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Are the Astros’ penalties for sign-stealing a deterrent or blip?

Are the Astros’ penalties for sign-stealing a deterrent or blip?

A former Nationals player was asked over the weekend about the sign-stealing brouhaha enveloping the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox. He said he wasn’t paying too much attention to the specifics, but suggested what he considered a universal truth about bending baseball rules.

“Just don’t get caught."

The Astros have been caught. A November report in The Athletic was bolstered by social media sleuths before ultimately resulting in a damning report from Major League Baseball on Monday. Houston cheated throughout the 2017 season on the way to a World Series title, when it used technology to decode and deliver information about pitch signs. In essence, the Astros found a way to significantly boost the chance of doing the most difficult thing in sports: hit a baseball.

Who knew? The league says Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow -- once a beacon of his profession and suddenly unemployed following a tone-deaf and ignorant World Series capped by a cheating scandal -- as well as manager A.J. Hinch were culpable in their lack of action as opposed to hatching the scheme. Bench coach Alex Cora and players like Carlos Beltrán, the new Mets manager, were directly involved in the process. Owner Jim Crane was not.

Crane held a press conference Monday afternoon. His themes: my organization did this wrong and will suffer the consequences. He fired Hinch and Luhnow, who had been suspended a year each by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. Houston continues to look at the possible participation of lower-level employees. Most of the onus was pushed onto Cora and players for the development of a system which stole and relayed signs using a center field camera as the prime source of information. When asked where this was among the tough days he’s had as the Astros’ owner, Crane confirmed the emotions: “It’s a tough day.” His voice broke a tad and he went with a universal tactic of grabbing a quick drink to stall the tears, as if consuming liquid would keep the leaking water around his eyes from getting out.

The league also stripped Houston of its 2020 and 2021 first- and second-round picks. A $5 million fine, the largest allowed under the Major League Constitution, rounded out the punishment.

The discipline handed down leads to an unanswerable question: Will any of it matter?

In the moment, Houston has devolved from a model franchise, defining the reboot-and-build era with well-educated staffers in key management positions, to a stained organization, though Crane said, “absolutely not” when asked if this taints the 2017 title. Of course it does. His response was one of his few missteps of the day and reminded of the hubris which helped lead Houston here in the first place.

Those around the league who thought Houston was cheating in the unaccepted way -- distinctly different than the wink-and-nod approach used forever -- are currently texting with smiles born of affirmation. The Astros received a flood of headlines and best-selling book because of their process. Monday rattles their foundation, provides the non-Ivy League graduates around baseball a chance to gloat, and generally knocks a league heavy from its perch.

Further effects will come. How will MLB’s investigation into the Red Sox end? What will happen for Cora in Boston? Will the Mets move forward with Beltran, who was just hired Nov. 1, 2019? Does this put Baltimore general manager Mike Elias, hired in November of 2018, under a cloud?

Sign stealing is a tradition. Alongside the “don’t get caught” mantra is a sentiment that if you do have your sign sequences stolen, it’s incumbent on you, not the thief, to act accordingly. Washington knew of Houston’s heightened reputation for obtaining information -- one way or the other -- when the World Series began. It changed all of its signs to combat the Astros’ watchful eyes.

So, across baseball, from the World Series to the Winter Meetings, Houston was known for this. Other teams were irritated with, though not aghast at, the Astros’ mechanisms. There was even some acceptance. The penalty and fallout carried wonder much more than if the Astros went too far.

Manfred hammered Houston on Monday. Crane followed-up with firings. Mid-February will have a fresh aura in West Palm Beach when the Astros and Nationals arrive at their shared spring training facility. In February of 2019, Houston defined the modern organization. Meanwhile, Davey Martinez’s job status was in question after a middling first season in Washington.

Now, the Nationals enter as the defending champions. Houston will likely start with an interim manager, interim general manager and endless questions about why it cheated.

But, is such an in-your-face, irrefutable, heavily penalized scandal enough to stop future shortcuts in sign-stealing? Probably not.

