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MLB hits Astros with huge penalties, Houston fires Hinch, Luhnow — Answering all the questions

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Major League Baseball announced punishment for the Houston Astros, including one-year suspensions for GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, loss of draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and a $5 million fine, after an MLB investigation found the team used technology to cheat during its World Series-winning 2017 season. Luhnow and Hinch were subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.

ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle, Jeff Passan and David Schoenfield break down the penalties, what they mean for the Astros and what impact Monday’s punishment could have across the sport.

Just how harsh is this punishment compared with what was expected?

There was an awfully large range in the speculation, but unless you felt Jeff Luhnow and/or AJ Hinch might be subject to a permanent ban, the penalties are borderline shocking. That’s true even when you factor in that part of Rob Manfred’s thinking was related to the Brandon Taubman incident. A suspension of several weeks seemed likely, but a full year for the two most important members of a team’s baseball operations group is stunning, almost unprecedented. (Leo Durocher, when he was a manager, was suspended for a year, but there was a gambling element to his situation.) You had to expect a loss of draft picks, but the top two picks for two years is stunning. The $5 million fine seems inconsequential by comparison to those penalties. It’s clear Rob Manfred wanted to send a clear message to teams and fans alike. He has certainly done so. For that matter, so did Astros owner Jim Crane, who quickly moved to terminate Hinch and Luhnow. — Doolittle

I don’t think it’s shocking it all. To steal from the NCAA, you can call it a loss of institutional control, and Luhnow, Hinch and the organization had to pay a severe penalty — and Manfred certainly handed one down. For those arguing that using technology to steal signs is going on throughout the sport and that the Astros don’t deserve to be punished for what everyone else also might be doing, I disagree. The Astros got caught and got caught doing it in a year they won the World Series. This is exactly how you tell an entire sport to knock it off. You go after the big boys and send a strong message that this will not be tolerated. It’s time for baseball to return to a competition between players — not a competition between technology. — Schoenfield

Wait, the Astros just fired Luhnow and Hinch?

Yep. That happened. The Astros have widely been viewed as an organization where the bottom line is everything, which in part led into their recent scandals. Clearly, Crane is not happy with that perception. Whatever else you might think about Luhnow and Hinch, both are at the very top of their respective professions. Crane could have stated that the suspensions were adequate penalties and that the team would proceed with them both next season under a “no tolerance” policy about future embarrassments. He didn’t do that, and good for him. It couldn’t have been easy. His normally implacable demeanor seemed to waver a couple of times during his news conference. — Doolittle

What exactly does Hinch’s suspension mean?

Hinch won’t be running a team this year, and going forward he won’t be running the Astros, since Crane made the decision to fire him. Because Manfred did not implicate Hinch as an instigator of the schemes, the suspension shouldn’t make other teams shy away from hiring him. He’s respected in the game and will be a heck of managerial free agent. MLB’s statement laid out exactly this: “A.J. Hinch shall be suspended without pay for the period beginning on January 13, 2020 and ending on the day following the completion of the 2020 World Series.

“During the period of his suspension, Hinch is prohibited from performing any services for or conducting any business on behalf of the Astros or any other Major League Club. Hinch must not be present in any Major League, Minor League, or Spring Training facilities, including stadiums, and he may not travel with or on behalf of the Club. If Hinch is found to engage in any future material violations of the Major League Rules, he will be placed on the permanently ineligible list.” — Doolittle.

How much impact will this punishment have on the Astros on the field?

The Astros have a lot of work left to do this offseason after sitting out the free-agent market this winter, and now they will do so without Luhnow calling the shots. However, the Astros, perhaps as much as any club in baseball, are a process-oriented organization without an overwhelming top-down dynamic. In other words, given Houston was already unlikely to make any additional large monetary investments in its 2020 club, the Astros should be able to muddle through from a roster-building standpoint. The Astros have turned out a number of general manager candidates during Luhnow’s tenure, including Baltimore’s Mike Elias, so there ought to be qualified candidates in the organization. (Though Crane might want a new voice to head up the operation after this.)

As for losing Hinch, it won’t help. He’s largely thought of as one of baseball’s best managers, from a tactical and a clubhouse standpoint. (Although these penalties don’t speak well to the latter trait.) Still, let’s not forget that bench coach Joe Espada (who will now presumably run the dugout, though Crane didn’t commit to that in his news conference Monday) is highly respected and was already viewed as one of baseball’s top managerial prospects. Now, he’ll get a chance to show his stuff. As for a group of players that is all at once among baseball’s most talented, accomplished and cocksure, this has to be humbling. Manfred made it very apparent that the scandal started with the players, who aren’t being punished. They have a lot to prove and a lot to make up for in terms of their relationships with their manager and their general manager. — Doolittle

What about Alex Cora, will he be punished later?

