much their view of the Astros has changed, what the next year of fallout could bring for MLB — and how the team will be treated when fans eventually return to ballparks.
How do you view the Astros one year after their punishment?
Jeff Passan: Because the entire story of the Astros’ cheating remains untold, the granular details that allow a richer understanding — such as which players not only benefited the most from the sign-stealing scheme but which sought it out — are elusive. Absent that, the story is an organizational one, and it’s why, for all the focus on a few individual players, the distaste for the Astros’ organization, writ large, overwhelms it. Even though George Springer was around during the cheating, fans are yearning for their team to sign him, even if they still hate the Astros. Is that logical? No. Is that right? No. Is that going to change? No. The Astros are the villain fans didn’t realize they wanted.
Alden Gonzalez: I still see the stars who dotted the Astros from 2017 to 2018 — Carlos Correa, Springer, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, just to name the most prominent — as supremely talented players who didn’t need to skirt the rules in order to excel but did so anyway because they were able to get away with it. It’s a snapshot of a fundamental truth about human behavior, particularly at the highest levels of certain industries, and how external pressures and inherent insecurities often prompt people to weigh what is achievable ahead of what is ethical. Not an excuse, just a harsh reality — one Major League Baseball experienced when performance-enhancing drug use ran amuck 20 years ago.
We’ll never know if the 2017 Astros could have won the World Series without their elaborate sign-stealing scheme, which is really a shame. That was a dominant group of players that should be remembered more fondly. Alas, they have only themselves to blame.
Buster Olney: When you take a step back and think about the talent that Jeff Luhnow assembled, it really was one of the most talented groups of ballplayers we’ve seen in recent decades. Altuve might one day make a speech in Cooperstown, Springer will finish his career as one of the most prolific postseason heroes in history, Bregman is among the best players in the game, Justin Verlander should be a unanimous HOF selection — and you could continue to list the superlatives. No matter what else happens for the players individually, however, the first paragraphs in any historical reference will always reference sign-stealing. Like it or not, this is their legacy.
David Schoenfield: I mostly view the current Astros as a dynasty in decline. Gerrit Cole is already gone, Springer and Michael Brantley are free agents, and Verlander (who will likely miss the season after Tommy John surgery), Correa, Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. are all free agents after 2021. Longtime star Jose Altuve is now 31, coming off a bad 2020, and plays a position where players often don’t age well. I enjoyed watching the 2017-19 Astros, but the cheating scandal obviously leaves a permanent stain on their accomplishments. As that team now scatters into the baseball winds, the most interesting thing about the franchise is no longer its past, but what it will do in the future.
Joon Lee: As a reminder of how easy it is to overstate the declaration of a dynasty after a World Series victory. This happened with the Chicago Cubs after they won the World Series in 2016 as well, but when a bunch of young stars like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer help propel a team to a World Series victory, it’s easy to imagine them making their way back multiple times and perhaps hoisting the trophy again.
Just a few years later, Gerrit Cole is no longer on the team and Justin Verlander is missing the season due to Tommy John surgery. That core group will never receive another opportunity to redeem themselves after the cheating scandal put a massive asterisk on their 2017 title, and it will be how we remember them within the context of baseball history when we look back.
Bradford Doolittle: I don’t look at the current Astros differently than I do any other team. They are a talented club with a Hall of Fame manager and a young GM who is trying to transition some key spots on the roster. I guess in the back of my mind, I am hoping that the key holdovers from 2017 who had worse-than-expected seasons last year (Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa) bounce back, if only to validate how good they were in past seasons. But there is too much water under the bridge to keep trying to stitch a scarlet letter onto an entire franchise. These are now the Dusty Baker-James Click Astros.
Which is the real Astros offense: The team that hit .240 with a .720 OPS in the regular season, or the one that led Houston to a Game 7 of the 2020 American League Championship Series?
