MLB could not have punished Astros players even without immunity?
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has been heavily criticized for not punishing any Houston Astros players in the team’s sign-stealing scandal, but the reality is he may not have had a choice. Or, at the very least, there is likely no way Manfred could have had any disciplinary action against players stick.
Evan Drellich of The Athletic spoke with several sources who are familiar with the labor relations between MLB and the MLB Players Association, and the consensus is that any fines or suspensions handed down to players would have easily been overturned by arbitrators upon appeal. One official expressed confidence that MLB would have been “smoked” and made to “look a fool” during the appeals process.
The reason for that is MLB does not currently have any specific guidelines in place for how players who are found guilty of illegally stealing signs will be punished. While the league implemented more rules about sign stealing in 2017 and has sent memos to teams in each of the past three seasons, it was made clear before that club management would be held accountable for any electronic sign stealing. According to Drellich, the reason for that is MLB believed team officials controlled video access for players and thus could oversee whether or not the video was used to break the rules. The 2019 memo to teams specifically stated ““Clubs and Club Personnel (other than players) will be subject to progressive discipline by the Commissioner’s Office for violation of these Regulations.”
Those words would have been used against MLB in any potential appeals from players, and the league would have had an extremely weak case. Even without that fairly cut-and-dry language, Manfred admitted in his recent interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravech that former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow did not forward the league’s memo about sign stealing to the players. In addition, former manager AJ Hinch knew about the sign-stealing scheme and did not stop it, while former Houston bench coach Alex Cora was one of the masterminds behind it.
Players could have easily argued that they were simply going along with something their bosses allowed and perhaps even condoned. Between that, the league’s official stance on sign stealing, and Luhnow not passing along relevant information to players, MLB would have stood no chance in arbitration hearings.
That is likely why Manfred granted Astros players immunity in exchange for their honesty about what went on. It also explains why he has done the same with another ongoing investigation.
All that said, you could argue that the optics would have been better if Manfred suspended and/or fined players — even if he thought the punishments would eventually be overturned. Some of the game’s best players have openly questioned their peers not being disciplined, and Manfred would have saved some face if he at least tried.