The biggest winner of the 2021 major league season is … the 2017 Houston Astros.
Settle down. I have not come to exonerate or forgive the sign stealers. I would not argue with anyone who feels the players got off easy by not facing suspension, and the bans on, say, Alex Cora and A.J. Hinch should have been longer than one year considering their one-year expulsions came in the one year the major league season was 60 regular-season games.
So, to summarize, I found what the 2017 Astros did disturbing and disgusting. It should be a non-erasable part of the baseball résumé of all involved.
But the 2021 season also provides evidence — lots and lots of evidence — that cheating was not everything for the 2017 Astros. Would they have won that title without cheating? That is uncertain. But time has shown they were fully capable of doing so, which in a way makes the cheating both sadder and worse.
Of the six main hitters from the 2017 club still regularly active this year, Marwin Gonzalez is the only one to fall precipitously (Jake Marisnick, who did not play as much in 2017, also has fallen). But Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel and George Springer have remained similar offensive performers. The industry thought enough of Springer to make him the highest-paid free agent last offseason (six years, $150 million from Toronto), and Correa could very well be looking at that title this winter.
Cora and Hinch have returned to managing in 2021, and, with no overt illegal advantages, are generally considered to have done two of the better jobs in the sport, with Boston and Detroit, respectively.
Jeff Luhnow, the architect of the Astros, has remained outside the game. But the infrastructure he built remains elite. General manager James Click and manager Dusty Baker have done well in navigating the post-scandal turbulence — I’m not sure there could be a better manager in this kind of storm than the wise, seen-it-all Baker. But Luhnow’s personnel decisions and feeder system have kept the Astros among the majors’ best clubs. No one would be surprised if the core of a team that Luhnow assembled won the World Series this year — with no garbage-can banging. Houston did get to ALCS Game 7 last year.
It raises the question if an organization (perhaps an industry) should be open-minded about employing Luhnow and Carlos Beltran, considering all others involved are back in the good graces of the game and that another victory for the 2017 Astros is that the booing has mainly subsided outside New York (the Yankees lost the 2017 ALCS to the Astros) and Los Angeles (the Dodgers lost that World Series), though the playoffs will probably bring a fresh round of animus. Cora is probably the favorite to win the AL Manager of the Year one season removed from suspension, and Hinch should receive some top-three votes for his revitalizing work with Detroit. Players are receiving honors and money, executives jobs and awards.
Beltran was viewed as the key player ringleader of the sign-stealing apparatus. But the important word in that sentence is “player.” All players received immunity from punishment for testifying. But Beltran was the one player named in the MLB report for his influence in the cheating, and that led to the Mets firing him before he ever managed a game. He spoke to MLB investigators as a player, but was fired as a manager.
Regardless of how influential Beltran was in the Houston clubhouse — and the answer is very — the adults in the room still needed to be the Astros manager Hinch and bench coach (and Beltran pal) Cora. They should have had the moral compass to stop this — rather than, in Hinch’s case, willfully ignore it for the most part, and in Cora’s case, feed it. They were punished. They got to return. Beltran has no official ban. But this does feel like exile.
Luhnow is more complicated. He is, in many ways, the ideal candidate for the Mets’ president of baseball operations job. He almost certainly would speak the same business and financial language as owner Steve Cohen. Cohen has insisted he does not want to train someone on his dime to do this job. Luhnow would need no training. But the Mets, more than any team, need not to associate right now with scandal, considering their persistent dysfunction. And Luhnow’s history has consisted of being too near third rails, if not standing right on them.
One reason he has not received another MLB job opportunity was that he made so few friends in the game. Luhnow brought a corporate culture, the likes of which MLB had never experienced before, to the Astros’ baseball operations. It was methodical, efficient and competent. But also ruthless and without empathy.
Luhnow had a reputation for not treating people well. The Astros often acted near or beyond the lines when it came to rules, and their feel for people was poor. A culture formed and from that culture, among other things, came the sign stealing and an assistant GM who taunted female reporters while praising alleged domestic abuser Roberto Osuna — a reliever who was only an Astro because they saw his talent without enough concerns about what his presence said. Also, Houston might have been Ground Zero for pitchers illegally weaponizing extreme sticky substances.
But what Luhnow left behind baseball-wise was far more than he inherited — and he inherited Altuve, Springer and Dallas Keuchel. Players Luhnow acquired who were not even part of the 2017 club — such as Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley— get booed as if they were 2017 Astros. They have been central to continued success (Brantley was re-signed by the current administration). But more than anything is the volume of talent that has come out of the minors.
In 2012, in Luhnow’s first year taking over, before he could have influence on production out of a feeder system, just 27 players in the majors had been signed to their original pro contract by the Astros, second fewest in MLB. This year, there are 75. Not only was that the MLB-high through Thursday, but it was 14 more than the runners-up Yankees and Cardinals — and Luhnow came to Houston from St. Louis, where he helped make its pipeline among the sport’s best.
Not all of the 75 came via Luhnow’s tenure. But he helped set up the processes by which Houston would procure talent. The Astros were the first to heavily use technology in the field, particularly to help pitchers, and what Houston has received from its procurement of Latin talent the past two years has helped it thrive even after losing Justin Verlander (Tommy John surgery). Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and Framber Valdez were this year a combined 34-16 in 101 games (74 starts) covering 466 ¹/₃ innings with a 3.26 ERA.
Luhnow may never get back in the majors, but what he left behind is having a substantial impact. Many of his disciples are sprinkled throughout the sport — including Milwaukee GM David Stearns, who is arguably best suited for the Mets’ top baseball job (Stearns was gone from Houston by the time of the cheating scandal).
Again, there is no pardon being offered here for the 2017 Astros. Simply recognition — fed by results this year — that the success was about more than stealing signs.