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If someone is least wrong in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, it’s A.J. Hinch

If someone is least wrong in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, it’s A.J. Hinch

A.J. Hinch zipped in and out of his 2019 World Series press conferences with impressive speed. He was never late, quickly walked into the room, sat, handled questions with clarity, calm and charm. Then he dashed out the side door.

Hinch didn’t short-change his answers despite rocket-fueled entrances and departures. He appeared the lone part of Houston’s managerial hierarchy to understand what was actually happening when Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported the buffoonery coming from the Astros clubhouse after Houston won the American League pennant last season. And now, after a 25-minute on-camera mea culpa in front of a well-coiffed Tom Verducci, Hinch has graduated to least wrong in this sign-stealing fiasco.

He is wrong. Don’t mistake that. Hinch said as much multiple times Friday night in an interview which aired on MLB Network. However, when Verducci provided him space to wander with his blame, gesture over here or over there, Hinch did not take it. Despite his unmistakable disdain for what was occurring -- he twice smashed the live-feed monitors with a bat -- his players soldiered on. They either didn’t understand Hinch’s point, or, more likely and more damning, didn’t care.

It’s surprising the use of a baseball bat to destroy an object can be classified as a half-measure, but that’s the case here. There was more Hinch could have done: hold a meeting, bench someone who used the sign, kick the person banging the garbage can out of the dugout, tell the general manager. He did not. This was his error. It’s since become his regret.

“I didn’t initiate or endorse it, but I was the manager,” Hinch said. “I think there was a responsibility when you’re in the position to end it.”

He’s right. But a bevy of other tentacles surround this stain. The players could have stopped after discovering an untoward advantage. They chose not to individually, they chose not to when their manager gave them a clear sign to do so, they chose not to the following year. For that, they are culpable. Their continued silence on the topic just further relates their arrogance about the situation. Unwritten rules can be inane and challenging. Here, the entire clubhouse knew they waded well beyond the accepted on-field sign-stealing process. Other teams knew. The Astros knew they knew. Yet, nothing. They didn’t care. They just kept going.

Meanwhile, former Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow continues to slink into the muck. Reporting by The Wall Street Journal on Friday made it clear Luhnow was aware enough of the “dark arts” that he should have asked more questions. Luhnow did one worse than Hinch: he never expressed a scolding finger. He either missed or ignored the signs, a great irony in this debacle.

Which brings us back to Hinch. There is personal value for him to be so blatantly apologetic. He wants to work in baseball again. Verducci mentioned this will be the first time in 24 years that Hinch, 45, will not be going to spring training. Asked if he wants to manage again, Hinch said he did, though noted that it will not be up to him. Measuring his pure motivation is challenging because it’s hard to shake the cynic’s view when assessing an admitted cheat.

While he’s home, unemployed and serving a one-year suspension, Hinch will watch baseball. He will spend time with his daughters. They were immediately on his mind the day he was suspended then quickly fired. Major League Baseball delivered its damning report and forceful reaction Jan. 13. Hinch was in Minute Maid Park. Owner Jim Crane called, asked him to come into Houston, then was told Hinch was already downstairs. Come up, Crane said. They talked. It was emotional. Hinch was dismissed. His next thought was to get his kids out of school before the news blazed across their phones. Crane went on to explain his decisions to the world less than an hour later.

There is no sympathy to be delivered here, nor is this done. The WSJ report could well lead to more firings. Questions in West Palm Beach will flood the Astros from the first day on. Luhnow could be done in baseball. Each time the Astros organization appears to have settled on bottom, a fresh shovel is pulled out. And, more broadly, it’s fair to wonder who is running baseball organizations. If the World Series winner appears to be circumventing the manager, who is really in charge across the league?

But, with Hinch, there is at least a dose of self-assigned culpability. He sat down in his house, answered the questions, did not waiver.

“My personality is to take the burden for everybody else,” Hinch said.

He tried to Friday. Now, everyone else can feel free to join in.

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Reports: MLB owners approve deal on coronavirus-induced measures for 2020 season

Reports: MLB owners approve deal on coronavirus-induced measures for 2020 season

Major League Baseball’s team owners have reportedly voted to approve a labor agreement between the league and its players union that implements a series of measures designed to help baseball weather the coronavirus outbreak.

Several changes were reported Thursday evening before the owners ratified the agreement.

Among them were a transaction freeze, the assurance that players’ service time clocks would be unaffected by any suspension or cancellation of the season, a reduction in the number of rounds in the next two amateur drafts, a potential delay to the international signing period and the adjustment of arbitration rules to avoid penalizing players for lower counting stats during a shortened season.

