How MLB should punish sign-stealing teams and players

Sporting News

Even as I was reading The Athletic’s latest well-reported breaking news piece on sign-stealing in baseball — this time, from three anonymous sources from the 2018 Red Sox — I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between this current baseball embarrassment and one MLB struggled through for decades: the steroid/PED scandals.

The story even mentions the connection because, at the core, the issue is the same: The cheaters are ahead of MLB, and MLB is wildly trying — often failing — to catch up. And the reasons for the cheating are essentially the same: The idea is that everyone else is doing it (taking PEDs/stealing signs), and those who aren’t are at a distinct competitive disadvantage.

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So what lessons can MLB learn from the PED problems? Many, of course, but let’s start with the biggest one: Punishments have to be significant, legitimate deterrents.
Robinson Cano, a Cooperstown-bound second baseman who had an impeccable reputation and was well-liked throughout the sport, tested positive for a diuretic that can be used as a masking agent, and was suspended without pay for 80 games in 2018, costing him nearly $12 million. That’s a significant, legitimate deterrent, folks.

And it’s not the only way MLB has, finally, seemed to wrestle control of the PED situation. Testing is more thorough. Chances of a player getting caught are significantly higher than 10 or 20 years ago. And players know that if they’re caught, the price to pay is high.

If you’ve followed me in the past, this potential solution might sound familiar. It’s not the first time I’ve stood on a soapbox and preached the power using punishment as a deterrence. I’ve said the same thing for players being punished for domestic violence incidents. I’ve said the same thing for pitchers who intentionally throw fastballs at batters’ heads. And though the links from years ago seem to have disappeared, I wrote the same about PED suspensions.

To make a real impact, punishment has to be about prevention, not just punishment for the sake of punishment.

One quote that stuck out from The Athletic’s story was this, on teams using technology to steal signs because of the thought — accurately, surely — that everyone else was doing it.

“Oftentimes it takes a player to show up and be like ‘You f— morons, you’re not doing this?’” said one American League executive.

It’s pretty clear that the moral angle — “We’re not stealing signs because it’s against the rules” — isn’t working in today’s game, not with so much at stake. So when a player comes to his new team and wonders why they’re not using technology to steal signs, MLB needs to make sure the answer is this: “It’s just not worth the potential punishment.”

It will be interesting to see how MLB punishes the Astros. After the Red Sox and Yankees were fined for incidents in 2017, commissioner Rob Manfred warned that future punishments would increase, significantly, for any teams found to steal signs with use of technology.

The same warning needs to be attached to the Astros’ punishment. It took too long for MLB to increase suspensions for PED users, largely because it was a complicated process that involved the MLBPA. There are no such restrictions here.

Here are a few thoughts for potential punishments:

Loss of draft picks

Draft picks, plural. First rounders, plural. There are few things cost-conscious front offices value more in today’s climate than draft picks. Take them away, for multiple years.

Want to really make it hurt? Identify a primary traditional rival for each team, and give those draft picks to that rival. Imagine if the Red Sox — using this recent example, if MLB determines cheating happened — had to give their next 2021, 2022 and 2023 first-round picks to the Yankees. Yikes.

Or imagine if, as part of the Astros’ punishment, the Rangers were allowed to claim any player from Houston’s system who isn’t on the 25-man big-league roster. Or imagine if every team from the AL West was allowed to choose one player not on Houston’s 40-man roster.

I’m mostly kidding about the rivals thing. Mostly. Kinda. But, y’know, it could work.

Fines

Massive, whopping fines. Millions and millions of dollars. Don't be afraid to fine a team $25 million. But don’t give the money back to baseball. MLB owners have plenty of money. Might as well put the money to good use. Lots of charities doing meaningful work could use a cash infusion. Spread it around.

Banishments

MLB isn’t focusing on punishing players in the Astros’ case. The focus is on front-office and on-field personnel (managers/coaches), and that’s fine for now. It’s not enough for a front-office type to be fired, though, because that just means they’re suddenly a free agent. They need to be banished from baseball, beginning with one year and building from there, depending on their determined involvement.

Remember when Chris Correa, the former Cardinals scouting director, was banned for life for hacking into the Astros’ scouting database? That's a deterrent.
Starting in 2020, though, players need to be fair game, too. The responsibility cannot rest solely on front-office personnel and managers/coaches. Start the player suspensions at 80 games, without pay, and go from there.

Playoff bans

I’m going to stop short of this.

There is a fine line between punishing a team/front office and punishing a fan base, and declaring a team ineligible for the postseason takes away the hope of October for an entire season. I hate that punishment in college sports — largely because punishments are often handed down years later and impact players who weren’t even around when the infractions happened — and I hate the idea of punishing professional fan bases that way, too.

Same thing for the idea of vacating titles (division titles, league championships, World Series titles). Flags fly forever. Vacated Final Fours are stupid, and changing a coach’s career win/loss record is dumb, too.

Punishments have to be about prevention, not punishing for the sake of punishment. Taking things out of the official record book doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.

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