Yes. Without a doubt. Manfred wrote that he “will withhold determining the appropriate level of discipline for Cora until after the DOI completes its investigation of the allegations that the Red Sox engaged in impermissible electronic sign stealing in 2018 while Cora was the manager.” But this was after he went into extensive detail about Cora’s central role in executing the Astros’ scheme as Hinch’s bench coach. He’ll get hit and hit hard. Given the gravity of Monday’s announcement, it wouldn’t be shocking if Cora joined Hinch on the sideline for the entirety of the 2020 season. — Doolittle

What’s different about the Astros and the Red Sox?

Based on what’s been reported, the allegations about the Red Sox are on a somewhat different level than those regarding the Astros. While the Red Sox supposedly used video to decode opponents’ sign sequences and passed the information along to their players, they did not go the additional step of using some means of communicating this knowledge — such as the Astros’ infamous trash-can banging — to players at the plate from the dugout in most situations. They needed to get a runner to second base to see the sequences and signal them to whoever was at the plate. Still, the allegations against the Red Sox refer to activity during the team’s championship 2018 season, which was after MLB issued clarified rules expressly banning the use of replay rooms for this purpose. — Doolittle

We keep hearing some variation of “everyone does this,” but is that really true?

To think this kind of behavior was limited to one or two teams would be to deny the realities about human behavior in hypercompetitive environments with massive economic stakes in play, especially where policy loopholes and gray areas exist, as they did until very recently. Every team certainly steals signs, as teams always have. Where they draw the line in terms of the kinds of mechanisms they use to do so probably varies from team to team. However, MLB tried to draw distinct lines with policies it has written over the past couple of years, and the alleged behavior of the Astros and Red Sox would certainly cross those lines. We’ll have to rely on MLB investigators to tell us just how widespread this issue actually is and has been. However, it would be surprising or even shocking to find out that the problem was limited to a small minority of teams. — Doolittle

So, is stealing signs against the rules or not?

That’s where things get complicated. The old-fashioned way is not against the rules. In the wake of the Red Sox incident from 2017 and accusations from the 2018 playoffs, when the Indians and Red Sox both discovered an unofficial employee of the Astros pointing a cellphone camera toward the Cleveland and Boston dugouts, MLB instituted new guidelines in 2019 regarding electronic sign stealing. (The Astros claimed the employee in 2018 was deployed in a preventative measure, although Luhnow admitted “it made us look guilty.”

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Source — Ryan Zimmerman agrees to 1-year deal with Nationals

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The Washington Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman have agreed to terms on a $2 million contract for 2020 that includes the possibility of earning $3 million more in incentives, a source confirmed to ESPN’s Jeff Passan on Friday.

The agreement was first reported by The Washington Post.

When Zimmerman, 35, became a free agent, he figured he either would be back with the Nationals — or out of baseball.

“I think I’ve made my intentions pretty clear,” Zimmerman said in December. “It’s either play some more here or play more golf.”

He was the first player drafted by the Nationals in 2005 after the club moved from Montreal to Washington, and he has played in every one of their 15 seasons. He holds franchise career records for hits, doubles, total bases, homers and RBI.

Zimmerman was around for the consecutive 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009, the frequent trips to — and early exits from — the playoffs from 2012 to 2017, and, of course, the World Series championship last year.

Injuries limited him to 52 games and a .257 average with six homers and 27 RBIs in 2019, although he was a key contributor in the postseason. He is expected to share time at first base in 2020 with newcomer Eric Thames and holdover Howie Kendrick.

“He’s the classiest big leaguer I’ve ever been around. He’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. The guy’s been through some trials and tribulations. We all forget about the first six, seven years, when he played 160 games every year. I saw needles in his shoulder. I saw him play when he probably shouldn’t have played earlier in his career,” general manager Mike Rizzo said late last season. “That’s the kind of man he is and the kind of player he is. You see when he’s a healthy player, he’s a pretty damn good one still.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Reports — Ryan Zimmerman agrees to 1-year deal with Nationals

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First baseman Ryan Zimmerman, considered by many the heart and soul of the Washington Nationals, has agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract to return for a 16th season according to multiple reports.

The deal, first reported by the Washington Post, could max out at $5 million if Zimmerman, 35, reaches all of the performance bonuses for games played and plate appearances, according to the Post.

Zimmerman was the first draft pick in Nationals history after the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington in 2005. He made his debut with the team late that season and has been a fixture ever since, hitting .279 with 270 homers and 1,015 RBIs. Zimmerman played in just 52 games in 2019, when he dealt with a foot injury, hitting .257 with six homers and 27 RBIs.

