Finally, it is time for the Astros to take the field again after months of questions and admissions regarding electronic spying that took place (for now) in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Pitchers and catchers report today in West Palm Beach, FL, a place they share with the World Champion Washington Nationals. Position players are due on the 16th.
Beltran: Leadership turned rancid
(c) Houston Astros
For a team that won the American League title last year, smiles and laughter could be in short supply and contrition, even from those who weren't there, will be expected from most or all the players.
As I've stated before, the Astros have already been punished to a greater extent than any team in baseball history. A manager and general manager were fired, four draft choices were stripped and the maximum fine ($5 million) applied. Unfortunately, it's the teams of the biggest media centers that are insisting more blood be spilt.
As it now appears, the Astros had an intern develop a program in 2016 known as Codebreaker where opposing catcher signs were manually inputted along with the pitch result into a spreadsheet that was then fed into an algorithm that could then predict what the signs meant. I would argue that, by itself, this is no different than advanced scouting. Isn't most of today's analytics converting past data into predicting future results? Pitchers and catchers for decades compiled notes on opponents to review when those players came to town.
However, this data was then used to monitor video feeds and relay to the batters as a means to suggest what pitch was coming next. Commissioner Rob Manfred sent out a stern warning in September, 2017, that such "spying" was not to be used.
Apparently, several teams suspected not just the Astros but other teams and cried foul to MLB headquarters. The Astros weren't the only ones spying - they were just the most brazen. MLB turned a blind eye, just as they did with steroids, until the November report in The Athletic that named names, focusing on revelations from pitcher Mike Fiers.
MLB has yet to rule on a similar scandal involving the Boston Red Sox whose common link with Houston was Alex Cora, a bench coach with the Astros in 2017 before he took the job of manager of the Red Sox in 2018. Cora likely brought this new approach to his new team and won it all in his rookie year. Those demanding the 2017 championship should be vacated should insist on 2018's as well.
Despite his denials, it is hard to believe Astros GM Jeff Luhnow did not know what was going on. His department developed Codebreaker so how did this trickle down to the players without him knowing how it could be exploited?
I believe this was forced upon Manager A.J. Hinch from upstairs but Hinch resisted so they went through Cora instead. Veteran Carlos Beltran, brought in at 40 years old for senior leadership, also was a ringleader in implementing the system.
Twice, Hinch bashed the offending tv monitors in disgust but he has contritely admitted he "didn't do enough" to stop the spying. Two other veterans, pitcher Charlie Morton and catcher Brian McCann, asked Beltran to stop it but he ignored them.
Now caught (and some punished), the 2017 Astros are beginning to open up. Marwin Gonzalez, now with the Twins, expressed remorse but said there's nothing he can do now to change it. Joe Musgrove, now with the Pirates, commented that he believes MLB is sweeping more under the rug.
But the biggest mea culpa will be coming in the next ten days before the exhibition season begins and whatever the Astros say will look rehearsed and choreographed which won't placate the critics one iota. They'll just demand more blood.
My advice to the players - get it all out now because it won't go away until you do. There are strong forces expecting them to be quiet but confession is good for the soul and forgiveness is just around the corner.
The upcoming season of derision will be unfair to many of the Astros pitchers and newcomers such as Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker who were nowhere near the scene of the crime, however this is a team sport and some will have to undeservedly take abuse until the bile is fully vented.
New manager Crusty Dusty Baker (age 70) is here to lead this new era of Astros through the storm while trying to keep everyone focused on the task at hand which should be winning baseball games rather than crying over the past. Meanwhile, new GM James Click has to establish a rapport with other teams enough to fill roster gaps, some of which may be glaring once the season is underway.
There is a nuisance lawsuit afoot by former pitcher Mike Bolsinger who was dropped by the Blue Jays the day after the trashcan-banging Astros clobbered him in August, 2017. He had an ERA over six with the Dodgers in 2016 and was on the same track in 2017, having already been sent to the minors by Toronto twice that year. I contend major league teams don't drop players for one bad game unless there's bad behavior to go with it. Bolsinger is being represented by attorneys for Mark Geragos, the media-hungry Los Angeles lawyer who represented Michael Jackson, Colin Kaepernick and Scott Peterson. They are likely trolling for a fat settlement.
In other news, the Astros are expected to sign Cuban outfielder Pedro Leon (age 21) after the waiting period on him ends on July 2nd. The Astros were able to offer him international signing money left over from 2019 in order to outbid other clubs. Since the Astros won't have their own first and second-round picks in 2020 and 2021, this move will represent a chance for new top talent, as will the compensation pick received for losing Gerrit Cole to the Yankees.
As I type this, the Astros and owner Jim Crane are organizing how they will roll out their apology tour. This will be an odd training camp but it is good to get it started.
- Bob Hulsey