After months of waiting, MLB came out of nowhere on Wednesday afternoon and dropped the punishment for the Red Sox and their alleged 2018 sign-stealing scheme. It was pretty clear from the beginning that it wasn’t as bad as the Astros scheme, but there’s an argument to be made that when it comes to cheating that degree isn’t that big of a factor. That’s especially true when the team has already been warned for this sort of thing. I say that because those were the reasons we were bracing for a relatively large penalty, but the report came out with very little dirt to find and the Red Sox were hit fairly lightly. J.T. Watkins, the replay room operator, was suspended for the 2020 season and banned from that role in 2021 and the team lost a second round pick in this year’s draft. Alex Cora, meanwhile, was not found to be involved in this. He was officially suspended for a year due to his involvement in the Astros’ scandal, though.
For the first time in over a month, we have some actual baseball news to discuss and even with the light punishment — or maybe partially because of it — there is a lot to unpack here. So, I’m going to go back with some scattered thoughts and touch briefly on a range of topics. There’s a few here I may want to go back and refocus on later, but I need some more time to think about some of this stuff, which I’ll get to now.
- In situations like this, I often find it hard to react to the story because I try to pretend I can be an objective observer. We can tell ourselves we are looking at things objectively all we want, but the fact is that all humans have biases and one of mine is favorable to the Red Sox. That doesn’t mean I look through everything with rose-colored glasses there — people who have followed me all winter know that — but it does cloud my judgement a lot here. I say this because I’ve tried to take a step back and look at how this is being perceived nationally by “true objective” (as if that’s a real thing) observers. The big takeaway is that MLB’s credibility is totally shot. Whether or not that’s fair to the Red Sox, the way Rob Manfred and company handled the Astros situation, with them telling multiple lies that were quickly debunked, ensured that whatever punishment they were going to hand down to Boston would be met with skepticism. The Red Sox, as they have acknowledged, have to earn back some trust, but more than anything the league has to work through some major trust issues with its fans as a whole.
- As for my feelings on the Red Sox themselves, I am conflicted. I’ll start with the skeptical side. In this impossible journey for objectivity that I talk about above, I try to put myself in the shoes of a fan of another team and see it from that perspective. As I am not a wizard I can’t actually do this, but I’m trying to figure out where I’d stand if this was the Yankees or the Rays. The cynical side of me looks at the league putting this all on the feet of an advanced scout running the replay room with a few players involved and is skeptical. I suppose it’s not impossible, but it seems wild to me that a scheme to get signs from the replay room to the dugout to second base to the plate would be enough to be noticed by someone with some authority. That the entire coaching staff was exonerated seems weird to me, both because it seems hard — again, not impossible, but not easy — that they would not notice and also because in the Astros scandal the league made a point to say that the coaches and front office were responsible whether they knew or not. That kind of inconsistency is hard to reconcile.
- On the other hand, we only can go by what’s in the report, and what’s in the report is really not that damning. Yes, cheating is cheating, but there are degrees to crimes and the degree of this one is nothing near real-time examination of signs and banging trash cans. It’s not on the same level, or even close to it. The skepticism, as I mentioned, comes from a skepticism of MLB. If you take the report at face value — and I certainly understand the hesitance to do that with Manfred’s team — there’s not too much to get worked up over here. They broke the rules and especially being a second offender a punishment had to come, and did. But again, I think this is where bias needs to be acknowledged, not to invalidate our opinions here but to at least contextualize them.
- Going back to that point about the coaches not knowing and finding that hard to believe, it makes me feel uneasy putting it all on the feet of Watkins. Maybe he was the “mastermind” here and in that case it’s deserved, but I understand the people who are feeling bad for him. With that being said, it does not appear the Red Sox will be firing him, so he does still have a job waiting for him in 2021, just away from the replay room.
- Alex Cora is, of course, a big topic of conversation now. With his suspension running through just 2020 — and that’s whether or not there’s baseball — the speculation that he’ll be back for 2021 has only grown since it was announced he had no involvement in this scandal. Chaim Bloom tried to throw a little cold water on the reunion idea, but this is going to be speculated on until they officially name their manager for 2021. This is one of those ideas I am not sure on. On the one hand, I think he is a fantastic manager and the Red Sox would be better with him at the helm than without. On the other hand, even if I am to believe he truly had no involvement here, that Astros scandal was a big deal and I’m not sure I would want anyone from that coaching staff on this team. I’ve gone back and forth on this and figure I will continue to do so at least a few more times before I settle on a firm position.
- Speaking of going back and forth, I am doing the same thing with respect to losing the second round pick. This was, in essence, the only punishment actually levied against the organization as a whole, and I’ve heard it described as hard and light. I understand both arguments, and they both revolve around the fact that this draft isn’t a normal one. With it being only five to ten rounds this year — details are still being worked out — the value of a second round pick changes. Many have said this makes losing the second round pick hurt more than usual because it is both a bigger percentage of talent and bonus pool money they are losing, particularly if it’s only five rounds. This was my first thought.
- On the other hand, I don’t think we really know what this draft is going to look like, and I’m not convinced this isn’t actually the exact year you would want to lose a second round pick. Obviously you never want to lose a pick, but it’s not only a shorter draft this year. Bonuses are being deferred to be paid out over the next three years, with 45% of the bonuses not coming until 2022. I think there’s a good chance that leads to the non first rounders opting to either go back to school, whether that be high school students going to college, junior college players transferring to four-year schools or college juniors going back for a senior year. I haven’t seen a firm indication that this will be the case, but there were concerns about that when the draft rules were first agreed to and it would certainly dilute the talent pool. If that does happen, losing a second rounder in a draft that skews heavily towards college seniors isn’t the worst thing in the world.
- I want to preface this final thought with the fact that this is not an excuse for rule breaking. However, it is wild that the video replay room is so close to the dugout. I understand players use it within the rules, with guys like J.D. Martinez watching tape on their swings between at bats. But it is just too ripe for nefarious activity. The simple solution: Get rid of the dumb challenge system. Make replay like it is in hockey and other sports where the umpires have full control over when a play gets reviewed. Not only would it potentially stop some of this activity, but also we could stop the 30-second delays as managers get word on whether or not to challenge something. It’s a dumb rule, and I’ll take any reason necessary to change it.