Zimmerman was a fixture at first base this past postseason as the Nationals won their first World Series title. He homered in the NLDS and also had the first World Series homer in team history when he took Houston’s Gerrit Cole deep in Game 1.

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Athletics’ Mike Fiers declines to discuss whistleblower role

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers didn’t have any more to say regarding his role as a whistleblower.

Fiers declined Friday to answer questions about revealing the sign-stealing scandal that has engulfed Major League Baseball, instead saying he simply wanted to focus on the future. He spoke a day ahead of an A’s fan event, his first public appearance since divulging that the Houston Astros used electronics to illicitly steal signs from opposing catchers in 2017.

“I don’t want this to be a distraction to them, I want them to be ready for the season,” Fiers said. “For me it’s all about getting ready for the season, playing baseball and not being a distraction to this team.”

Fiers said he would take “baseball questions.” As for the cheating scam and its aftermath, “I’m not talking about that right now,” he said.

“We’re moving forward,” he reiterated several times without saying whether he expected to face scrutiny with his decision to disclose the Astros’ cheating.

Fiers told The Athletic in a story published in November that his former club had used a camera in center field to steal signs on the way to winning the 2017 World Series championship.

His current manager and teammates were quick to applaud him for what he did.

“A lot was reported to the league, but it’s tough to get something done unless a player that was there comes out and says something. It wasn’t going to go down any other way,” manager Bob Melvin said. “And this is significant enough that it needed to be addressed. And as time goes on, he’ll be revered for doing this, for making the game a better place.”

“You’re seeing more sentiment come his way right now, as it should, because there’s no place for this in baseball. This crosses a serious line. It needed to happen and MLB did what they should have done with it. And hopefully we’re past this because it’s an ugly black mark on the game,” he said.

Fiers’ disclosure of Houston’s elaborate scheme led to the seasonlong suspensions by MLB and ensuing firings of Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch. Alex Cora was dismissed by the Boston Red Sox after commissioner Rob Manfred identified him as “an active participant” in the cheating scandal when he was Astros bench coach. Cora led Boston to a title the following year, in 2018.

The Mets also parted ways with manager Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017. Hired this offseason, Beltran was let go before ever managing a game for New York.

That means Fiers took out three managers — 10% of the majors — with one set of comments.

“There’s a lot that goes into that decision, it’s not just a purely spiteful or anything like that about making someone else pay,” Oakland closer Liam Hendriks said. “It was about saving people’s careers. It was about rectifying for those people whose careers that have been lost because of something like this.”

“But it shows a lot of courage to be able to come up and say what he said knowing the backlash, knowing the repercussions of his actions. Talking to him, he is completely sound of mind with his decision, he is happy with the decision, and regardless of how certain people have been viewing him and been talking about him, he is happy with what’s come from it,” he said.

Fiers, 34, spent part of the 2015 season and all of 2016 and ’17 playing for the Astros.

Fiers pitched the most innings for the Astros in 2017, but was left off the postseason roster after compiling a 5.22 ERA. He signed with Detroit as a free agent the following offseason.

He is back in the American League West and set to begin the second season of a two-year contract worth more than $14 million that he signed with Oakland in December 2018 that pays him $8.1 million this season.

The low-budget A’s finished second in the division to Houston each of the past two seasons, winning 97 games in consecutive years.

“Clearly MLB’s drawing the line,” A’s general manager David Forst said, noting he isn’t wondering where Oakland might have been in the standings. “I don’t think about it that way. It’s not for us to look back and say, ‘What if?”

Houston, which won a majors-best 107 games last year, plays its first regular-season road series at the Oakland Coliseum beginning March 30. Fiers won’t have to bat against Houston, so it’s unclear what kind of response he will receive from around the majors.

When asked if he would handle the situation the same way again, Fiers again turned toward baseball.

“I just want to focus on this team and not the past,” Fiers said.

White Sox left-hander Dallas Keuchel on Friday became the first member of the ’17 Astros to publicly apologize for the team’s sign-stealing scheme.

Keuchel was at a Chicago fan event and was asked about Fiers. Keuchel called it a “tough subject” because players rarely tell secrets outside the locker room.

“It sucks to the extent of the clubhouse rule was broken and that’s where I’ll go with that,” Keuchel said. “I don’t really have much else to say about Mike.”

Fiers has been one of the steadiest starters for the A’s, pitching his second career no-hitter on May 7 against the Reds and finishing the year a career-best 15-4 with a 3.90 ERA over 33 starts and his most innings yet at 184⅔.

“There’s a lot of people I don’t think would have had the courage to come out and say it until they maybe have been retired,” Hendriks said. “My hat’s off to him, he stood up tall and put the name behind the investigation that started this whole thing. We’re happy the game’s being cleaned up, and Mike Fiers is a big part of that.”

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