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News & Notes On Astros Punishment

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By Jeff Todd | January 14, 2020 at 7:28am CDTIf you missed it yesterday, the Astros sign-stealing scandal reached a breaking point. The organization was fined $5MM and lost its top two draft choices in each of the next two drafts. The club canned GM Jeff Luhnow and skipper A.J. Hinch after each received one-year league suspensions. Individual players were not punished. Former bench coach and current Red Sox manager Alex Cora awaits his fate.
We ran some polls on the punishment. You can add your opinion there. But don’t expect to hear from other organizations at this time. We also covered an apparent leaguewide gag order on the controversy that emerged last night through a curious club announcement from the Dodgers.
Let’s run through some other notes and reactions …
Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper explains how the draft situation will be resolved. Rather than simply striking the Astros’ picks from existence, and reducing the overall spending pool by a significant figure, MLB will bump every other team up a peg in the slotting system. That’ll result in only a relatively meager reduction in the total draft spending outlay that incoming professionals can receive. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com looks at the lost prospect value for the Astros. It’s reasonably significant, though it’s important to highlight the fact that the Houston club was already locked into a low choice for the coming season and seems highly likely (barring a change in organizational direction) to select down the line again in 2021. While there’s no questioning the impact to the overall slate of talent that the team will be able to pull from these two drafts, it’s not likely that the ’Stros will end up missing out on down-the-line superstars.
There’s still a lack of clarity regarding the near-term leadership of the Houston baseball ops department and dugout. In the front office, Crane says he’ll run things for the time being (via MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand; Twitter links). He also noted that he still employs someone who was brought in previously for GM interviews by other organizations — clearly, a reference to assistant GM Pete Putila. It stands to reason that Putila will be leaned upon heavily in the near-term, though the long-term plan remains to be seen. Feinsand further tweets that bench coach Joe Espada is “expected” to take over for Hinch. It’s fair to wonder whether these approaches are really set in stone. Crane said he was looking for a blank slate and said the team’s internal assessments were still ongoing. Perhaps there’s a path for Putila and/or Espada to take on expanded roles, but that’ll surely depend in no small part upon whether either ends up being implicated in whole or part in the scandal. And Crane will need to consider whether an immediate outside hire or two would be wise — a tough move at this late juncture of the offseason.
ESPN.com’s Jeff Passan examines the (still muted) reaction from around the game. It seems that other teams aren’t overly impressed by the seriousness of the sanctions, which were announced by Manfred in a conference call in which he also made clear that there was to be no public whining. But anonymous complaints are perhaps only beginning. Passan reports that those in other organizations feel the Astros — and Crane in particular — were able to orchestrate things to perfection. As we noted yesterday in our above-linked poll, Manfred cabined responsibility to the Astros’ baseball operations while specifically absolving Crane (and the team’s business side as well). And Crane got to put on a public show of shock and contrition, filling the airwaves with his emotional response and the drama of a live, public firing announcement.
That report mirrors the earlier trickles of reactions that we have seen. An unnamed top executive that spoke with ESPN.com’s T.J. Quinn (Twitter link) explained why even the seemingly harsh sanctions weren’t really adequate. The impact on game and season/postseason outcomes is impossible to isolate but unquestionably significant. Quite a few opposing players surely missed out on earning opportunities, whether through missing postseason proceeds, dents to their statistical track record, and/or lost MLB opportunities. The same is true of rival organizations, though it seems in at least some cases they may also have misused technology — albeit not, so far as has been alleged, in anything like the manner the Astros did. None of that can be unwound, but it’s important perspective.
Additional top baseball decisionmakers spoke to that same point with Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription link). The damage is widespread. So is the blame, Rosenthal opines. While we’ll all have our preferred villains and heroes in the scandal, perhaps none but a few brave whistleblowers deserve anything approaching plaudits. If Luhnow’s punishment reflected the culture he created within the Houston organization, as much as anything, then perhaps Manfred carries an analogous responsibility for the sport’s overall spiral in this arena. Rosenthal says “this is Manfred’s sport,” hinting at a lack of foresight in rolling out replay streams and facilitating the rise of a generation of “general managers emboldened by analytics, all trying to outsmart one another.”

