The grumbling around the game was thick after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred rendered discipline in the Houston Astros‘ sign-stealing case Monday, because while two individuals got hammered, the institution that stood to glean enormous benefit from the systemic illicit behavior was mostly left untouched, the players who participated left unscathed.
The Astros are still 2017 World Series champions, a title won with cheating. They still possess the financial benefit from their on-field success — the additional revenue pulled in during and after October runs, with the dollar magnets attached to ratings, sponsorships, memorabilia, swag and the consumer enthusiasm that spilled over into the following seasons.
The $5 million fine of the franchise, the most allowed under the rules, is inconsequential — and, as one staffer noted, more than offset by the salaries of manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow that won’t be paid. The loss of two draft picks in each of the next two years is mitigated by Houston’s stature in the standings: The Astros will pick near the back of each round. There is sentiment in the sport that the commissioner should’ve taken at least one more step to affect the Astros’ ability to compete and stripped Houston’s spending power in the upcoming international signing market. Even after the loss of Hinch, the Astros will move ahead as favorites to win the AL West again.
In the minds of a lot of peers around the sport, that’s not enough to offset the damage they caused with their cheating. Here’s a partial list of the scarring, and those scarred.
1. The credibility of recent baseball history. As players from the ’90s know, a lot of the accomplishments from that time are met with eye rolls from many fans, because no one has defined — nor will ever define — how the saturation of performance-enhancing drugs impacted the game. All records from that time are lumped together in conversation, as if the whole sport was dirty. The integrity of that era is forever compromised.
The Astros’ cheating will have the same effect on moments in recent years: The Houston championship of ’17, with the comeback against the Yankees and the thrilling seven-game series against the Dodgers, will never be discussed without the qualification that the team was cheating and that the players had an illicit advantage. The other day, when we posted a ranking of the top 10 second basemen in baseball and Jose Altuve was ranked second, the social media responses were immediate, just as they were for Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and others: But he’s a cheater.
2. Individual opponents. Aaron Judge finished second to Altuve in the 2017 MVP balloting, and we’ll never know how the cheating affected that. Judge cannot recoup that opportunity, or the financial benefit he might’ve gotten from winning an MVP in his rookie season. Clayton Kershaw gave up a big lead in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series in Houston — if the Dodgers had won that day, if they had won the World Series, Kershaw’s postseason record and legacy would be completely different. How about all of the pitchers Houston pounded that summer with aid from the sign stealing — what did each of those players lose, in evaluation, in opportunity? We’ll never know.
How about Dave Roberts, the Dodgers’ manager? The criticism of his postseason decisions is piled against him largely because the team hasn’t won a World Series despite repeated attempts, and it turns out the deck was stacked against him.
What about Joe Girardi? The Yankees moved on from him for reasons other than the Yankees’ loss in the 2017 AL Championship Series, but if New York had beaten the Astros and won the World Series, would owner Hal Steinbrenner have been moved to keep a manager who had just clinched a title? It’s possible.
What about other unknown jobs and opportunities lost because of the perception that the Astros were the standard everyone else had to try to meet?
3. Mike Fiers. Other players have privately complained about his decision to speak to The Athletic about the Astros’ sign stealing and his criticism of the cheating. Maybe those unhappy teammates should consider the issue from his perspective. Their decision to break established rules put him and other players who wanted nothing to do with the sign stealing in a terrible position of either going along with the cheating, effectively condoning it — which is why Hinch was suspended — or speaking out against it. For the rest of Fiers’ career, he’ll have to deal with the whispers from some peers angrily complaining about him, when what they should do is reach out to apologize to him for how they compromised his experience.
You could say the same for the other players on the ’17 Astros who might not have shared in the sign stealing. Even if he had no involvement, Justin Verlander‘s one championship in a Hall of Fame career will be forever tarnished.
4. The fans. Forget for a moment the whole issue of squandered cost, of dollars and time spent. How about how the sign-stealing scandal rattles and wrecks the perception of fans, young or old, about what they saw and what they experienced?
Maybe this was inevitable with the Astros, who had worked right to the edge of competitive propriety since Luhnow took over as general manager. Plenty of teams had tanked before, but no club tanked quite like Houston did in Luhnow’s first years, stripping the payroll to the bone, not even pretending to care about presenting a major league product. Houston finished the 2013 season with just one player making as much as $1 million, and the Astros became the first team since the 1962-65 Mets to lose at least 106 games in three consecutive seasons. This is how the Astros got Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and others.
In the midst of the sign-stealing paranoia of 2018 — largely caused by the Astros — no team placed club employees right next to the opposing dugout, in violation of MLB rules, except for the Astros. Which Luhnow acknowledged, brazenly suggesting his team was playing defense rather than offense.
When the Blue Jays worked to trade closer Roberto Osuna after his suspension under the domestic violence policy, all teams passed other than the Astros. Other teams were appalled by Osuna’s case. Not the Astros. What did former Houston assistant GM Brandon Taubman pointedly yell during the champagne celebration? “Thank god we got Osuna!”
Even in the hypercompetitive world that is professional sports, the Astros were willing to be different, sometimes at the direct expense of professional colleagues inside and outside their sphere. As a result …
5. The Astros and their future. They will be unintended victims of their own crime, unanticipated collateral damage. Because every movement across a visiting ballpark will feel a little like a perp walk, with fans justifiably yelling harsh truth at them. After they won the 2017 World Series, the conversation about the athletic, dynamic Astros was about whether they should be ranked among the greatest teams ever. Now they are on the short list of baseball infamy.
Source — Ryan Zimmerman agrees to 1-year deal with Nationals
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.
Reports — Ryan Zimmerman agrees to 1-year deal with Nationals
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.
Athletics’ Mike Fiers declines to discuss whistleblower role
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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