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Astros manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow suspended for 2020 for sign stealing, then fired by owner

Newsday's David Lennon recapped the punishments handed down by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to the Houston Astros on Jan. 13, 2020. (Credit: Newsday / David Lennon; Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara, J. Conrad Williams Jr.; AP Photo/Gregory Bull, Eric Gay, David J. Phillip, Patrick Semansky, Matt Slocum, Pat Sullivan, David Zalubowski)

Citing “a failure by the leaders of the baseball operations department” and manager “to adequately manage the employees under their supervision,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred dropped the hammer on the Astros on Monday afternoon.

As a result of a sign-stealing scandal that came to light earlier this offseason, he suspended general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch without pay for one season, among other disciplinary measures levied against the franchise.

Astros owner Jim Crane, who was not personally disciplined by MLB, announced during a news conference later in the day that he had fired Luhnow and Hinch.

“We want to be known as playing by the rules. We broke the rules,” Crane said. “I have higher standards for the city and the franchise, and I am going above and beyond MLB’s penalty.”

The investigation was launched in November after a story in The Athletic that included quotes from former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers and alleged various illegal methods of sign-stealing throughout the 2017 season. The nine-page release sent out by MLB said Crane had no knowledge of the violations of rules by his team.

In addition to the suspensions, the Astros — who won the World Series in 2017, lost to Boston in the 2018 American League Championship Series and lost to the Nationals in the 2019 World Series — were fined $5 million (the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution) and docked first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was the Astros’ bench coach in 2017, is mentioned throughout the report because of his prominent role in the sign-stealing, which the league described as “player-driven” with the exception of Cora. He is expected to face significant discipline from MLB as well.

New Mets manager Carlos Beltran, a well-respected veteran player on the 2017 Astros, was mentioned in the report but is not expected to be disciplined, nor will any of the other players who were involved.

“I will not assess discipline against individual Astros players,” Manfred said in the report of the investigation, which relied on interviews with 68 witnesses, including 23 current and former Astros players. “I made the decision in September 2017 that I would hold a Club’s General Manager and Field Manager accountable for misconduct of this kind, and I will not depart from that decision.”

Luhnow released a statement through his attorney to the Houston Chronicle.

“I am not a cheater,” he said. “Anybody who has worked closely with me during my 32-year career inside and outside baseball can attest to my integrity. I did not know rules were being broken.”

In a statement released to media outlets, Hinch said, “While the evidence consistently showed that I didn’t endorse or participate in the sign- stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.”

As Manfred alluded, the severity of Monday’s discipline can be traced to September 2017, when MLB fined the Red Sox for illegally “sending electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout” that season. The Yankees filed a complaint with MLB in 2017 against the Red Sox, managed then by John Farrell, for illegally stealing signs with the use of an Apple Watch.

In announcing an undisclosed fine against the Red Sox that September, Manfred issued a warning. As a result of the same investigation, the Yankees were fined a smaller, undisclosed amount for the improper use of a dugout phone in 2016.

“All 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks,” Manfred said then.

And the Astros’ violations, in Manfred’s eyes, necessitated serious sanctions.

According to the investigation, “a group of players, including Beltran, discussed that the team could improve on decoding opposing teams’ signs and communicating the signs to the batter. Cora arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the centerfield camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout.”

Then, “one or more players watched the live feed” from the camera and, “after decoding the sign, a player would bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter.”

Players “initially experimented with communicating sign information by clapping, whistling, or yelling, but they eventually determined that banging a trash can was the preferred method of communication,” the report said.

The Yankees, who suffered a seven-game loss to the Astros in the 2017 ALCS, with each team winning all of its home games, declined to comment Monday, as did GM Brian Cashman.  But he seemed to speak through clenched teeth during November’s GM meetings when The Athletic story came out.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as technology,” Cashman said. “That’s one component of many. But it comes down to following the rules or not.”

The sign-stealing scandal wasn’t the only topic related to the Astros in the MLB report. Former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman, who was suspended through the World Series for inappropriate behavior toward three female reporters during a clubhouse celebration after the Yankees were eliminated in the ALCS, was placed on the permanently ineligible list by Manfred.

Manfred said Taubman, who eventually was fired by the Astros, can apply for reinstatement after the completion of the 2020 World Series.

THE PUNISHMENT

n Jeff Luhnow, president of baseball ops and GM, and manager AJ Hinch suspended one year without pay.*

n Astros fined $5 million.

n Astros forfeit first- and second-round selections in the 2020 and 2021 amateur drafts.

*Luhnow and Hinch were subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.

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