Ever since the Astros sign-stealing story broke last week, people have been speculating about the possible punishments the team and/or its executives, employees, coaches, or players might face.
Rob Manfred said earlier this week that he considers sign-stealing to be a "serious matter" and suggested that he could level any punishment he sees fit regardless of precedent. Still, we're not flying totally blind here, as early in 2019 Major League Baseball stated that teams who were found to be using electronic means to steal signs would receive heavy penalties, including the loss of draft picks and/or bonus pool money if they were found to be in violation.
I'm not sure what Manfred might do now, but let's talk for a moment about the potential loss of draft picks and bonus pool money. And let's ask whether such a penalty would truly constitute a "serious" penalty for a baseball team.
On the surface it sure seems like it would. Indeed, earlier this week, before I began thinking about it a bit more deeply, I wrote that it would. I thought that because, if we've learned anything from watching front offices over the past few years, we've learned that they hold the draft and their ability to sign amateur players - as opposed to paying veterans and free agents - most dear.
But over the past couple of days I've wondered if losing picks and draft pool money is as much of a punishment for the team as it would be for baseball players, team employees and fans who had absolutely nothing to do with the sign-stealing in the first place.
If the Astros were to lose a couple of high draft picks it would be less than great from a long term development perspective, but what happens immediately? That's right, a couple of million bucks - let's call it $4 million which would've been devoted to signing drafted players - is taken out of the overall draft class. I mean, it's not given to the A's or the Yankees, right? It just vanishes. The same thing goes for punishments that impact the international free agent pool. If the Astros have to forfeit their $6 million annual pool, that's $6 million taken away from poor Dominican or Venezuelan players.
And there would be a secondary effect too, no? If you're not going be signing any international players for the next year or two, why do you need international scouts in the short term? Maybe they get laid off or furloughed for six months or a year or something. The Braves' international signing scandal from a few years ago certainly penalized many of those who were involved in wrongdoing, but the penalties almost certainly had a major impact on those who did not have anything to do with it too, given that the penalties necessarily affected an entire department of the team's operation.
There are still others who would be punished by penalties aimed at amateur talent-acquisition. Future fans for one, who will be watching a diminished Astros team several years from now. Future Astros players, coaches and front office officials who - given how baseball turnover always works - are likely to be different folks than the ones who perpetrated a cheating scheme in 2017 or even earlier. Meanwhile, the hitters who knew those offspeed pitches were coming, the employees who set up the camera equipment and, quite possibly, the coaches and executives who benefitted from those potentially ill-gotten wins are off to their next jobs or are even retired. Should the 2024 Houston Astros and their fans bear the brunt of what the 2017 Astros did?
Overall, we should be skeptical of punishment schemes that work to punish those other than the wrongdoers. We should also, given how little teams like to spend money these days, be highly skeptical of "punishments" which order teams to spend less money on baseball players than they already do. Yes, teams like to acquire amateur talent, but as we've seen elsewhere, they also love to impose rules or guidelines upon themselves that artificially restrict them from spending money. It absolves them of accusations of being cheap.
Major League Baseball shouldn't be taking money out of the pocket of future Houston Astros players. They should be leveling punishment against the players, coaches, employees and executives who actually perpetrated the cheating scheme itself and, if financial penalties are involved, it should come out of the pockets of those who engaged in wrongdoing, not the pockets of those who were teenagers - or younger - when Astros hitters launched homers because they knew what pitch was about to be thrown.