In the two weeks since Major League Baseball released its investigative report on the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal, the dismissals of three managers and a general manager have consumed most of the sport's headlines. Yet there's a subtext to the whole ordeal that shouldn't be ignored: MLB has a credibility problem, and it begins with commissioner Rob Manfred, and extends to the teams and October, the month which doubles as the season's finish line and baseball's holy ground.
Each of the past three postseasons now demands a caveat. The 2017 Astros' sins have been put on display, just as the 2018 Boston Red Sox's could be once MLB concludes its investigation. (The Red Sox have already dismissed manager Alex Cora, who was a member of both of those teams and figures to receive a lengthy ban.) Even the Los Angeles Dodgers, the runner-up in both of those years, cannot pass a purity test as the Department of Justice continues to look into their dealings on the international free-agent market. As for last fall, the Washington Nationals saved some face for MLB by edging the Astros, and have not been outed as cheaters. The postseason as a whole, however, seemed to feature a baseball that differed from the regular-season edition for reasons Manfred and company cannot or will not explain.
It's a bad sign when the consistency of the most fundamental aspect of the sport cannot be taken as a given. It's a bad sign when fans and players are pondering the legitimacy and authenticity of the results on the field. Above all, it's a bad sign when both of those aspects are true and are coinciding with the league cozying up to legalized gambling. One needn't be a soothsayer to see murky waters ahead.
Fair or not, the blame for MLB's sticky situation ultimately falls on Manfred. That's part of the commissioner's job. He receives credit for boosting revenues, and so he must receive blame when the game is on the verge of a potentially disastrous confidence problem. Manfred certainly hasn't done himself any favors with how he's handled the Astros scandal.
Although MLB's report found that the Astros' sign-stealing operation was "player-driven," Manfred granted the players immunity in exchange for testimony. Presumably, Manfred wanted to avoid a situation in which he would have to battle the union, or be tasked with extinguishing a wildfire of allegations that engulfed one-third or half of the league. Some will find validity in that approach, but the obvious shortcoming is that Manfred did not create a disincentive for players who might be tempted to construct a similar scheme. It's possible that prioritizing a quick fix versus a potentially ugly and lengthy investigation -- one intent at wholly punishing and eradicating technological misconduct -- Manfred left the door open for a copycat.
This is true on a franchise level, too, despite Manfred's best efforts. He did punish the Astros by suspending GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the season; by stripping Houston of four draft picks; and by levying a $5 million fine (the maximum under the Major League Constitution). Manfred also stressed the innocence of owner Jim Crane, who thanked the commissioner by subsequently circumventing half the punishment and firing both Luhnow and Hinch. (Keep in mind that the commissioner works for the owners, and is not an independent and unbiased moderator of the game; in a sense, Manfred cleared the name of one of his bosses.)
The purpose of those season-long suspensions was to put the Astros at a disadvantage; to make them operate from underneath all year, without their trusty architect and skipper. Instead, the Astros washed their hands. Perhaps Hinch and Luhnow are better than the individuals the Astros will employ in those roles in 2020, but it's fair to suggest that the ability to start anew violates the spirit of the penalty.
Certainly the Astros will miss the draft picks. The money? Not as much. Houston has seen its franchise value increase, from $1.5 billion entering 2017 to $1.8 billion entering 2019, according to Forbes' estimates. The Astros gained $50 million in revenue during their title-winning year. Crane might have been ignorant of the organization's wrongdoing, but he has and will continue to benefit from them in the one way that makes other owners envious: financially. It might not take one bad actor so much as one blind eye for the Astros' problematic culture to spread.
Perhaps all of this will pass in time for Opening Day, and MLB will find a way to regain fans' lost trust. Things might get worse, however, given how cynically teams approach roster-building these days. Hence two of the league's marquee franchises, the Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, looking to trade homegrown superstars in Mookie Betts and Kris Bryant, in part to save money, despite the league shattering revenue records with each passing year; hence the Baltimore Orioles appearing content to run out a Triple-A-caliber roster; and so on.
Even if Manfred succeeds in smoothing things over, as it pertains to the sign-stealing and altered-ball scandals, one gets the sense the league won't be out of the credibility woods. Not with the ongoing public spat with Minor League Baseball, and not with looming labor talks that could threaten the 2022 (and subsequent) seasons. Baseball isn't dying, but it could stand to be healthier.