Olney: Without Springer — assuming he moves on to another team through free agency — it’ll be really hard for the Astros to replicate the kind of production they had prior to the 2019 season. And one of my big questions about the team is the long-term impact on Altuve, and whether he’ll regain the joy that he had always played with before news of the sign-stealing scandal broke. I never thought that Roberto Alomar was the same player after his spitting incident, partly because it was really tough for him to cope with the angry responses he heard when he played on the road.
Lee: I agree with Buster here. The talent in this lineup moving forward simply isn’t the same, especially with the loss of Springer. Altuve represents a massive pivot point in projecting the ceiling of this team’s offense, and when you combine the potential long-term impact of the scandal on his mental psyche at the plate on top of my own personal concerns about his aging curve as a player given his size/frame combined with his style of play, he represents the team’s offensive X factor.
Passan: It’s easy for me to say the postseason offense, because at every increment of the 60-game season, I figured the Astros were about to break out. They didn’t, snuck into the playoffs at 29-31 and then looked like their pre-scandal selves. While potentially losing Springer and Brantley this winter thins out their lineup, their best hitter, Yordan Alvarez, returns after playing just two games last year. Bregman, Correa and Altuve all will seek to be most standard versions of themselves and silence the notion that they were creations of cheating, even though their amateur and minor league excellence far predated that. And with Kyle Tucker assuming a middle-of-the-order spot, the Astros might not be the most potent offense in baseball, but their form should be much closer to the 2020 postseason than the regular season.
Schoenfield: According to the advanced metrics like weighted runs created, the 2019 Houston lineup was one of the best of all time. Some parts of that will now be gone, but as we saw in the playoffs, when the Astros hit .270/.352/.442, this can still be an above-average lineup. Remember, we haven’t even seen Alvarez for a full season and his rookie season indicated he has the ability to be one of the top three or four hitters in the game.
Doolittle: Definitely the postseason version, and if Houston brought back the same roster this year, I’d expect it to project as one of the best offenses in baseball. Of course, Springer was a major component in that and losing him is a big deal. Still, the Astros project at the very least to be in the upper third of offenses in baseball. I don’t expect many of Houston’s subpar performances from the 2020 regular season to be repeated.
What do you think the next season will bring for the Astros?
Schoenfield: It could actually bring another playoff appearance in what might be a soft AL West. The A’s look ripe for a potential decline, leaving the division wide open, and if the Astros get better seasons from Altuve and Alex Bregman in combination with the return of Yordan Alvarez, the offense could bounce back from its 2020 struggles. Even without Verlander, there is depth in the rotation. The issue is that the supreme confidence the Astros once held disappeared in 2020. They need it to return in 2021.
Passan: All depends on the playoff format. The American League West isn’t quite the disaster that the National League Central is, but it’s pretty close. Oakland might enter the season as the prohibitive favorite, but the A’s are likely to lose a number of key components to their reigning division title winner. The Los Angeles Angels have the stars in place but still haven’t cobbled together a rotation or bullpen of much substance and need a catcher. Seattle is at least a year away. Same with Texas. So an Astros team with that offense, a rotation with Zack Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr., Jose Urquidy and playoff breakout Framber Valdez. Yes, they need bullpen help badly, and losing out on Liam Hendriks and Blake Treinen left them scrambling, but the Astros very easily could find themselves back atop the division — or, because of the weakness in the West, in a wild-card spot.
Lee: There’s still the makings of a good team here. Given the dynamics of the COVID 2020 season, I tend toss a lot of the numbers of last season out the window because of their relative small sample size within the context of a baseball season, but it will certainly be interesting to see how Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman bounce back after putting up disappointing numbers last year. The lack of Verlander doesn’t hugely diminish the odds of this team being able to make a run to the playoffs given what looks like a wide-open AL West.
Olney: They will continue to compete, but without Verlander for most of the year, without Springer, it’ll get more and more difficult for them.