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NL Notes: Marlins, Brewers, Knebel, Taylor

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By Anthony Franco | January 26, 2020 at 11:51pm CDTWe’ll round up a few notes from the Senior Circuit to finish the weekend.
The Marlins are in ongoing negotiations with Sinclair Broadcast Group about a new TV rights contract, reports Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. The parties’ current deal, which will pay the club a league-low $20MM for broadcast rights on Fox Sports’ regional networks in 2020, expires at the end of the season. The figures the parties are discussing for 2021 and beyond are unclear. However, Jackson notes that the Marlins turned down an offer which would’ve paid north of $50MM annually in 2017; that offer was put on the table after the current Bruce Sherman/Derek Jeter group agreed to buy the franchise, but before the franchise sale was completed, and new ownership preferred to negotiate the TV deal on their own. Whether that particular offer (or something higher) is still on the table isn’t known. What is apparent, however, is the new TV contract will be far more lucrative than the old deal, which could spur ownership to significantly increase spending on player payroll (Jackson estimates an extra potential $20MM annually) in future seasons.
Brewers’ reliever Corey Knebel is progressing well from March 2019 Tommy John surgery, manager Craig Counsell told reporters (including Adam McCalvy of MLB.com). Knebel won’t be ready for the start of the season, but he’ll begin throwing from a mound next week as he ramps up his rehab, McCalvy reports. Knebel signed a one-year, $5.125MM contract to avoid arbitration in December, suggesting the club believes he’ll make an impact in 2020.
Brewers’ outfielder Tyrone Taylor underwent minor surgery this offseason to repair a wrist injury, he told reporters (including McCalvy). Nevertheless, Taylor should be at full strength for the start of spring training. The 26-year-old has only 12 MLB plate appearances to his name. Coming off a passable two-year run in Triple-A and with Milwaukee having traded Trent Grisham to San Diego this offseason, though, Taylor has a shot to earn a reserve outfield spot in spring training.

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Ryan Braun Discusses Future – MLB Trade Rumors

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Franchise icon Ryan Braun is entering the final guaranteed season of the contract extension he signed with the Brewers nearly a decade ago. Now 36, the former MVP is nearing the end of a storied career. In fact, it’s not out of the question that 2020 could prove to be his final season, he acknowledged to reporters (including Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) today at Fan Fest.
“I don’t take for granted this could be my last year playing baseball,” Braun told reporters. “It’s definitely a possibility,” he elaborated when asked if he would contemplate retirement after the 2020 season. “We’ll see how the year goes, see where I’m at physically. Obviously, my family’s always my top priority, so we’ll see how everything’s going then.”
Needless to say, that’s hardly a declaration that he’ll certainly hang up the spikes. He added that he doesn’t anticipate making a final decision until after this season, when he can reevaluate his health and family situation as well as the team’s outlook. Braun’s contract does come with a $15MM mutual option for 2021, but mutual options are rarely exercised. Typically, the price point is either high enough that the team would prefer to buy the player out or low enough that the player would rather explore free agency. In Braun’s case, it seems likely the Brewers would buy Braun out for $4MM rather than exercise their end.
That’s not to say, however, that Braun won’t be a key factor on Milwaukee’s 2020 outlook. He’s coming off a strong 2019 effort, in which he hit .285/.343/.505 (117 wRC+) in 508 plate appearances. The club anticipates him taking a similar number of plate appearances this season, he told reporters today. The longtime corner outfielder confirmed that some of that work figures to come at first base, where he’s played just 18 career games (all in 2018). Milwaukee’s corner outfield mix is crowded, with offseason signee Avisaíl García joining MVP candidate Christian Yelich and Ben Gamel. Yelich, notably, is at full strength for spring training after a knee injury ended his 2019 season in September, he told reporters today (including Haudricourt).
Today’s comments from Braun are perhaps unsurprising; that a 36-year-old player may at least entertain thoughts of retirement after the season won’t raise many eyebrows. Nevertheless, it’s notable to hear Braun verbalize the possibility. He is, as mentioned, still a productive hitter. In all fourteen of his MLB seasons, he’s been above-average at the dish by measure of wRC+. He’s certainly unlikely to return to the vaunted offensive force he was in his prime, but Braun still figures to be a valuable player in 2020. Should he again produce at the plate, he’d no doubt draw interest from teams next offseason, if he chooses to keep playing.

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