Rob Manfred defends Astros' punishment, says he would've penalized players in 'perfect world'

The MLB commissioner was asked plenty of questions about the Astros on Sunday

On Sunday, it was MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's turn to face the public regarding the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal that has dominated baseball the last four months. The Astros held a press conference last week that was heavy on canned remarks and light on genuine remorse. Owner Jim Crane fumbled through responses and at one point said the scheme didn't "impact the game."

"When we began the investigation after we became aware of the Houston situation, we started with an important and fundamental goal," Manfred said at a Sunday press conference. "That was goal was to make sure that we found the facts, completed the investigation, found out what was going on, and put ourselves in position to be as transparent with our fans and other clubs. People had a right to know what happened and we achieved that goal."

Earlier on Sunday, Manfred conducted an interview with ESPN's Karl Ravech in which he said Houston's apology earlier in the week was "not successful." 

MLB handed one-year suspensions to manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow last month following a months-long investigation. Shortly after MLB announced Hinch and Luhnow's suspensions, Crane fired the pair. The team was also fined $5 million (the largest allowed in the MLB Constitution) and lost multiple top draft picks. However, some fans and opposing players are upset Astros players will face no repercussions from the league.

"I understand people's desire to have the players pay a price for what went on here," Manfred said in the ESPN interview. "I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have payed a price. To think that they're skipping down the road into spring training happy, that's just a mischaracterization of where we are."

Here are six important things to know about Manfred's press conference Sunday afternoon.

1. Manfred would've liked to punish players

As part of MLB's investigation, Astros players were granted immunity in exchange for honest testimony. The players will always be the best resource and Manfred said granting immunity was the best way to reveal all the facts. In a "perfect world" though, Manfred would have liked to discipline the players.

"Independent of what the GM did, the manager did, (the players) have an obligation to play by the rules and they didn't do it," Manfred said. "I understand when people say the players should've been punished. I understand why they feel that way ... If I was in a world where I could've found all the facts without granting immunity, I would've done that."

Because MLB granted the players immunity in exchange for information, Manfred said they are being punished through public shame, essentially. Answering questions about the sign-stealing scandal and having others (fans, opposing players, etc.) consider their accomplishments illegitimate is punishment enough.

"I believed that the most fundamental obligation was to get the facts, put them out there, and let people make their own judgment," Manfred said. "... If you look at the face of the Houston players as they've been out there publicly addressing the situation, they've been hurt by this."

As for stripping the Astros of the 2017 World Series title, that isn't happening. There's no precedent for it in baseball history and Manfred indicated he is not about to open that can of worms.

2. Manfred is not certain there were no buzzers

The conversation about how the Astros relayed signs has shifted from garbage cans to buzzers in recent weeks. Astros players have denied wearing buzzers or other devices as part of a sign-stealing operation after the banging scheme went away. Manfred said his investigation found no evidence of buzzers. He stopped short of saying the Astros did not use buzzers, however.

"You're never 100 percent sure in any of these things, but these were my best judgments," he said.

Manfred said MLB was aware of the buzzer allegations -- that includes the video of Jose Altuve refusing to remove his jersey following his ALCS walk-off home run -- before the garbage can investigation. According to Manfred, Astros players provided candid and consistent information regarding their cheating in 2017 and 2018, and they were equally consistent in their denials about the use of buzzers in 2019. He's taking their word for it.

"We were aware of the (Altuve video) well before we commenced the investigation," Manfred said. "It was in fact part of the investigation. Here's where I came down on it: the players were candid about 2017 and the fact they violated the rules in 2017. They were candid and consistent that the rules were violated in 2018. They were equally consistently in their denials about this buzzer situation.

"I think in my own mind, it was hard for me to figure out why they would tell us -- given that they were immune -- why they would be truthful and admit they did the wrong thing and '17, admit they did the wrong thing in '18, and then lie about what was going on in '19."

3. Retaliation will not be tolerated

Because MLB did not punish Astros players, there is a growing sense opposing players will take matters into their own hands. Indians righty Mike Clevinger, for example, alluded to throwing at Astros players. Manfred said that will not be tolerated and the 30 managers are being alerted to that this spring.

"Retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter intentionally will not be tolerated," Manfred said. "Whether it's Houston or anybody else, it's dangerous, and it is not helpful to the current situation."

It should be noted Manfred made it clear this applies to all teams and all situations, not only the Astros. MLB wants to crack down on pitchers intentionally throwing at hitters league-wide.  

