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Red Sox penalties are symptoms of a larger problem

Alex Cora

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 20: Alex Cora #20 of the Boston Red Sox reacts during a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on September 20, 2019 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

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Rob Manfred and MLB again announced that they were shocked (shocked!) to find gambling going on in this establishment when they lightly tapped the Red Sox on the wrist for cheating in 2018. The league’s report found that Boston did in fact engage in illegal conduct during the 2018 season by using their video room to decipher catchers’ signs in real time. Those signs were then relayed if runners were on second base, and the runner would in turn signal to the batter. That’s a big no-no.

The report states that video room operator J.T. Watkins was the brains of the operation, and he has been suspended for 2020 and will not be allowed to work in that same role in 2021. The Red Sox were also penalized their second-round pick for this year. Then-manager Alex Cora has been suspended through the end of the 2020 postseason for his conduct with the Astros in 2017, but not because of anything he did in Boston. The league had held off on penalizing Cora until their investigation into his Red Sox team had been completed. Today’s report says that Cora did not know that Watkins was aiding the players. As with the Astros investigation, the players were given full immunity in exchange for their testimony.

So what exactly does this all mean? Here are my takeaways from all of this.

First I find it funny that MLB again claims that the manager in charge of a cheating team had no clue that his team was cheating. Remember, that was MLB’s initial claim about A.J. Hinch with the Astros. Hinch eventually confessed to knowing about the banging scheme during his mea culpa interview on MLB Network.

The idea that managers don’t know what’s going on in their own dugouts and clubhouses is usually a flimsy one, especially for managers as chummy with their players as Cora was. Sure, there was no loud trash can banging going on in Boston. But did Cora really not notice guys running to and from the video room and giving signals to runners for an entire season? Moreover, this is Alex Cora we’re talking about here. Cora supposedly helped engineer the banging scheme in Houston and it helped that team win a ring. Cora then got the Red Sox job and won another ring, and that team was also subsequently investigated for cheating. He concocted a cheating scheme with one team and then had no idea that his next team was also cheating? MLB wasn’t exactly fully forthcoming with their report last time.

It should also be noted that Boston suffered no real losses here. Manfred goes out of his way to note in the report that the loss of the second-round pick could be especially devastating this year if the draft is indeed shortened to five rounds, but what does that second-round pick actually mean? Boston was slated to pick 52nd overall this year, and the best players to ever come out of the 52nd slot are arguably Carl Crawford and Blake Snell (h/t to Michael Baumann).

More often than not, players picked that deep aren’t all that special if they pan out at all. This year’s draft class has more depth than oomph at the top according to one evaluator I spoke to, but really, you’re not losing a ton of sleep if you don’t get to pick 52nd overall. That’s especially true if you’re losing that draft pick because you did something that helped you win the World Series.

Seriously, what exactly is the incentive for players to not engage in this sort of activity going forward? They know they won’t get suspended. Managers can claim ignorance. Yeah the video guy got in trouble, but that’s only because someone talked to the press in the first place. This investigation would never have happened if Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich didn’t publish their article in The Athletic. Manfred says as much in the report. Do players really care about potential draft pick losses if a number of them won’t even be with that team in a few years’ time?

And that really is the key here. This is a slap on the wrist, except the slap was done with a feather boa. The only loser here is Watkins, who is probably just going to be transferred to a different role given that his dad is the scout who signed Mookie Betts. There is no real punishment. There is no big neon sign that says “STOP CHEATING OR ELSE.”

There’s a few reasons why that’s the case. First is that this sort of conduct is almost surely going on with plenty of other clubs. Players alleged as much when all the Astros news was trickling out. Sign-stealing through illicit means is something that happens in today’s game and Manfred doesn’t want to have to launch investigations into 28 other teams. He doesn’t want to send a message that his game is compromised, especially not at a time when he’s been cozying up to MGM and the gambling industry. He doesn’t want to project that the game that fans are watching and betting on is inauthentic.

It’s also a sign that people within the game like the Red Sox. What the Astros did was much worse. There’s no doubt about that. But Manfred was also surely much less hesitant to drop the hammer on Jeff Luhnow because he was a very unpopular figure within the game and the Astros had a bad reputation. Luhnow was an example, just as the unpopular John Coppolella was when he got banned from baseball for making illegal deals with underage players in Latin America. Meanwhile, reports tying teams to underage players continue to be commonplace. Everyone magically knows where they’re going to go on July 2nd when the signing period opens. Surely nothing shady is going on there.

Cora somehow didn’t know that his players were cheating, so he didn’t get any additional punishment. The loud speculation that he’ll be back as Boston’s manager in 2021 has already begun, graduating from the quiet speculation that’s been happening for months. Cora is a cheater, but he’s a popular cheater.

Nobody got hurt here because Manfred didn’t want anybody to get hurt. It’s as simple as that. Teams will continue to cheat until that cheating gets leaked to the press. At that point they’ll be ever so lightly punished not because they cheated, but because they were dumb enough to get caught.

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