More details emerged Friday as reporters collected information surrounding the deal.

- According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the 2020 season will not begin until three major thresholds are met: 1) The bans on mass gatherings in states with MLB clubs are lifted, unless MLB decides to host games at neutral sites or without fans instead. 2) There are no travel restrictions. 3) Health experts deem it safe for both teams and fans to attend games.

The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reports that signing bonuses for players drafted over the next two years will not increase as was originally outlined in the current collective bargaining agreement. It’s a decision that agent Scott Boras has called “unconscionable.”

- Passan also added that MLB would consider running a combine for amateur players ahead of the next two drafts and that drug-related suspensions will be still served in 2020—but if the season is cancelled, then those suspensions would be waived.

- While not clear if part of the agreement itself, The Athletic’s Evan Drellich reported that the commissioner’s office has “an understanding with all 30 teams” that their non-player employees would be paid through April 30. A decision has not been made as to what will happen after that.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated that it’s unlikely MLB will be able to play a full 162-game season, but that both the league and its players hope to play as many games as possible—with ideas like scheduled double-headers and fewer off days on the table.

No firm date was given as to when MLB hopes to begin its season.

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Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña are earning comparisons to MLB greats. What can we expect in Year Three?

Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña are earning comparisons to MLB greats. What can we expect in Year Three?

Juan Soto ventured into enemy territory last summer when his friend and contemporary Ronald Acuña emerged from the visitor’s dugout at Nationals Park and began to chirp at him.

The pair hit it off when together for the MLB All-Stars in Japan during the 2018 offseason. When they exist as rivals -- at least by the standard of being in the same division -- they still joke, hug and admire. Any comparison of the two will not be centered on vitriol. They’re having too much fun hammering baseballs in their early 20s.

Should the season restart, Soto and Acuña will start their third year in the National League East. It won’t be a full season. We already know that because of the current hiatus, but it may be enough to have another reputable look at next steps for each. And where they already are is comparable with any young duo in the history of the game.

Here are the totals from their first two years in the league:

Acuña: 67 home runs, 130 OPS-plus, 9.9 WAR.

Soto: 56 home runs, 140 OPS-plus, 7.4 WAR.

Acuña is 22 years old. He has a Rookie of the Year Award and fifth-place MVP finish on his ledger.

Soto is 21 years old. He finished second to Acuña in Rookie of the Year voting in 2018. He finished ninth in MVP voting last year.

Their mutual beginnings are so potent, a recent pairing to compare them to is Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

Sounds ambitious. If not flatly hyperbolic. And, when it comes to Trout, it is.

He compiled 19.4 bWAR in his first two full seasons at age 20 and 21. That’s more than Acuña and Soto combined. Trout was intertwined in a who-is-the-best debate with Harper at that point. That discussion is long over.

Harper’s 8.9 bWAR the first two seasons (age 19 and 20, respectively) falls right in line with Acuña and Soto. He was essentially the average of the pair.

Let’s dial back to other young stars.

Mickey Mantle finished with 12.2 bWar across 1952 and 1953, when he was 20 and 21 years old, respectively. Willie Mays pulled together 14.4 bWar in 1951 and 1954 combined. Mays was 20 years old in his first full season. His 21-year-old season was abbreviated, and 22-year-old season non-existent because of military service. Hank Aaron compiled 7.6 bWAR in his first two years when playing in his age-20 and age-21 seasons for the Milwaukee Braves. And, just as a head-shaking aside, it’s always fun to point out Mays was a 24-time All-Star and Aaron a 25-time All-Star. Decent efforts on their part.

So, what came in Year 3 for everyone listed above?

Trout was named MVP after a 7.7 WAR season at age 22. Harper was hurt, then put together his best year, his MVP season in 2015 when 22 years old.

Mantle had a strong 6.9-WAR season when he was 22 years old.

Mays, then 24, went crazy his third full season in the majors: 51 homers, 13 triples, a 1.059 OPS, .659 slugging percentage, 79 walks and 60 strikeouts. Put it another way: Mays had more combined homers and triples than strikeouts in 1955 when he was 24 years old. And yet, he finished fourth -- fourth! -- in 1955 MVP balloting behind Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Ernie Banks.

Aaron finished with a .923 OPS and 7.2 WAR in year three.

Soto and Acuña will be hard-pressed to reach similar WAR totals in a shortened season. However, they still have another decade for future comparisons and to keep chasing the ghosts of the greats.

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