Gonzalez: They’ll be a slightly lesser version of what they were in 2020, which was a slightly lesser version of what they were in 2019, which, in the end, will probably mark the true end of this team’s dominant run. Cole is now elsewhere. Soon, Springer and Michael Brantley likely will be too. And a year from now, we might be saying the same thing about Correa, Verlander and Greinke. The development of their young pitchers and the reemergence of Yordan Alvarez might keep the Astros relevant through September this year, but it won’t be the same. Nowhere close.
Doolittle: The Astros need to add two starting outfielders, or bring back either or both of George Springer and/or Michael Brantley, but as things stand, Houston is the clear favorite in the AL West. Its margin of error is smaller with Justin Verlander on the shelf, Springer likely to land with another club and lackluster positional depth. But we saw in the 2020 postseason just how good the Astros still are and I expect them to back in the playoffs in 2021, trying to get Dusty Baker that first managerial World Series crown.
When fans return to ballparks, how will the Astros’ reception on the road compare to what it would have been in a normal 2020 season?
Olney: So long as there are core members from the 2017 team wearing Astros uniforms, fans of other teams are going to be on full blast when Houston goes on the road.
Social media responses gave a lot of insight into this reality during the 2020 season: Any time you posted a neutral note about one of those core Astros players, you’d trigger a tsunami of backlash, of words about cheaters and cheating. It’s never going to get easier for these guys, leading to the larger question of how they’ll cope with the jeers and the anger.
Lee: These Astros are not the same Astros, but I don’t think it will matter to many baseball fans. It’s going to take a long time for baseball fans, both the die-hard and casual, to associate this team with anything other than its cheating scandal.
Passan: It’s still going to be bad. Not as bad as it would’ve been in 2020, but a year of festering anger and resentment — and Altuve, Correa and Bregman remaining with the team — makes booing and jeering an inevitability, regardless of road venue. It’s likely to be focused far more on the faces of the scandal — those hitters who were around in 2017.
Schoenfield: As a kid growing up in Seattle and going to Mariners games in the Kingdome, there was nothing more fun than booing (and occasionally beating) the Yankees. Why? They were the Yankees; we didn’t need a reason. Well, fans have a reason to boo the Astros and they will not shy away from the opportunity.
Doolittle: There won’t be organized protests and events like there would have been last year, or not many of them anyway. AJ Hinch is in Detroit and will be booed for years to come when he appears on the field. Springer, Altuve, Correa, Bregman — all will face boos for the rest of their careers, and I’d expect the boos to be louder this year than they will be in seasons to come. I would be shocked if the general vitriol aimed at the Astros will be anything like what it would have been if the 2020 season had unfolded in a normal fashion. I mean, who boos Dusty Baker?
How much has the Astros’ scandal changed the sport?
Passan: In the same way PEDs did: not very much. The behaviors that led the Astros to the scheme — a deep and unrelenting desire to win; moral flexibility; professional ingenuity — can’t be eradicated. The people who executed it or didn’t stop it are almost all back. AJ Hinch and Alex Cora are managing again. Springer is about to sign a mega-contract this year and Correa next. Jim Crane still owns, and is very hands on in running, the Astros. Rob Manfred is commissioner. The only people missing are GM Jeff Luhnow and assistant GM Brandon Taubman, and that’s due as much to personal feelings about each as it is their ties to the scandal.
Perhaps the most demonstrable change is the rift between fans and the sport they love. It’s not that they fundamentally dislike baseball. That’s a hard thing to do. It’s baseball. They’re simply frustrated by the fact that a World Series was won by a team that throughout the year used such egregious cheating methods and that it was allowed to stand with what amounted to a slap on the wrist.
Schoenfield: The history of baseball is the history of players trying to get an edge — legally or illegally, whether it’s stealing signals, corking bats, doctoring the baseball and even, in the early days, tripping runners as they ran the bases. This scandal isn’t going to stop that (just look at the current controversy surrounding pitchers using sticky concoctions to improve their grip, even though it is technically against the rules).
