A different spring training is nearing. One in which players are going to be asked not just generally about sign stealing. But very specifically their feelings about the 2017 Astros – and not just by reporters.
In a report last week following a two-month investigation, the Commissioner’s Office detailed an extensive system the 2017 Astros deployed to illegally steal signs using a live camera in center field and monitors positioned near the home dugout at Minute Maid Park. The revelations led to one-year suspensions for GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, who were subsequently fired by Houston. In the ensuing days the only other two people named in the report, Red Sox manager Alex Cora and Mets manager Carlos Beltran, also were fired.
But there will still be many players who were — at minimum — aware of the scheme who will be playing in 2020. That is going to lead to unusual and uncomfortable questions — particularly if they are now teammates with those who played against the 2017 Astros.
For example, Marcus Stroman has made multiple derisive references to the Astros on Twitter. On Monday, he referenced an Aug. 6, 2017 start in Houston in which enhanced audio has made clear the garbage can banging that was used to alert Houston hitters the type of pitch that was coming. Of that game, Stroman wrote Monday on Twitter: “S–t makes sense now. I remember wondering how these guys were laying off some of my nasty pitches. Relaying all my signs in live speed to the batter. Ruining the integrity of the game. These dudes were all about the camera and social media. Now, they’re all quiet! Lol.” He finished with an emoji of a face laughing to tears.
On July 8, 2017, in Toronto, Stroman had held the Astros to one run on six hits over seven innings. Four weeks later in Houston — where the cheating was centered — Stroman was strafed for 11 hits over 6 2/3 innings. That is tied for the second most he has allowed in his career. Stroman maneuvered to hold Houston to three runs. Three of the hits in that game were by Beltran, including the one that knocked Stroman out of the game. So it might have been uncomfortable had the righty had to deal with Beltran as his manager next month in Port St. Lucie.
But that does not ease all discomfort. J.D. Davis and Jake Marisnick were both on the Astros on Aug. 6, 2017. Davis did not play. But Marisnick started. He flew out deep against Stroman in his first at-bat. Marisnick’s second at-bat was a leadoff double that triggered a three-run Houston fifth that erased a 2-0 Toronto lead.
To this point, Astros players have either played dumb about the 2017 cheating or tried to move beyond the issue by saying the Commissioner’s Office ruled on the matter and they considered it closed. But those were under questions from reporters. What happens when it is player to player, especially teammate to teammate?
Perhaps this will die down quickly as the boldness of social media wanes when players are in close proximity. Or perhaps the code of being a teammate will override past transgressions.
But the anger among a group of players on social media is not subtle. The threat of retaliation against Houston hitters will hover throughout the season. Each time an Astro is hit by a pitch, especially by someone who might have faced them in 2017, a suspicion will emerge about intent. So the potential for more residue from this scandal remains.
The Mets, more than any team, have so far suffered the most collateral damage. The Astros lost their GM and manager — and perhaps their reputation. The Red Sox lost Cora as an investigation continues into whether Boston cheated in 2018 en route to succeeding Houston as champions. The Mets are not accused of cheating. Yet, they have fired their manager rather than try to navigate through the thicket of issues looming had they stuck by Beltran.
But they do have Davis and Marisnick, who were supplemental players on the 2017 Astros — but players nonetheless. And like everyone associated with that team, it is going to be difficult to play dumb about what happened when Hinch, Cora and Beltran have now publicly acknowledged — at minimum — lack of judgment, with the understanding those three and others from the 2017 Astros privately told MLB investigators details of the cheating scheme.
The players might offer some version of pleading the Fifth or PR spin to reporters. But that would be more difficult if confronted by teammates — or even opponents.
This spring training is going to be different.