Hinch, Luhnow are suspended for '20, then let go

Sign-stealing penalties include loss of top Draft picks, $5 million fine

January 14th, 2020

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were each suspended without pay for the 2020 season by Major League Baseball, which on Monday released the findings from its investigation of Houston’s sign-stealing allegations.

Approximately one hour after the penalties were issued, Astros owner Jim Crane announced in a news conference at Minute Maid Park in Houston that Luhnow and Hinch had both been dismissed by the organization.

“I have higher standards for the city and the franchise, and I am going above and beyond MLB's penalty,” Crane said. “We need to move forward with a clean slate, and the Astros will become a stronger organization because of this today. You can be confident that we will always do the right thing and will not have this happen again on my watch.”

As part of the penalties, Houston also forfeits its first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 MLB Drafts. The Astros will retain the compensation pick they received for losing Gerrit Cole to the Yankees in free agency. That pick, after the first round, will be No. 72 overall. In addition, the Astros were fined $5 million, which is the highest allowable fine under the Major League Constitution.

Former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman, who was dismissed by the club in October after he made offensive and insensitive comments directed at a group of female reporters at the conclusion of the American League Championship Series on Oct. 19, 2019, was also suspended for one year for his inappropriate conduct in the clubhouse. Taubman "shall be ineligible to perform services on behalf of any Major League club, either as an employee or independent contractor."

The suspensions of Luhnow and Hinch are to begin immediately, ending on the day following the completion of the 2020 World Series. Taubman, who is currently not employed by a Major League club, will be eligible to apply for reinstatement at that same end time as well.

“I find that the conduct of the Astros, and its senior baseball operations executives, merits significant discipline,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said as part of the nine-page ruling. “I base this finding on the fact that the club’s senior baseball operations executives were given express notice in September 2017 that I would hold them accountable for violations of our policies covering sign stealing, and those individuals took no action to ensure that the club’s players and staff complied with those policies during the 2017 postseason and the 2018 regular season.

“The conduct described herein has caused fans, players, executives at other MLB clubs, and members of the media to raise questions about the integrity of games in which the Astros participated. And while it is impossible to determine whether the conduct actually impacted the results on the field, the perception of some that it did causes significant harm to the game.”

Should either Luhnow or Hinch be found to engage in “any future material violations” of Major League rules, the offender will be placed on the permanently ineligible list.

The Commissioner’s Office will also discuss with Luhnow “an appropriate program of management/leadership training to ensure that no incidents of the type described” in the report will occur in the future, though that was announced prior to Luhnow’s dismissal by the Astros.

According to the ruling, the investigation revealed “absolutely no evidence” that Crane was aware of any of the team’s conduct.

“Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested,” Manfred said.

Crane expressed those sentiments during Monday’s emotional press conference, during which he announced his stunning decision to fire both Luhnow and Hinch, who oversaw the most successful period in Astros history -- one which included the 2017 World Series title.

“I felt that, with what came out of the report, they both had responsibility,” Crane said. “Jeff running the baseball operation and overseeing AJ and all of those people associated with that. And AJ, on the bench and was aware, if you read the report, it's pretty clear. AJ didn't endorse this, and neither did Jeff. Neither one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it. And that's how we came to the conclusion.”

The report says the illegal sign-stealing was mostly player-driven, but it states that former bench coach Alex Cora, who is now the manager of the Red Sox, was involved in setting it up. Cora was not disciplined as part of this investigation, but the report states that he could face penalties at the conclusion of the ongoing investigation into allegations of illegal sign-stealing by the Red Sox during the 2018 season.

There were no penalties given to any Astros players as part of the investigation, though Mets manager Carlos Beltrán -- who was a DH/outfielder on the 2017 Astros -- was mentioned in the report as one of the players involved in the illegal sign-stealing. In explaining why no players would face any discipline, Commissioner Manfred wrote the following:

“Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical. It is difficult, because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability.

“It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other clubs.”

Luhnow released a statement accepting responsibility for the rules violations, though he stressed that he was not involved in the creation or implementation of any sign-stealing systems the Astros were using.

“I am not a cheater,” Luhnow said. “Anybody who has worked closely with me during my 32-year career inside and outside baseball can attest to my integrity. I did not know rules were being broken.

“As the Commissioner set out in his statement, I did not personally direct, oversee or engage in any misconduct: The sign-stealing initiative was not planned or directed by baseball management; the trash-can banging was driven and executed by players, and the video decoding of signs originated and was executed by lower-level employees working with the bench coach. I am deeply upset that I wasn’t informed of any misconduct because I would have stopped it.”

On Monday evening, Hinch released a statement of his own.

"As a leader and Major League Manager, it is my responsibility to lead players and staff with integrity that represents the game in the best possible way," Hinch said in part of his statement. "While the evidence consistently showed I didn’t endorse or participate in the sign stealing practices, I failed to stop them and I am deeply sorry.

"I apologize to Mr. Crane for all negative reflections this may have had on him and the Astros organization. To the fans, thank you for your continued support through this challenging time -- and for this team. I apologize to all of you for our mistakes but I’m confident we will learn from it -- and I personally commit to work tirelessly to ensure I do."

MLB began its investigation into the allegations against the Astros back in November after a report from The Athletic highlighted the club’s illegal sign-stealing system from 2017, the year the Astros won the franchise’s first World Series title. A's pitcher Mike Fiers, who was a member of the Astros at the time, was quoted in the story, as were three other unnamed sources who were inside the organization in 2017.

Fiers said the Astros were using a camera positioned in the outfield to detect the signs, which were then relayed to hitters by somebody banging on a trash can in an area between the dugout and the clubhouse so they knew which pitches were coming.

“The allegations in the article created significant concern among many of our fans and other MLB clubs regarding the adherence to our rules by those participating in our games, and the principles of sportsmanship and fair competition,” Manfred said in the ruling. “As I have previously stated, I treat these allegations with the utmost seriousness, and I instructed our Department of Investigations to conduct a thorough investigation. I believe transparency with our fans and our Clubs regarding what occurred is extremely important, and this report is my attempt to achieve that objective.”

The Astros were fully cooperative with MLB during its investigation, which involved the interviewing of more than 60 witnesses, including players, field staff, and front office personnel who were with the club in 2017. The league also combed through more than 70,000 e-mails during its investigation, as well as text messages.

“Listen, when I found out, I was very upset,” Crane said. “We want to be known as playing by the rules. We broke the rules. We accept the punishment. And we're going to move forward.”

The culture inside the Astros’ baseball operations department was also brought into question by Manfred in the report.

“[W]hile no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic,” Manfred said in the ruling.

“At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture -- one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the Club’s admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”

Crane disputed the idea that his club has a culture problem.

“We had one of the best baseball operations in the business, and got a lot of great results,” Crane said. “So that didn't happen with one or two people; that happened with a lot of good people. And so we'll move forward to handle that in a very professional manner. It's not an extremely big organization, so if there's any problems, we'll root them out and we'll fix them.”

MLB opened a new investigation last week after The Athletic reported that the Red Sox had used their video/replay room during the 2018 season to learn opponents’ sign sequences, a strict violation of Manfred’s September 2017 edict on the subject.