MLB banned all in-game video in 2020, although that was due to COVID, not the Astros’ cheating scandal. While some players blamed their struggles in 2020 on lack of that in-game video, I would love to see MLB permanently ban it, which would make stealing signs more difficult. Leave the technology to pregame study. Play the game like it’s played in little league or high school.
Lee: I smirked at some of the over-the-top reaction from some of the players and teams around the league when the Astros were caught cheating when it’s widely known around the league that using video to steal signs was not an uncommon practice. We see some sort of cheating nearly every day at the ballpark by just staring at the mound and watching pitcher after pitcher using some sort of sticky substance on a glove or hat to up the spin rate of his pitches, something many around the league acknowledge as a widespread practice.
The influx of new technology has shown how much spin rate can affect a game on a pitch-by-pitch basis, and I’m not sure it’s possible to quantify the cumulative effect over the course of a season of a team stealing signs or pitchers increasing their frame rate. I personally believe MLB should better regulate the use of video during games, but I also believe that we should stop kidding ourselves and just legalize the use of approved sticky substances for pitchers if people around the game are just going to accept its use.
Olney: There is finally a general recognition of the rules about using electronics for sign-stealing among players and staffers, having seen through videotape how the Astros benefited — and this could’ve been the case dating back to September of 2017, if commissioner Rob Manfred had come down hard with sanctions and enhanced rules after the Red Sox’s Apple Watch situation.
The greatest practical impact is how hitters no longer have access to video. At a time when the constant use of in-game video to review swings and opposing pitchers has become part of the process, for some hitters, this is a paralyzing change.
Gonzalez: Like Dave said — it remains to be seen because we haven’t had a traditional season since the scandal. The banning of in-game video was framed as a health-and-safety issue to keep players in the dugout and prevent them from crowding together indoors. I don’t think banning the use of in-game video — and, thus, suppressing technology, which has become so crucial to the way a modern player prepares and functions — is the long-term answer. There are ways to allocate more resources to policing its use without severely punishing innocent players who rely so heavily on it. We want players to be the best versions of themselves. Diminishing that because MLB didn’t react firmly enough in the first place would be wrong.
Doolittle: There’s an age-old criticism of scientific-based innovation that goes something like this: We get so wrapped up in proving that we CAN do something, that we sometimes forget to ask if we SHOULD.
Baseball has been racing headlong into a technological revolution for most of this century, and in many ways, we’re just starting to come to grips with some of the unintended consequences of these new tools. The boundary between competition and sportsmanship has always been more blurry in baseball than the sport cares to admit, but there are boundaries. The Astros’ scandal brought front and center just what some of those boundaries are, or at least what the fans want them to be. At the end of the day, that’s what matters: the confidence that the fans of the sport have in what they are watching.
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The 2016 AL Rookie of the Year went 0-2 with an 8.78 ERA in 10 starts last season after missing all of 2019 because of Tommy John surgery. He earned $1,037,037 in prorated pay from a $2.8 million salary.
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Carlos Carrasco says New York Mets are primed for postseason, World Series
NEW YORK — Carlos Carrasco got a welcome call from new Mets owner Steven Cohen.
“He was so excited. He can’t wait to meet me. I can’t wait to meet him, too,” the pitcher said Tuesday. “The way he talked, the way he said everything is — he looked like a really nice guy.”
New York has bulked up since Cohen completed his $2.4 billion purchase of New York from the Wilpon and Katz families on Nov. 6. Carrasco is expecting a postseason contender.
“I’m so happy right now. I wish spring training started next week, to meet everyone and start wearing this jersey,” Carrasco said during a news conference. “It’s something really important for me, just wearing this jersey right now.”
