As Major League Baseball continues its investigation into allegations of electronic sign stealing by the Houston Astros, Commissioner Rob Manfred said on Tuesday that he had the power to enact significant penalties, suggesting that the league was taking the issue much more seriously than it had in the past.
Teams are not allowed to use electronic equipment to steal signs during games, as the Astros have been accused of doing by using a camera and a monitor. When the Boston Red Sox were found to have communicated information from the replay room to a trainer in the dugout in 2017, the league merely fined them — but in doing so, Manfred warned of more serious sanctions, including the loss of draft picks, for future violations.
At the owners’ meetings in Dallas on Tuesday, Manfred referred to the Red Sox’s case and said: “The general warning I issued to the clubs I stand by. It certainly could be all of those things, but my authority under the major league constitution would be broader than those things as well.”
Manfred added that baseball’s current investigation is limited to possible violations by the Astros, who have been accused of using a camera during home games in 2017 to pilfer opposing catchers’ signs, then communicating the type of pitch to the hitter in real time by banging a trash can near the dugout entrance. The former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers detailed the use of the system to The Athletic in an article published last week, and widespread audio and video evidence has seemed to confirm its existence. The Astros won the World Series in 2017, going 8-1 at home that postseason.
The league is said to be well underway in its investigation, which it plans to complete before the winter meetings begin in San Diego on Dec. 8. The Astros have drawn widespread suspicion from other teams and fans of promoting a culture that pushes — or perhaps goes beyond — the boundaries of fair play to get an edge.
The league is trying to determine not just the nature of any possible infractions, but also who devised and ordered them, according to a person familiar with the investigation. That would seem to put General Manager Jeff Luhnow, Manager A.J. Hinch and other top officials at risk of suspension, depending on the findings.
The league will seek or has already sought information from Boston Red Sox Manager Alex Cora, the Red Sox coach Craig Bjornson and Mets Manager Carlos Beltran, who were all in uniform for the Astros in 2017 — Cora as the bench coach, Bjornson as the bullpen coach and Beltran as a player. But they are believed to be at much less risk of discipline than those who held top leadership roles in 2017.
“Any allegations that relate to a rule violation that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter,” Manfred told reporters on Tuesday. “It relates to the integrity of the sport.”
Two years ago, when M.L.B. investigators found that the Atlanta Braves had violated international signing rules from 2015 to 2017, the league barred General Manager John Coppolella for life, barred a special assistant, Gordon Blakeley, for a year, declared some prospects to be free agents and slashed the team’s bonus allotment for international players.
While Coppolella’s punishment was especially severe because he had not been truthful with investigators, Manfred said then that he had imposed harsh discipline “to send a message” about the seriousness of violating the rules.
Now, with the rapid growth of technology in baseball — and the possibilities for its misuse — Manfred may use the Astros case as a chance to give a strong deterrent to others who may be tempted to cheat.