Jeff Luhnow is suing the Astros, claiming he’s a scapegoat

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Former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow is suing his old team as well as Major League Baseball, according to the Los Angeles Times. Luhnow has been on something of an “I’m innocent!” tour of late, with regards to whether he knew anything about the Astros’ elaborate sign-stealing operation, and all of that was likely a way to plow the road for this lawsuit.

You are probably wondering why I’m bothering to write about this instead of just laughing it off as a desperate move by Luhnow to clear his name — and I cannot tell you how much I wish I were able to do that — but there might be a nugget of truth in here somewhere. Not regarding his innocence, of course: Luhnow definitely knew something was up, I do not care how many thousands of carefully curated text messages he brags about to tell you the opposite is true. The part of Luhnow’s suit that got my attention had to do with MLB and the Astros negotiating a punishment. Per the Times:

Jeff Luhnow sued the Houston Astros for breach of contract on Sunday, alleging that Astros owner Jim Crane and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred negotiated penalties for the sign-stealing scandal that enabled the team to paint Luhnow as “the scapegoat for the organization” and fire its general manager “in order to save more than $22 million in guaranteed salary.”

Luhnow’s lawsuit uses quotation marks around the word “investigation” and calls it “a negotiated resolution” between Crane and Manfred “that enabled the team to keep its World Series championship, went to great lengths to publicly exonerate Crane, and scapegoated Luhnow for a sign-stealing scandal that he had no knowledge of and played no part in.”

Again: Luhnow had to have known this was going on, so the “scapegoated” portion of things is only true in the sense that Luhnow was the biggest fish getting fried here, while owner Jim Crane basically got an apology from Manfred for interrupting whatever he was in the middle of, even though it’s Crane who is at the top of the organization. It’s not difficult to believe, though, given the kind of culture Luhnow was allowed to implement in Houston with regards to efficiency and the money it can save — remember, Luhnow is the one who came up with the plan to shrink the minors and cost 1,000 players their jobs — that Crane would have been happy to sacrifice his GM in order to not only save face, but also because there was $22 million in it for him. That’s just business, Jeff, you McKinsey types know how it is.

Remember, too, that just a few months before, MLB might have had a hand in making sure the Astros fired assistant GM Brandon Taubman in order to save both the Astros and MLB face during the postseason. If that’s what happened, it helps you think that Luhnow might have a point here. The Astros — including Luhnow — clearly did not understand why Taubman had to go, based on how they talked about his behavior and punishment. You’re going to have a hell of a time trying to convince me that Taubman was let go for a reason besides “MLB told the Astros it would help make this all go away, so Houston begrudgingly complied.”

Considering all of the above, the idea that this was a negotiated settlement to keep Crane from taking on any major punishment is also not difficult to believe. However, there is one wrinkle and problem in just assuming that’s what happened here, as it didn’t need to be a negotiated settlement, necessarily, in order for things to play out like they did. At the time the punishment was doled out to Houston, I wrote a piece headlined “Astros’ $5 million fine a reminder MLB works for the owners, not the other way around.” In short, Manfred was never going to levy a major punishment against Crane, as he works for the people who helped decide what the punishment could even be:

The other MLB owners might be upset that the Astros and especially their owner, Jim Crane, got off so light in his punishment — MLB commissioner Rob Manfred basically opened up MLB’s statement on the matter by exonerating Crane of all wrongdoing, and then lightly tapped him on the wrist while removing a few draft picks and some spare change from the organization — but they’d want similar treatment were they in a similar situation. Basically, you’ve got 29 other owners upset that the one of them that was caught didn’t get hit harder. Well, maybe 28: the Red Sox will get what’s coming to them soon, too.

Why would Manfred go with such a light punishment? This isn’t just my opinion that it was light: as Jeff Passan was told by a team president, “Crane won… The entire thing was programmed to protect the future of the franchise. He got his championship. He keeps his team. His fine is nothing. The sport lost, but Crane won.” Manfred and the league work for the owners, not the other way around, and that’s at the center of all of this.

The owners are the ones who put into place the maximum fine of $5 million, in MLB’s constitution. It’s a number that can look impressive in many punishable contexts, like situations that aren’t showing that the entire integrity of MLB and the game it plays are at risk. The fine falls well short of what it should be in this situation, but there’s nothing to be done

There is little chance, too, that MLB would have wanted to take away Houston’s 2017 World Series championship. It might have been a threat at some point in order to help move the punishment discussion along (if there really was one), but Manfred’s actions (and inactions) show that this is a league that mostly wanted the entire controversy to go away. Taking away the Astros’ championship would not have been helpful in that regard, and again, is maybe not even something Manfred could get away with doing, given the other owners might have eventually turned on him for that kind of use of his authority, likely with Crane at the center of whatever conspiratorial group formed to work toward removing Manfred from his role. If that was never truly in play, then Luhnow’s lawsuit has two major issues with it: the championship was never in danger of being stripped, and Luhnow might be a scapegoat, but he’s not an innocent one.

Given all of that, my guess is that Luhnow’s suit goes nowhere. Unless he has some major evidence he’s been holding onto that a court would feel exonerates him, or incontrovertible proof that Manfred and Luhnow hammered out a negotiated agreement that would see Luhnow sacrificed, then he’s probably not going to see this go anywhere. There’s little chance MLB or the Astros would settle, as settling would imply guilt, and again, without real proof that Luhnow is telling the truth here, it’s hard to believe he’d come away with a clear win in court.

There might be a little bit of truth somewhere in what his lawsuit claims, with regards to Luhnow’s ousting being a requirement to end the investigation, but not enough here adds up unless you assume Luhnow is innocent. And given everything we know about him and how he operates, why would you ever assume that?

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