PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- In baseball, the only criminals are the players on the wrong side of the clubhouse door. The guys wearing the other uniform.
So it was not surprising Tuesday to hear Michael Conforto condemn the Astros for their illegal sign-stealing tactics yet in the same breath absolve two former members of that same Houston club just because they now share the correct blue-and-orange jersey. Those players, of course, are Jake Marisnick and J.D. Davis.
“They’re our guys now, and we’re moving forward,” Conforto said.
What choice does Conforto, and the Mets, really have in this situation? Despite spring training’s sunny promise of a fresh start, they’re stuck in the same ethical quagmire as many other teams currently housing former Astros of a certain vintage, 2017 and beyond.
And truth be told, it probably doesn’t bother them all that much. Just as the Astros as a whole practiced their illicit activities bound by baseball’s version of Omerta, the Mets, as well as other clubs, can forgive (or mostly just forget) as long as the production is there. Same with PEDs. You remember A-Rod, right?
The Mets traded for Marisnick, a glove-first centerfielder, even as the commissioner’s investigation into the Astros’ cheating scandal was very much ongoing. Davis shined last season as one of Brodie Van Wagenen’s best moves as rookie GM, hitting 22 homers, including 16 at Citi Field, where he had a 1.078 OPS.
As Conforto mentioned, both are supposed to be important pieces of a team that new manager Luis Rojas described as a “contender” during Tuesday’s first official spring-training presser. Based on the recent data collected from those ’17 Astros, however, it’s hard not to think of Marisnick and Davis as cheaters, a label that is bound to follow them in their travels outside of Flushing.
According to the exhaustive, trash-can banging video research done by an Astros fan named Tony Adams (and posted at signstealingscandal.com), Marisnick’s at-bats that season (he had 230, 107 at home) featured 83 “bangs” out of 364 pitches (22.8 percent) and Davis (62 at bats in 2017, 31 of them at home) was 14-for-49 (28.6) in that category. As we know from Rob Manfred’s report, those bangs were meant to relay illegally swiped signs to Houston’s hitters.
Manfred gave the Astros’ players amnesty in exchange for their testimony, but it cost four people their jobs: Houston GM Jeff Luhnow, along with managers AJ Hinch, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, whose tenure with the Mets lasted a total of 77 days.
Now that camps are open for spring training, it’s clear why Beltran had to go. The Astros question comes up every day, in every interview, at every ballpark, multiple times. And if Beltran remained as manager, that siege mentality could have been paralyzing to the Mets.
“It’s tough to not have the chance to play for [Beltran] and see what he had to offer,” Conforto said. “But the organization is going to do what’s best for us moving forward into the season. Obviously, there’s a line that definitely shouldn’t be crossed, and Carlos’ involvement with that, it is what it is. And I think it’s best that we just focused on us and this season and with Luis [Rojas] in that spot, we can just focus on playing baseball.”
After sacrificing Beltran, the Mets can shape the narrative however they want, and Conforto spun the story to his liking when it came to Marisnick and Davis.
“I don’t see any issues that are going to come up,” Conforto said. “Those guys are our guys. They were there. There’s no telling what exactly -- I mean, I guess there’s reports out there that say ‘total trash cans banged’ or whatever. I don’t know how reliable you can make that. We’ll leave the Astros and Red Sox to deal with that. But I don’t see us dwelling on that at all.”
At least not publicly. You could argue that Dellin Betances, the longtime Yankee, was twice cheated out of trips to the World Series by those Astros, and that sting doesn’t fade away so easily. Now two of them are his teammates, while Beltran -- a close friend and a reason for signing with the Mets -- lost his dream job.
“After hearing everything that happened, I think as a team we kind of knew there was stuff going on,” Betances said Tuesday. “It definitely sucks looking back on it. But if I spent too much on that I think it’s not fair to the guys I’m here with now.”
Marisnick and Davis will get the chance to answer for themselves soon enough. Position players aren’t required to report until this weekend, but Davis already is working out at Clover Park, and the Mets’ clubhouse opens for the first time Wednesday morning at 9:20 a.m.
“If I’m being completely honest, guys will talk about it, but there’s not going to be any animosity towards them,” Conforto said. “These things, when you’re in a team setting, any of these guys that are in here now, they’re our guys, and that’s the way winning teams are. We’re one group.”
The cheaters? They’re in Houston.