Athletics

Astros receive historic penalties from MLB for sign-stealing scandal

Astros receive historic penalties from MLB for sign-stealing scandal

In the last two seasons, there has been one team in the way of the A's winning the AL West: The Houston Astros. Led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander and more, they have been the cream of the crop in the division. 

They also have been crowned the kings of cheating. The Astros on Monday were handed some of the harshest penalties in MLB history for their part in using technology to illegally steal signs during Houston's 2017 championship season. 

Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Lunhow have each been suspended without pay for the 2020 season. Houston also forfeits its first- and second-round picks for the 2020 and '21 MLB Drafts. The Astros also have been fined $5 million -- the highest allowable fine under the Major League Constitution -- and former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman has been placed on baseball's ineligible list through the end of the 2020 World Series. 

Shortly after the penalties were levied, the Astros announced that they have fired Hinch and Lunhow. Bench coach Joe Espada is expected to serve as interim manager.

A's pitcher Mike Fiers, who was on the Astros' World Series-winning team but didn't pitch in the 2017 playoffs, found himself in the center of Houston's scandal. In a November report from The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drelich, Fiers was the first player to confirm the Astros used technology to steal signs. 

“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing,” Fiers said

Hinch has finished in the top five of AL Manager of the Year voting the last three seasons, and has led the Astros to a 311-175 regular-season record in that span. The Stanford alum surely will be missed on the bench in Houston's dugout. 

The Astros have been quiet this offseason and have yet to make any big moves in free agency. We might now know why. It's clear Lunhow had other things on his mind while he polished his World Series ring, and staying low was probably a pretty good idea.

[RELATED: How Correa felt about A's Fiers revealing Astros' scandal]

While these penalties are harsh and historic, this won't be the last we hear about the scandal. Players could speak up, and other repercussions easily could be on the way.

The A's, meanwhile, have dreams of winning the AL West for the first time since 2013, and certainly could benefit from the Astros' turmoil.

One thing is for certain: The Astros still are World Series champions. But now they're paying the price of doing it their way -- the wrong way. 

A's A.J. Puk shares positive health update after shoulder setback

A's A.J. Puk shares positive health update after shoulder setback

Baseball players -- they’re just like us. Well, at least right now while the sports world is on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A’s young lefty pitchers A.J. Puk and Jesús Luzardo are both doing the same thing most of us are while participating in social distancing. Luzardo is streaming a ton of shows on Netflix (yep -- even “Tiger King”), while Puk is catching up on some sleep.

The two are also staying in shape as best they can, as they told The San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser recently on the A’s Plus podcast

Luzardo is lucky in that he has teammate, and fellow starting pitcher Mike Fiers, just minutes up the road from him. The two have been working out, while maintaining social distancing, of course. 

Luzardo and Fiers are using free weights in the middle of an open field down in Florida and training with a mutual friend.

Puk is doing something similar and is able to throw off the mound at his facility in Iowa and is able to use the bullpens at the local colleges if need be. That also means he’s making progress coming off of a minor setback to a shoulder strain prior to the spring training cancelations.

“Everything’s feeling fine,” Puk told Slusser. “Probably the best my shoulder’s felt in a while, actually you know, since coming back from Tommy John.”

Puk said he heard that there could be a portion following the surgery where the shoulder could flare-up.

“You just kind of have to work through it, I think maybe I was just at that stage of it,” Puk said. “I’m feeling great right now -- just real happy where I’m at right now.”

Puk underwent TJ surgery in April of 2018 and said there could be a silver lining with the regular-season delay.

“Maybe some extra time to get my stuff feeling good,” Puk said.

He’s getting sick of the “little injuries,” and wants to make sure he’s fully ready to go when, and if, the season begins this year.

Puk was only able to throw three Cactus League innings but struck out two in the process.

Luzardo knows he and Puk have a huge spotlight on them being the young lefties with so much potential heading into their rookie seasons. But Luzardo is aware this hiatus is more than just a pushback to his first full year as a big leaguer. 

“In my shoes, my position is kind of irrelevant to the bigger picture. I’m not too caught up in how I’m affected by it rather than how other people are being affected by it.”

There’s a bigger picture there.

Luzardo came out of the bullpen last season and was sensational boasting a 1.50 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 12 innings. 

[RELATED: Buddy Reed hopes to reunite to Puk in majors]

MLB had recently discussed a plan that could move the sport to the Phoenix, Ariz. area. All 30 teams would be playing in the area and would have to be quarantined to their hotels, but that also meant the season could start as early as May.

They both had different thoughts on that.

And another silver lining? Luzardo believes the absence of the sport of baseball now could make the heart grow fonder.

Mike Fiers, Jesús Luzardo build close bond while social distancing in pandemic

Mike Fiers, Jesús Luzardo build close bond while social distancing in pandemic

Baseball can occasionally manifest some pretty fascinating personal connections.

Like how Mike Fiers, the eldest starter in the A's rotation, currently is forging an even tighter bond with Jesús Luzardo, one of his youngest counterparts.

“He only lives like 10 minutes from me,” Fiers told NBC Sports California on Tuesday from Florida. “So it’s not even like the home state, it’s like the home city.”

But their acquaintance didn’t start in Oakland. It actually began in the late 2000s.

“I remember him as a 10-, 11-year-old kid,” Fiers said. “Throwing bullpen [sessions] over by my high school, and helping out over there.”

Fiers has been following the lefty’s journey ever since. What a coincidence they’d end up on the same big league team.

“Obviously he became a big name coming through high school," Fiers said, "and his velocity getting up there, and then being a high draft pick.”

Now the two are workout partners in the strangest of times, with MLB, sports and much of life on complete pause.

Fiers and Luzardo get together every couple of days and complete socially-distanced pitching workouts, where they are able to push and provide each other inspiration.

“We cut it down to only a couple of guys,” Fiers said of the workouts. “We know how serious this thing is, and nobody wants to jeopardize their families and their livelihood.”

[RELATED: Fiers gifted Profar, Laureano for catches to save no-hitter]

The pair are taking thorough precautions in the no-contact sessions, which also feature strategically placed bottles of Purell hand sanitizer. There’s also a portable pitching mound, supplied by Fiers.

“We actually took that out to a church,” Fiers said. “It’s the only place we have left, a church parking lot. There’s a field next to it. So we just keep that pitching mound under a tree.”

It’s hardly the Coliseum, but it will have to do for now.