Two of the game's brightest minds, Alex Cora and AJ Hinch, are now unemployed, forced to confront the possibility that their suddenly tainted reputations might prevent them from ever managing again. Two of the sport's most dominant teams, the 2017 Houston Astros and the 2018 Boston Red Sox, now shoulder the reputation of cheaters, their illegal sign-stealing practices spoiling the memories of their greatness.
It has been an unimaginably dispiriting start to the 2020s for Major League Baseball, and this might only be the beginning.
The Astros have been hit with an array of penalties that include year-long suspensions for their two most important employees, the loss of four draft picks within the first two rounds and the largest allowable fine. But the Red Sox, who got out in front of looming punishment by firing Cora on Tuesday evening, are next. And other teams might eventually be incriminated in one of the biggest cheating scandals in sports history.
Many, as you might imagine, have thoughts. ESPN spoke to more than 15 executives, coaches, scouts and players about key topics surrounding the Astros' cheating scandal -- from the stiffness of the penalties to the perceptions of wrongdoing to potential ways to prevent it. Opinions were provided under the condition of anonymity because MLB asked its personnel not to comment.
The 2020 Astros were not hurt nearly enough
A longtime executive went through the penalties to illustrate how the Astros were not necessarily harmed in a big-picture sense.
• A $5 million fine? Chump change for a team that profited far more than that by winning the World Series, and something that probably pales in comparison to not having to pay Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow during their season-long suspensions.
• The loss of a first- and second-round pick in the 2020 and 2021 drafts? Successful teams pick later, which lessens the value of their picks, and they're constantly giving up future assets for immediate returns.
The longtime exec called those draft picks "a liquidated cost," and a veteran scout said the organization "should have been hammered" internationally -- an area where the Astros were not penalized whatsoever.
• The biggest blow, it seems, comes from the suspensions of Luhnow and Hinch, the two foundational pieces in the Astros' resurgence. Both were subsequently fired by owner Jim Crane, who must find a new GM and manager with only weeks remaining until spring training. But the Astros can simply replace them internally, with bench coach Joe Espada expected to be the new manager and assistant GM Pete Putila probably handling most of the baseball-operations work moving forward.
Firing Luhnow and Hinch grants the Astros "a clean slate," the executive said -- a benefit for Crane, given the fallout.
"In one sense, it was on the lighter side because the commish was clear and then they broke the rules some more," another executive told ESPN." So this was the least they could do. If this was isolated, maybe it's not so bad. But they were brazen in breaking the rules."
Isn't a tarnished reputation enough?
Doug Glanville explains that firing AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow was the best move for the Astros so they can set the tone for the organization going forward.
That's the question a longtime manager posed when asked if the penalties were enough to serve as a deterrent for other teams, making the point that Luhnow and Hinch could struggle to work in baseball again and might never hold such high-profile positions.
"At the end of the day," the source said, "all we have in this game is our reputation."
A front-office executive agreed, calling the punishments "stiff" while saying: "I would be surprised if anyone else would want to jeopardize their livelihoods and reputations."
But some players presented an interesting scenario: If you were to go back in time and tell Crane that he would win the World Series, but then have to suffer through the fallout of this scandal -- the fine, the loss of draft picks, the suspensions and subsequent firings of his two most important employees, the public smearing for unethical practices -- would he take that deal? The players, emphatically, believe that he would.
And that brings us to another point: The position players who used the system and potentially reaped the benefits were unharmed.
"It's hard for me not to look at my own numbers against them and be pissed," a retired major league pitcher said. "Everyone involved deserves to be seriously punished because it's wrong."
How can a player-driven scheme not punish any players?
This was definitely on the minds of executives and players alike. And for good reason. One player likened it to giving immunity to a burglar just so he can tell you how he broke into your house and stole your television.
"It makes zero sense," one rival player said.
But when pushed on how to dole out punishments, that same player was at a loss. Another player might have summed it up best.
"You can't punish a whole team," this pitcher said. "And some of those guys are not with the Astros anymore. It has to be the organization. Like in college football -- when there's misconduct, by the time it's found, most players and sometimes coaches are gone. The fans and the current players take the brunt of the punishment. Same here."
Executives were more concerned about the message it sends. Perhaps they're also concerned about their own fates being tied to the players.
"It doesn't seem like there are any consequences for players for doing this stuff, so as a result, why would they stop?" one executive asked. "I suppose if they see how much trouble they can get their manager in, then maybe that will matter."
One thing is for sure -- it's going to be a major topic this spring.
"Frankly, players have been aware for a while," another exec said. "But now that people have lost jobs, it will be addressed again with our team and I'm sure every other one in baseball starting next month."
