Everything you need to know about MLB's sign-stealing scandal

Major League Baseball announced punishment for the Houston Astros, including one-year suspensions for GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, loss of draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and a $5 million fine, after an MLB investigation found the team used technology to cheat during its World Series-winning 2017 season. Luhnow and Hinch were subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.

One day later, the Boston Red Sox parted ways with manager Alex Cora after the skipper was implicated in the investigation for his role as Astros bench coach.

ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle, Jeff Passan and David Schoenfield break down the penalties, what they mean for the Astros and Red Sox — and what impact Monday’s punishment could have across the sport.

Key links: Passan: Anger boiling behind scenes | Olney: Biggest victims of scandal | What players & execs really think | Two managers gone in two days

Just how harsh is this punishment compared with what was expected?

There was an awfully large range in the speculation, but unless you felt Jeff Luhnow and/or AJ Hinch might be subject to a permanent ban, the penalties are borderline shocking. That’s true even when you factor in that part of Rob Manfred’s thinking was related to the Brandon Taubman incident. A suspension of several weeks seemed likely, but a full year for the two most important members of a team’s baseball operations group is stunning, almost unprecedented. (Leo Durocher, when he was a manager, was suspended for a year, but there was a gambling element to his situation.) You had to expect a loss of draft picks, but the top two picks for two years is stunning. The $5 million fine seems inconsequential by comparison to those penalties. It’s clear Rob Manfred wanted to send a clear message to teams and fans alike. He has certainly done so. For that matter, so did Astros owner Jim Crane, who quickly moved to terminate Hinch and Luhnow. — Doolittle

I don’t think it’s shocking it all. To steal from the NCAA, you can call it a loss of institutional control, and Luhnow, Hinch and the organization had to pay a severe penalty — and Manfred certainly handed one down. For those arguing that using technology to steal signs is going on throughout the sport and that the Astros don’t deserve to be punished for what everyone else also might be doing, I disagree. The Astros got caught and got caught doing it in a year they won the World Series. This is exactly how you tell an entire sport to knock it off. You go after the big boys and send a strong message that this will not be tolerated. It’s time for baseball to return to a competition between players — not a competition between technology. — Schoenfield

Wait, the Astros just fired Luhnow and Hinch?

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Jeff Passan reacts to the Astros’ firing AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow and breaks down some of the fallout for the franchise going forward.

Yep. That happened. The Astros have widely been viewed as an organization where the bottom line is everything, which in part led into their recent scandals. Clearly, Crane is not happy with that perception. Whatever else you might think about Luhnow and Hinch, both are at the very top of their respective professions. Crane could have stated that the suspensions were adequate penalties and that the team would proceed with them both next season under a “no tolerance” policy about future embarrassments. He didn’t do that, and good for him. It couldn’t have been easy. His normally implacable demeanor seemed to waver a couple of times during his news conference. — Doolittle

What exactly does Hinch’s suspension mean?

Hinch won’t be running a team this year, and going forward he won’t be running the Astros, since Crane made the decision to fire him. Because Manfred did not implicate Hinch as an instigator of the schemes, the suspension shouldn’t make other teams shy away from hiring him. He’s respected in the game and will be a heck of managerial free agent. MLB’s statement laid out exactly this: “A.J. Hinch shall be suspended without pay for the period beginning on January 13, 2020 and ending on the day following the completion of the 2020 World Series.

“During the period of his suspension, Hinch is prohibited from performing any services for or conducting any business on behalf of the Astros or any other Major League Club. Hinch must not be present in any Major League, Minor League, or Spring Training facilities, including stadiums, and he may not travel with or on behalf of the Club. If Hinch is found to engage in any future material violations of the Major League Rules, he will be placed on the permanently ineligible list.” — Doolittle

How much impact will this punishment have on the Astros on the field?

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Doug Glanville explains that firing AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow was the best move for the Astros so they can set the tone for the organization going forward.

The Astros have a lot of work left to do this offseason after sitting out the free-agent market this winter, and now they will do so without Luhnow calling the shots. However, the Astros, perhaps as much as any club in baseball, are a process-oriented organization without an overwhelming top-down dynamic. In other words, given Houston was already unlikely to make any additional large monetary investments in its 2020 club, the Astros should be able to muddle through from a roster-building standpoint. The Astros have turned out a number of general manager candidates during Luhnow’s tenure, including Baltimore’s Mike Elias, so there ought to be qualified candidates in the organization. (Though Crane might want a new voice to head up the operation after this.)

