MLB suspends Red Sox replay operator, docks draft pick; Alex Cora suspended for conduct with Astros

Major League Baseball on Wednesday suspended Red Sox video replay system operator J.T. Watkins without pay through the 2020 postseason and stripped the team of its second-round draft pick this year after completing an investigation into allegations that Boston stole signs during the 2018 season.

Former Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who mutually parted ways with the team in January as part of the fallout from the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, is suspended through the 2020 postseason as well -- but only for his conduct as Houston's bench coach, the league said in its announcement. Cora and former Astros player Carlos Beltran were the key individuals in a scheme to place a camera near Houston's dugout and have players bang on a trash can to signal breaking pitches. Cora left Houston after the 2017 season and managed the Red Sox to the 2018 title.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in his report that he does not believe Cora was aware of Watkins' actions, and he will not impose additional discipline.

Cora said in a statement Wednesday that he is "relieved that these MLB investigations are concluded."

"I am grateful for the Commissioner's thoughtful and thorough investigation relating to my conduct as Red Sox manager," Cora said. "I also take full responsibility for the role I played, along with others, in the Astros' violations of MLB rules in 2017. The collective conduct of the Astros' organization in 2017 was unacceptable, and I respect and accept the Commissioner's discipline for my past actions."

Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy said Wednesday that the team's 2018 championship isn't tainted as a result of the investigation, but he said the team's actions were still unacceptable.

"I want to be very clear that any violation of Major League Baseball's rules is unacceptable," Kennedy said. "Earlier this afternoon, [owner] John Henry and [chairman] Tom Werner had the opportunity to address commissioner Rob Manfred and the 29 other Major League Baseball owners on a call, and John and Tom took full responsibility and apologized to those guys for what happened.

"... We accept the findings in the report, and Major League Baseball conducted the interview. It was exhaustive and thorough, and it found that [Watkins] engaged in the conduct described in the report and with a limited group of players. That's really all we can say, given that it was baseball's conclusion and their report."

Kennedy said the team is prepared to do what it takes to earn back the trust of its opponents.

With the results of the investigation released, the Red Sox removed the interim tag from the title of manager Ron Roenicke, who was chosen to replace Cora in February.

For Cora, being cleared of any wrongdoing while managing the Red Sox could clear the way for a return to Boston in 2021, but Chaim Bloom, the team's chief baseball officer, indicated Wednesday that that won't happen.

"We said at the time we parted ways with Alex, we were clear that was the result of his role in what happened with the Astros and everything that happened with the investigation over there revealed and had nothing to do with what may or may not have occurred in Boston, and that is still the case," Bloom said. "All of the reasons that we parted ways then are still the case."

As with the Astros investigation, Red Sox players were promised immunity in MLB's investigation. But Manfred said that even if players had been subject to discipline, none would have been punished.

Manfred wrote in his report that Watkins, who denied the allegations, "on at least some occasions during the 2018 regular season, utilized the game feeds in the replay room, in violation of MLB regulations, to revise sign sequence information that he had permissibly provided to players prior to the game."

Manfred found Boston's conduct far less egregious than that of the Astros, noting, "Unlike the Houston Astros' 2017 conduct, in which players communicated to the batter from the dugout area in real time the precise type of pitch about to be thrown, Watkins' conduct, by its very nature, was far more limited in scope and impact.

"The information was only relevant when the Red Sox had a runner on second base (which was 19.7% of plate appearances leaguewide in 2018), and Watkins communicated sign sequences in a manner that indicated that he had decoded them from the in-game feed in only a small percentage of those occurrences."

Manfred wrote that he did not find that Cora, his coaching staff, the front office or most of the players on the team "knew or should have known that Watkins was utilizing in-game video to update the information that he had learned from his pregame analysis.

"Communication of these violations was episodic and isolated to Watkins and a limited number of Red Sox players only."

Watkins declined comment, the Red Sox said.

A 30-year-old from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Watkins is a 2012 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. The catcher was selected by Boston in the 10th round of that year's amateur draft and played in the Red Sox system until 2015.

Manfred called Watkins a "key participant'' in the 2017 Apple Watch scheme, saying he relayed decoded signs from Boston's replay room to the dugout, at first with a runner and then with the watch to an athletic trainer.

Watkins compiled advance scouting information in recent years, and part of his job was to decode opposing pitchers' sequences ahead of series. His replay room was moved from a remote location to adjacent to the dugout in 2018.

Manfred said the latest misconduct occurred during the 2018 regular season but not in the postseason, when MLB began to place staff in video rooms to monitor conduct.

In addition to his suspension, Watkins is barred from serving as a replay-room operator for the 2021 season and postseason. Bloom said the Red Sox won't impose any additional discipline on Watkins.

Manfred wrote, "11 witnesses identified features of Watkins' in-game communications that indicated to them that Watkins had at times acquired the sign sequence information from the replay room during the game.''

The commissioner said six witnesses claimed that they observed Watkins writing signs during games, and four said they saw him use gestures or notes to communicate signs when a video-room monitor was present, which made them think he was trying to conceal prohibited conduct.

Watkins told MLB that any information he provided during games was obtained from advance scouting. He admitted to attempting to conceal his communications with players from the video-room monitor but characterized the conduct as innocuous, saying he passed notes or used gestures when a monitor was present so as to not "give the impression that we were doing something that we should not be doing." He also suggested that players might have been confused by his providing information during games, might not have understood his preparatory work or might have accused him in a competitive move after joining other teams.

"Watkins did not provide a persuasive explanation for why the information he provided to players during the game differed from information provided prior to the game,'' Manfred wrote. "I am significantly troubled by Watkins' admissions that he knowingly attempted to conceal his communications with players from the video room monitor.''

Although Cora was not punished for the Red Sox's scheme because Manfred found that he was not aware of it, the commissioner did note in his report that Cora did not effectively communicate to his players the sign-stealing rules that were in place for the 2018 season.

With baseball's season on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year's draft might be cut to as few as five rounds. Manfred said he is aware that "this penalty may have a more significant impact on the Red Sox than in a normal year.''

ESPN's Joon Lee and The Associated Press contributed to this report.