Carrasco and All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor were acquired from Cleveland last week for infielders Andrés Giménez and Amed Rosario plus a pair of minor league prospects: right-hander Josh Wolf and outfielder Isaiah Greene.
A right-hander who turns 34 in March, Carrasco missed three months of the 2019 season while fighting leukemia. He pitched through the coronavirus pandemic, going 3-4 in 12 starts with a 2.91 ERA, his best since a career-best 2.55 ERA when he split 2014 between Cleveland’s rotation and bullpen.
“The first time that I found out that I had leukemia, I just think about it for 10 seconds, the worst thing,” he recalled. “But after that, I just always had my wife on my side and she told me, ‘You’re going to be fine. From day one to even now this morning, your fine, you don’t have anything.′ And that’s what I needed to hear.”
A positive thinker, Carrasco said that has been a key to his return to health.
“Just given to the simple, of just being strong,” he said. “I never feel down. I always think about it a different way. I have kids. I have a wife. My parents, friends, I don’t want them to see me sad. I always be strong and that’s what I’ve been feeling right now. I’m feeling really strong about that.”
Carrasco joins two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman in the rotation, which also may include from among David Peterson, Steven Matz and Seth Lugo. Noah Syndergaard is likely to return from Tommy John surgery at some point from June until the season’s end.
After going 88-73 with a 3.73 ERA over 11 seasons with the Indians, joins a team seeking its first World Series title since 1986, one that feels it is positioned to contend around its pitching and a core offensive group that includes Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto.
Carrasco will keep his No. 59 in New York and Lindor his No. 12. Winner of Major League Baseball’s 2019 Roberto Clemente Award for best exemplifying baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the contribution to his team, Carrasco is looking forward to starting community work in the New York area.
New York’s offseason has included Stroman accepting an $18.9 million qualifying offer and deals for right-handed reliever Trevor May ($15.5 million for two-years), catcher James McCann ($40.6 million for four years) and Syndergaard ($9.7 million for one season).
“The potential is to make it to the playoffs and to the World Series, too,” Carrasco said. “We have a really good team. Adding myself, Lindor is going to be really, really good, really nice. We have really good players, starting pitchers, relievers, I think we’re going to be fine.”
Pitcher Corey Kluber hopes bullpen session shows he’s healthy after 2 lost seasons
Free agent Corey Kluber is out to prove he’s healthy, as the right-hander prepares for a bullpen session in front of major league teams on Wednesday in Florida. The two time Cy Young winner has pitched in just eight games over the last two seasons but says his injuries are a thing of the past.
“I don’t have a mindset that I need to prove myself to anyone, so to speak,” the 34 year-old said in a phone interview recently. “I just need to show people that I’m healthy. I’m not putting pressure on myself to go out there and do X, Y and Z. It’s just about showing teams I’m progressing through a normal offseason.”
The 25-30 pitch tryout in front of scouts from about two thirds of MLB teams is necessary for Kluber after three separate injuries helped sideline him over the past two years. He fractured his arm after getting hit by a line drive in a game early in 2019, then was shut down during his rehab due to an abdominal injury. The latest ailment may have been the most frustrating, as Kluber missed all but one inning for the Texas Rangers in 2020 after experiencing a muscle issue in the back of his throwing shoulder. His season ended just as baseball was returning.
“Jumping from intra-squad to a game that matters, probably had something to do with it,” Kluber said.
It was a classic pandemic-related injury. Kluber lives in Massachusetts, so when spring training was halted in mid-March, he wasn’t exactly sure how to continue his preparation. Throwing against a fence — which is how Kluber kept up his arm strength at first — isn’t exactly the ideal way to stay ready. Like all players, his normal routine came to a halt.
“I don’t think anyone was really prepared to figure out how to train in that environment,” Kluber stated. “Now, having gone through it, I think I have a better idea of how to get the work you need in. It helps to have Eric’s place in Massachusetts and in Florida.”
