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Listen, I understand what the New York Post’s Joel Sherman was going for in a recent piece on the Astros, I really do. He tried to couch it all, and repeatedly, in language that protected him from saying the sign-stealing the Astros performed in 2017 was acceptable. His goal was instead to point out that what Jeff Luhnow built was more than a team that stole signs through an elaborate ploy involving technology en route to a World Series championship. And that’s true! Jeff Luhnow, as general manager of the Astros, did help build a team that continues to be competitive to this day, even two years removed from his direct influence at the top of baseball operations.
Here’s Sherman on Luhnow:
In 2012, in Luhnow’s first year taking over, before he could have influence on production out of a feeder system, just 27 players in the majors had been signed to their original pro contract by the Astros, second fewest in MLB. This year, there are 75. Not only was that the MLB-high through Thursday, but it was 14 more than the runners-up Yankees and Cardinals — and Luhnow came to Houston from St. Louis, where he helped make its pipeline among the sport’s best.
Not all of the 75 came via Luhnow’s tenure. But he helped set up the processes by which Houston would procure talent. The Astros were the first to heavily use technology in the field, particularly to help pitchers, and what Houston has received from its procurement of Latin talent the past two years has helped it thrive even after losing Justin Verlander (Tommy John surgery). Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and Framber Valdez were this year a combined 34-16 in 101 games (74 starts) covering 466 ¹/₃ innings with a 3.26 ERA.
Luhnow may never get back in the majors, but what he left behind is having a substantial impact. Many of his disciples are sprinkled throughout the sport — including Milwaukee GM David Stearns, who is arguably best suited for the Mets’ top baseball job (Stearns was gone from Houston by the time of the cheating scandal).
Again, there is no pardon being offered here for the 2017 Astros. Simply recognition — fed by results this year — that the success was about more than stealing signs.
Paraphrasing what a wise man once said, you don’t, under any circumstances, gotta hand it to Jeff Luhnow. Sure, the Astros are still a good and competitive team, one that very well might win the World Series, and that’s in no small part thanks to the players that Luhnow bequeathed to his successor, James Click. On the other hand, the culture Luhnow created was monstrous, at literally every level. The major-league team concocted a cheating scandal so significant that even the perpetually looking-the-other-way Major League Baseball couldn’t fully turn away from it (as much as they tried) when its existence became public. The front office cheered the acquisition of domestic abuser Roberto Osuna — who came at a discount in a trade because of said domestic abuse — to the point that the assistant general manager ended up getting fired after harassing women about the whole situation because the Astros had just won a ballgame. Luhnow wanted to draft Luke Heimlich, a convicted child molester, because said conviction hurt his draft stock and made him available later than a pitcher with his arm normally would have been available, The entire plan to shrink down the minor leagues, ripping professional baseball from a number of cities and opening up the door for even more underpaid — if they are paid at all — players to exist came from Luhnow.
There are other general managers who can discover good baseball players and make good roster decisions without going shopping for domestic abusers and child molesters and cutting out large swaths of the minor leaguers and sitting atop the most significant cheating scandal in at least a century’s time, you know. There are other people capable of doing the good things Luhnow did without the entirety of the rest of his résumé coming with it. There is zero reason to rehabilitate Luhnow in any way! Like I said, you don’t gotta hand it to him.
Nearly every punishment attached to the 2017 Astros was underwhelming. The players were not punished, despite perpetrating the scheme, because MLB granted them immunity for cooperating with the investigation. Since then, the players have complained about fans being mad at them about the whole cheating their way to a World Series trophy thing, when “fans being mad at them” was the extent of their punishment. The team’s owner, Jim Crane, is one of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s 30 bosses, and since he’s not at Frank McCourt levels of embarrassing even with the cheating happening under his nose (and presumably with his approval at some level), his punishment was extremely light. The Astros got to keep their World Series championship. Alex Cora and A.J. Hinch are employed again already. Carlos Beltran is the only player who suffered any real punishment, and while it’s unfair in the sense that Cora and Hinch are employed again, Beltran’s status as the sign-stealing ringleader among players does set him up to be something of a problem as a manager of an MLB team. I’m sure that, at some point, his penance will be over with, however, and he’ll arrive at his inaugural press conference, hat in hand, to tell us he’s a changed man, and the whole thing will be forgotten about like it’s been for Cora and Hinch.
That all just makes it even more important that we tell Luhnow and any interest in rehabbing him where to shove it. His exit from MLB is the only just punishment received in the entire ordeal, and there is no reason to change that. Time will not heal the kind of person Luhnow is, or how he thinks: He’s been away for two years now, but his influence, his stench, is still found throughout the entire game. He is directly responsible for so much of what is hateable about the philosophy of the modern front office, of the ruthless quest for efficiency over everything, and his being gone, his not being able to create any more acolytes than he already has, is a feature, not a bug.
So, no, even with it just being a mild attempt at rehabilitating any portion of Luhnow’s abilities or his character, we can’t let it slide. Anything Luhnow does well, you can find someone else for the job. As Sherman notes, he probably won’t be called in as the answer to the Mets’ woes, given they already have plenty of their own scandals to deal with, but eventually, someone else is going to say, “why don’t we give Jeff Luhnow a shot?” And I’m already prepared to be furious about that day, and so should you.