HOUSTON -- This has been one of the most tumultuous offseasons in Astros history off the field, highlighted by the surprising dismissal of president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal that rocked the game.
The Astros, looking for a clean slate, tabbed one of the most respected men in baseball, Dusty Baker, to take over as manager and hired James Click away from the Rays to become their new general manager. With the arrival of Spring Training, the spotlight will soon turn to the players, who have been relatively mum this winter about the results of the MLB investigation released Jan. 13.
Astros owner Jim Crane said last month the players would apologize for their role in what MLB described as a “player-driven” operation to use electronics to illegally steal opponents’ signs during the 2017 season -- the year the Astros won their only World Series. In addition to one-year suspensions for Hinch and Luhnow -- they were promptly fired by Crane -- Houston was also fined $5 million by MLB and stripped of its first- and second-round Draft picks in 2020 and '21.
"Quite frankly, we'll apologize for what happened, ask forgiveness and move forward,” Crane said last month.
Which players will speak and what they will say will be the overwhelming storyline as camp opens at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches -- a complex the Astros share with the Nationals, who beat Houston in seven games in the 2019 World Series. There will be no shortage of media attention in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Several key offensive players still remaining from the 2017 team, including World Series Most Valuable Player George Springer, third baseman Alex Bregman, shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman José Altuve. MLB gave the players immunity for their testimony in the investigation, but the media and the fans don’t figure to be as accommodating.
Bregman and Altuve spoke to the media at the team’s annual FanFest on Jan. 18 and tried to steer clear of any direct answers about the contents of the investigation and who knew what and when. That approach may not be as effective when camp opens and dozens of reporters are in the clubhouse daily seeking answers.
Altuve, the 2017 American League MVP Award winner, last month said he felt badly for Luhnow and Hinch but stopped short of apologizing.
“We have to keep going and move forward,” he said. “We don’t have any choices right now.”
Behind the scenes, the Astros are crafting how players will address the scandal, beginning with the apology that Crane said is forthcoming. An apology would be the first step toward the players starting to put the controversy behind them. No matter what they say, though, the Astros may never fully be able to appease those who suggest their 2017 title is tainted.
Dodgers fans, who watched the Astros celebrate their 2017 World Series win on the field at Dodger Stadium, have galvanized and plan to caravan to Angel Stadium when the Astros play there this year, starting with the Angels' home opener April 3. They won’t be there to cheer. Astros players could face similar angry responses around the league, especially in the Bronx. Houston won’t play at Yankee Stadium until Sept. 21-24, so maybe the fervor will have dissipated some. Or not.
Then there’s opposing pitchers who feel betrayed by the thought Astros hitters used electronics to get a leg up. It’s no secret Mike Fiers -- who blew the scandal wide open by pointing fingers at his former team in an interview with The Athletic -- will be persona non grata with Astros fans, and Cleveland’s Mike Clevinger suggested the fallout could carry over onto the field in 2020.
"I'm all about policing the game in its own right, keeping everyone safe," Clevinger said. "But I don't know, I think players will deal with it the way it should be across the league. I don't think it's going to be a comfortable few ABs for a lot of those boys, and it shouldn't be. They shouldn't be comfortable."
The swirling storm of controversy didn’t sway Baker from taking a job the 70-year-old says will be his last in the game. He has the second-most wins in MLB history (1,863) without having won a championship and has a team that could do it in Houston. The 2020 Astros are as deep and talented as any he’s managed, but his greatest burden will be keeping them focused on the field and ignoring the noise of a runaway freight train off of it.
“Hiring Dusty Baker is one big step for us to move forward,” Crane said. “and I believe Dusty is the right person at the right time.”
That challenge begins on Feb. 13 when the clubhouse doors swing open to welcome cameras, microphones and notebooks looking to be filled with answers about what happened in 2017 and why. The Astros are expected to start the spring with contrition and hope to end the season eight months later with redemption.
Said Bregman last month: “The 2020 year, our actions will speak louder than our words.”