As for losing Hinch, it won’t help. He’s largely thought of as one of baseball’s best managers, from a tactical and a clubhouse standpoint. (Although these penalties don’t speak well to the latter trait.) Still, let’s not forget that bench coach Joe Espada (who will now presumably run the dugout, though Crane didn’t commit to that in his news conference Monday) is highly respected and was already viewed as one of baseball’s top managerial prospects. Now, he’ll get a chance to show his stuff. As for a group of players that is all at once among baseball’s most talented, accomplished and cocksure, this has to be humbling. Manfred made it very apparent that the scandal started with the players, who aren’t being punished. They have a lot to prove and a lot to make up for in terms of their relationships with their manager and their general manager. — Doolittle

Why did the Red Sox decide to part ways with Alex Cora now?

Based on the season-long suspension given to AJ Hinch, it became clear Cora will likely receive a similar suspension — if not something longer — once the investigation into the 2018 Red Sox is completed. Given his complicity with both clubs, Cora may receive an even longer suspension. The Red Sox couldn’t have that hanging over the franchise for an entire season so they had to move on. — Schoenfield

What’s different about the Astros and the Red Sox?

Based on what’s been reported, the allegations about the Red Sox are on a somewhat different level than those regarding the Astros. While the Red Sox supposedly used video to decode opponents’ sign sequences and passed the information along to their players, they did not go the additional step of using some means of communicating this knowledge — such as the Astros’ infamous trash-can banging — to players at the plate from the dugout in most situations. They needed to get a runner to second base to see the sequences and signal them to whoever was at the plate. Still, the allegations against the Red Sox refer to activity during the team’s championship 2018 season, which was after MLB issued clarified rules expressly banning the use of replay rooms for this purpose. — Doolittle

What punishments are the Red Sox expected to receive?

It could be harsher than what the Astros received, given the Red Sox had already been fined in September of 2017 for using Apple Watches in a different sign-stealing scheme. If they then moved forward with illegal use of the replay room in the 2018 season, the commissioner’s may double down on a team that already had been punished. While MLB rules limit the maximum fine to $5 million, they could lose draft picks as well as the ability to sign international players (many in the game felt the Astros got off easy in this regard).

We keep hearing some variation of “everyone does this,” but is that really true?

To think this kind of behavior was limited to one or two teams would be to deny the realities about human behavior in hypercompetitive environments with massive economic stakes in play, especially where policy loopholes and gray areas exist, as they did until very recently. Every team certainly steals signs, as teams always have. Where they draw the line in terms of the kinds of mechanisms they use to do so probably varies from team to team. However, MLB tried to draw distinct lines with policies it has written over the past couple of years, and the alleged behavior of the Astros and Red Sox would certainly cross those lines. We’ll have to rely on MLB investigators to tell us just how widespread this issue actually is and has been. However, it would be surprising or even shocking to find out that the problem was limited to a small minority of teams. — Doolittle

Are the Mets going to fire Carlos Beltran?

The Mets are certainly in a difficult position. While the commissioner didn’t punish any of the players on the 2017 Astros, Beltran was also the only player specifically mentioned in the report. The implication was clear: Beltran was not just potentially benefiting from the scheme, but along with Alex Cora was one of the key figures in establishing the entire system. Now he’s in a position of authority as the Mets’ first-year manager. The wide speculation is the Mets will have to fire Beltran, but so far the club has been silent since the report was issued, with Buster Olney reporting they are gauging Beltran’s future. It’s possible Beltran can weather this initial storm, feign some sort of excuse (“We were just doing what everybody else was doing”) and claim that he’s not here to talk about the past.

So, is stealing signs against the rules or not?

That’s where things get complicated. The old-fashioned way is not against the rules. In the wake of the Red Sox incident from 2017 and accusations from the 2018 playoffs, when the Indians and Red Sox both discovered an unofficial employee of the Astros pointing a cellphone camera toward the Cleveland and Boston dugouts, MLB instituted new guidelines in 2019 regarding electronic sign stealing. (The Astros claimed the employee in 2018 was deployed in a preventative measure, although Luhnow admitted “it made us look guilty.”

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