Eric is Eric Cressey, pitching guru to a handful of major league baseball players. But his training facility in Massachusetts was closed early on in the pandemic. It’s why heading to Florida, where there are fewer restrictions, has been helpful for Kluber and other pitchers. Cressey’s Florida facility will be where Kluber’s bullpen session for scouts will take place.
“No one had a lot of access to sports medicine resources or hands-on manual therapy or gyms and stuff,” Cressey said of the shutdown. “Had this been a longer season he could have come back if the Rangers had been in the mix.”
Kluber added: “If we had done this (the tryout) in a state like Massachusetts, where I live, it probably would have been more difficult.”
Kluber was already trying to find his best form after the injuries in 2019. Even before the broken arm, his delivery was off, leading to some struggles and a higher than usual ERA (5.80) that season, even though it was compiled in only seven starts. It’s why he was excited for 2020 despite the awkward training routine during the shutdown.
“My low moment was after that first inning in Texas just because I had spent over a year working my butt off to get to that point,” he said. “One of the things I wanted to make sure that I did while I was hurt (in 2019) was piece together that puzzle and what had gone sideways and how do I get on track. And I think we did that.”
The form he showed for that half decade run, when he won two Cy Young Awards, was as good as anyone in the game. According to ESPN Stats and Information, from 2014 to 2018 Kluber struck out 10 or more in 44 games, second in the AL to Chris Sale. Opponents chased his pitches outside the strike zone at a 33% clip, third in baseball. He also threw the fourth-most pitches in the game over that timeframe.
“In the spring of 2020 I got a text from Corey saying he felt like, in the first time in years, he could do whatever he wanted to do with the baseball,” Cressey said. “He had some subtle things he needed to be addressed. And he did.”
But Kluber never got a chance to showcase it in a big league game. Rangers general manager Jon Daniels was as surprised as anyone when Kluber went down in his first outing for them after coming over from Cleveland before the 2020 season.
“I felt like he was in a really, really good spot, had had really no physical issues at all,” Daniels told the Associated Press and other reporters when Kluber was injured in July. “Really no indication that this was coming. He was throwing the ball really well.”
And so Wednesday is his next step in his comeback. In his last bullpen session over the weekend, he was sitting between 87-89 mph, right where Cressey thinks he should be at this point in his comeback.
“You don’t need to see Corey Kluber go out and throw 95 in the bullpen to know he’s back,” Cressey said. “He’s ahead of everyone else.”
One executive, whose team won’t be in Florida to watch Kluber, calls him the classic “buy low” candidate.
“He might be a middle of the rotation guy to start the season but you’re getting a two-time Cy Young winner,” the executive said. “By the end of the year, he could be leading your staff.”
Kluber actually thinks he’s stronger in certain areas after all the rehab while the rest of his body isn’t worn down after two seasons of fluky injuries.
“I didn’t have to spend the first month of the offseason piecing things back together,” Kluber stated. “But I tried the whole silver lining approach last year. I think I’ve stopped questioning why after this latest one. It is what it is.”
That’s been the prevailing thought from many players during the past 10 months. For those on a long term contract, it’s less of an issue. For those coming back from injury, like Kluber, while also searching for a team to play for, it hasn’t been the easiest of situations to navigate. Kluber admitted he has had moments when he wondered, “What if the pandemic never happened?”
“I spent more time dwelling on it than I should have,” he said. “What could I have done differently? It’s not going to do me any good to keep thinking, ‘What if?’ I did as much as possible. I don’t think I lacked any preparation in summer camp … I’m in a spot now where I can contribute to a team that’s looking to compete.”
As for Wednesday, Kluber isn’t putting more pressure on himself than he needs to. This isn’t a minor leaguer looking for a spring invite. This is a player with a decorated track record.
“I’m confident in throwing whatever pitches and not holding back,” he stated. “No hesitancy in going after it. That’s the goal more than showing I’m Corey Kluber from whatever year.”
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