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OC Register: Whicker: MLB’s punishment of Astros was the least it could do

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Jeff Luhnow believed he was smarter than baseball. That belief was suspended on Monday, as was Luhnow.

He is no longer the general manager of the Houston Astros, who, in winning the World Series in 2017 and the American League pennant in 2019, tried to spook the game.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Luhnow for one season. In an eruption of conscience rarely seen in owners, Jim Crane fired Luhnow.

Manager A.J. Hinch got the same suspension and dismissal. The Astros were fined $5 million and lost their top draft choices in 2020 and 2021.

That will not be enough for baseball people who wanted Luhnow suspended permanently.

When John Coppolella, the Braves’ general manager, misreported signing bonuses for international players and made separate deals with agents, he was banned for life.

When Chris Correa, a functionary in the Cardinals’ office, hacked into Houston’s computer networks because he knew where Luhnow was burying his data, he went to the slammer for 46 months and also was banned for life.

Manfred could have been far tougher. He could have taken an entire draft class or two away from the Astros, or fined them the equivalent of the national TV money they’d receive. But he cited the Astros’ cooperation, as opposed to Coppolella’s obstruction.

The next casualty almost surely will be Alex Cora, who was Houston’s bench coach in 2017 and Boston’s 2018 manager. The Red Sox beat Houston in that AL Championship Series and the Dodgers in the World Series.

Cora helped design the Astros’ plan to relay the signs electronically to a trash can-banger in the dugout, whose signals told the hitter what pitches were coming.

Since the banger could not transmit the nature of the pitch’s movement or velocity, it’s difficult to believe this really helped the Astros, as Manfred acknowledged. Their strikeouts plunged in 2017, but apparently the signals were garbled in Game 4 of that World Series, when they got one hit on Alex Wood’s 84 pitches.

Houston struck out two fewer times per game in 2017 than in 2016. But the 2017 and 2018 Astros had better hitting numbers on the road than at home.

Manfred said the players were the prime movers in Garbagegate, but couldn’t justify suspending them. He threw the book at Hinch for hiding his knowledge of it. He reprimanded Luhnow for lack of institutional control, saying there was no evidence he knew. It would take major gullibility to assume he didn’t.

“I am deeply disappointed that I wasn’t informed of any conduct,” Luhnow said in a statement, “because I would have stopped it.”

Luhnow descended upon baseball like a mall developer upon a family farm. He worked for McKinsey, the powerful consulting firm. There, he met the son-in-law of Cardinals president Bill DeWitt, and legend has it that his mastery of fantasy-league baseball helped him get inside the door, where he ascended from the scouting department.

Once in Houston, Luhnow began firing scouts and managers and wound up with perhaps the strongest roster in baseball. But Bobby Heck, one of the fired scouts, was responsible for drafting George Springer and Carlos Correa, and Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel were already there.

Luhnow’s regime released J.D. Martinez and drafted Mark Appel with the top pick instead of future MVP Kris Bryant. To be fair, he pulled off the audacious trade for Justin Verlander that led to a championship.

Luhnow also traded for spouse-beater Roberto Osuna. He didn’t recognize that he couldn’t close the clubhouse to reporters because Verlander didn’t like one of them. He didn’t disapprove when assistant GM Brandon Taubman could make a jackass of himself in a post-win celebration, or when pro scouting consultant Kevin Goldstein encouraged scouts to steal signs with their cameras. He thought baseball would prosper with fewer minor league teams, an idea from the McKinsey playbook.

In the end, he was undone by a decision to leave Michael Fiers off the 2017 postseason roster. Fiers was 10-8 for the season and led Houston in innings, and the Astros were 8-2 in his no-decisions. Everyone forgot it but Fiers, now with Oakland. He told The Athletic about the inner workings.

It’s fashionable to scoff at baseball’s unwritten rules and ethics, made up by Boomers who disavow “fun.” Luhnow thought he could skirt the written rules, too, even after Manfred warned him.

The Dodgers will bask in their aggrievement, but no sign-stealing made them hit .205 in that series.

No, the real issue is whether the punishment fell short of the crime and whether the Astros would do it again even if they knew the penalties. And they probably would. If cheating is your thing, cheat loud.

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