4. MLB will have new rules to combat sign-stealing

Since 2017, MLB has implemented a series of rules designed to combat high-tech sign-stealing. Video replay rooms are monitored by MLB and dugout phone calls are recorded, among other things. Manfred confirmed other restrictions are coming this season. It is likely players will have limited access to live in-game video. MLB is working with the MLBPA to finalize the rules.

"Based on everything we've found in the investigations so far, a lot of the things we've undertaken in '18 and '19 so far have been very effective," Manfred said.

5. Red Sox resolution is coming

MLB and Manfred are currently investigating the Red Sox for a sign-stealing scandal during their 2018 World Series championship season. Alex Cora has already lost his job as manager in Boston, but more penalties could be coming. Manfred said the investigation is ongoing, but he expects a resolution by the end of next week.

"There have been a couple developments in the Boston thing that slowed us down, people who had to be reinterviewed as a result of things," Manfred said.

The Red Sox were fined for illegally stealing signs in 2017 and, when the fine was announced, Manfred said he "received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type." Because the Red Sox are now a repeat offender, they may face a harsh penalty relative to the Astros.

6. Other instances are being looked at

In recent weeks it has been reported several teams filed complaints to MLB about other teams illegally stealing signs over the last few years. The Red Sox were busted with their Apple Watch scheme in 2017 and an Astros employee was caught photographing the opposing dugout during the 2018 postseason, for example.

"Post the Apple Watch decision in 2017, we had had complaints from a variety of people about a variety of clubs, including the Astros," Manfred said. "And in response to those we undertook an effort to verify the assertions made."

Manfred said MLB is still looking for evidence to corroborate those allegations and would not comment further. He added the Astros employee photographing the opposing dugout during the 2018 postseason is "in the category of 'investigated and resolved' in my mind."

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And that's that. Press conference over.

February 16, 2020, 10:15 PM

Manfred also says they're discussing a new postseason plan but nothing is final.

February 16, 2020, 10:10 PM

In more non-Astros news, Manfred blames minor league baseball for miscategorizing their contraction plan, which has set things back. He says they plan to keep pro ball in every city with pro ball, but MLB's proposal calls for removing affiliation from some teams, making them independent, which hurts their bottom line.

February 16, 2020, 10:10 PM

Manfred says he would've punished Astros players in a perfect world.

February 16, 2020, 10:07 PM

Manfred addresses a Wall Street Journal report about the Astros' front office-led "Codebreaking" program, which helped the team figure out opponents' signs. Why wasn't the program mentioned in MLB's report? "That letter did not reflect our final conclusion as to the facts," Manfred said.

In non-Astros news, Manfred says he hasn't had a conversation with the Braves about the Tomahawk Chop. Says he's been too busy with the investigations.

February 16, 2020, 10:06 PM

Manfred says his preference is to not grant immunity, but he obviously felt it was necessary here.

February 16, 2020, 10:02 PM

Manfred says intentionally throwing at hitters (Astros or otherwise) will not be tolerated.

February 16, 2020, 10:01 PM

They expect to restrict in-game access to video going forward, though MLB is still working on that with the MLBPA.

February 16, 2020, 9:59 PM

Manfred says he wanted to collect the facts and "let people make their own judgment" about the Astros cheating. Woof.

February 16, 2020, 9:57 PM

He adds MLB looked into buzzer claims but the players wee truthful about 2017 and 2018, and he felt they were truthful in 2019.

February 16, 2020, 9:56 PM

Manfred says MLB looked into other sign-stealing accusations over the years, but they couldn't find any evidence.

February 16, 2020, 9:53 PM

Manfred expects the Red Sox investigation by the end of next week.

February 16, 2020, 9:52 PM

Manfred opens by saying the Astros players have "been hurt by this."

February 16, 2020, 9:51 PM

Press conference has started. Manfred starting with an opening statement about MLB's investigation into the Astros. Says he's "more than prepared" to tolerate the debate surrounding the punishments. Says that nobody in the Houston organization "escaped without punishment."

Just FYI, the press conference has not started yet. Still waiting for Manfred to take the podium.

February 16, 2020, 9:45 PM

I expect Manfred to defer to his report and the ESPN interview a bunch this afternoon, but hopefully he'll surprise us with new answers.

February 16, 2020, 9:30 PM

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred will hold a press conference at 4:30 p.m. ET at CoolToday Park -- spring training home of the Atlanta Braves. Follow along here for updates as Manfred discusses the Astros scandal and more.

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