What did opposing players know or suspect of the Astros cheating?
It was a pretty open secret among rival players that the Astros were stealing signs in some fashion, but no one ESPN spoke with knew to what extent they were doing it.
"I faced Carlos Beltran in 2017," one pitcher said. "I actually went back and looked at the AB. I knew it could be the last time I might pitch against him and I wanted to get him out. He was always such a hard out. I got ahead 0-2, then he laid off four straight pitches. I couldn't believe it. When I went back to watch it, I heard the banging. I just figured I was tipping or whatever. No one knew to what extent they were doing it, but we all suspected something."
Some players said suspicions about the Astros illegally stealing signs were a constant topic of conversation coming in and out of series in Houston dating as far back as 2016. Grievances were filed, one player said, and baseball did not act until the issue reached the public. But multiple pitchers also put the onus on themselves, assuming they were tipping their pitches or, at worst, the Astros had an elaborate -- but legal -- process of stealing and relaying signs. They definitely wondered how the Astros were winning the battle when the bases were open (meaning no runner on second base).
"MLB knew teams were up to something more than I think I even realize because why else would these employees be sitting with us monitoring all this stuff and then putting the clubhouse TVs on eight-second delays," one pitcher said. "That's where I figured the stealing was coming from. I guess I wasn't that far off. TVs were used."
2017 World Series, Game 4
A longtime scout cited Game 4 of the 2017 World Series from Minute Maid Park to prove a point about the Astros' sign-stealing chicanery. Dodgers starting pitcher Alex Wood performed well, giving up only one run and one hit over the course of 5⅔ innings -- but his process was telling.
That night, Wood and his catcher, Austin Barnes, switched their sequence every eight pitches or so out of paranoia that the Astros were stealing the signs, the scout said. Earlier this offseason, in the wake of Mike Fiers' public comments about the Astros' illegal sign-stealing, Wood told The Athletic that he had "heard whispers of some of the shady stuff they'd been doing" and thus accounted for them -- though he did not realize the extent of them.
The Astros went 8-1 at home while on their way to a championship that October, winning every postseason game except the one against Wood. The seven other starting pitchers who faced the Astros at Minute Maid Park that month -- names such as Chris Sale, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw -- gave up a combined 28 runs in 31⅓ innings.
The scout also recalled a handful of ugly swings and misses by some of the Astros' stars during that postseason, when the bat path was nowhere near the pitch's trajectory.
Strangely, this also provided him with confirmation.
"Good hitters don't miss pitches like that," the scout said, "unless they think they are getting something hard and they get spin instead."
Less technology? More technology?
Tim Kurkjian explains the Red Sox's thought process in parting ways with Alex Cora following Major League Baseball's sign-stealing investigation.
So what can baseball do to stop this problem going forward? A veteran pitching coach says he believes MLB can quell the sign-stealing issue with one simple mandate: a technology shutdown at the start of games. It means no iPads in the dugout and no functioning TVs nearby, with the only exception being the replay-review room -- where an MLB representative is always stationed throughout the game, a policy that was instituted last season.
A longtime manager says he believes video coordinators should not be allowed near the dugout and should not be in communication with the players and coaches because they can provide teams with the most valuable resource of all -- real-time video of the game, rather than the standard eight-second delay that is current policy.
"It's Pandora's box," the source said. "You allow communication in the dugout [with the video replay room], and players are asking, 'What signs are they using?'"
But a current pitcher says he believes an uptick in technology might hold the answer, and summoned another sport for a potential solution. In the NFL, coaches and players -- usually quarterbacks and linebackers -- use headsets to communicate plays on the field, the pitcher noted. And the same should be true for a catcher, pitching coach or manager and the pitcher, with other players -- the third baseman, shortstop, center fielder, or anybody else who traditionally reads the signs to determine positioning -- gaining access if they desire.
The system wouldn't just crack down on sign-stealing, the pitcher said, but potentially also quicken the pace of games, an ongoing pursuit by MLB. Catchers wouldn't be making so many trips to the pitcher's mound to change sign sequences. And perhaps those prolonged bullpen games that come into play when a starting pitcher gets knocked out early would be minimized.
Is anyone shocked Alex Cora lost his job in this?
Not after the news out of Houston broke Monday. More than one player agreed Cora was the "ringleader" for the Astros sign-stealing saga. As often is the case with teams, the bench coach has intimate knowledge of the goings-on with players even more than the manager does. In this case it cost Cora his job with the Red Sox. There was no getting around it.
"A few of us texted with each other that we knew Cora was next," one player said. "It's been a rough 24 hours for baseball."