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One year later, Bryce Harper is in a very different spring training atmosphere

One year later, Bryce Harper is in a very different spring training atmosphere

When Bryce Harper signed his then-record 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies last March, the stands at Spectrum Field in Clearwater were filled to the brim on a daily basis while the media scrums in the home locker room had twice as many reporters firing questions.

That’s what happens when the most polarizing player in baseball, a former MVP and No. 1 overall pick who’s drawn his fair share of both fans and critics, joins a big-market organization looking to jump back into contention for the first time in almost a decade.

But a year later, with the Phillies having missed the playoffs entirely and much bigger storylines dominating the sport, things have been calmer in Clearwater this spring.

"It's definitely different coming into camp," Harper said Tuesday, per NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. "It's good knowing I'll be here the next 12 years, a lot more calm, not as crazy, not as many cameras. I'll enjoy that and just get ready for the season."

Harper made his spring season debut Tuesday, going 0-1 with a walk and sacrifice fly while playing five innings in right field. With a month to go before the start of the regular season, Harper’s goal for the rest of spring isn’t too complicated.

"Just be healthy," he said. "Take good routes in the outfield, throw the ball well out there, have good at-bats."

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Max Scherzer not pleased with new playoff format proposal

Max Scherzer not pleased with new playoff format proposal

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Here is a summation on Max Scherzer’s thoughts about the proposed playoff format changes: No.

Is he willing to talk about it? Yes. Does his voice matter as a member of the MLBPA executive board? Yes. Would he consider alterations in the future? Yes.

However, the idea of adding teams to the postseason -- expanding the total number of entrants to 14 which would be almost half the league -- is not something which appeals to Scherzer at this point. 

“For me, it’s really hard to sit there and say our playoffs are broken,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “When we look at how we won the World Series, we made it as a wild-card team and we won the World Series, we’ve also seen the best team in baseball go out there and win the World Series as well. To me, as we sit here today, the playoffs are functioning as they should because the second wild-card spot and the teams behind it are typically only a few games behind, so really adding those teams, those teams should already be in the hunt and finding a way to make the playoffs already.”

If the proposal was law last season, here’s how the National League playoffs would have looked (number of wins in parentheses):

Division winners

Atlanta Braves (97)

St. Louis Cardinals (91)

Los Angeles Dodgers (106)

Wild-cards

Washington (93)

Milwaukee (89)

New York (86)

Arizona (85)

The 84-win Cubs would have finished a game out of the final wild-card spot.

The Dodgers would receive a first-round bye. The Braves would get to choose their opponent from the bottom three wild-card teams (Presumably, it would be Arizona in order to avoid Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg or Jacob deGrom in a one-game playoff). So, the 97-win Braves would be playing the 85-win Diamondbacks for the chance to advance. If the Diamondbacks know they have the same shot as a 97-win team, what’s to prompt their investment in the offseason or trade deadline? 

“When you start talking about increasing the teams that make the playoffs, I have a huge concern over the competition that resides in the regular season,” Scherzer said. “In this format that is proposed, really the team that finishes in second place is really in the same field as the team that finishes in seventh place. We’ve seen trades in the past where good teams have unloaded players for a number of reasons and maybe not necessarily put the best product on the field, and they don’t feel they would have to compete as strongly if there is a very, very strong team in the league. 

“So, there’s significant concerns for me moving forward with their proposal. Something I think we can work through, something we can talk about. But I think there’s other issues at play with our system, with the CBA and the way the economic structure of the game is working that I think are more pertinent issues we need to address as a whole to increase competition throughout the game. Without addressing those concerns, I think it’s pointless to start talking about the playoffs.”

Those concerns are?

“Those are concerns that will be addressed when the time is right in the CBA talks,” Scherzer said. “Those talks will [begin] after [the] 2021 [season]. I look forward to having those talks. We need to have those talks about what the game needs to look like going forward, how teams can compete -- small-market teams, large-market teams and what the game needs to move to as we continue to see how fans experience the game.”

But, for now, it’s a no on the playoff expansion.

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