The Cardinals Got Off Light for the Astros Hack

It wouldn’t be fair to refer to MLB’s disciplinary record as toothless. There exists a relatively tough PED policy, and as of not all that long ago, there also exists a relatively tough policy on domestic violence. And last summer, the Red Sox were dealt a decently severe penalty for international signing violations, even though their behavior wasn’t exactly unique to them. The Red Sox were hit hard. Individual players have been hit hard when they’ve crossed the line. There’s not a consistent history of the commissioner being too light.

What we have now, though, are two penalties that have drawn similar reactions within the league. Many teams and team-people thought the Padres got off way too easy when A.J. Preller was suspended a month for withholding medical information in trade talks. And now, there’s a similar consensus belief about the penalty dealt to the Cardinals for Chris Correa’s repeated hacks of the Astros. Everyone had been waiting for a while to see how baseball would deal with an unprecedented conduct violation. In the end, the Cardinals are out a couple draft picks.

Baseball itself had to wait until it could impose any sanctions. Federal investigators got first priority, and only over the weekend did we learn a final ruling was close. Correa as an individual had already been given a jail sentence. Here are the full details of MLB’s discipline:

  • Cardinals send Astros $2 million
  • Cardinals send Astros draft picks No. 56 and 75 (top two picks available)
  • Correa placed on the permanently-ineligible list

There’s nothing surprising about the last bullet — Correa wasn’t going to get another baseball job again. There was more mystery about the first two bullets. Nathaniel Grow wrote about possible penalties all the way back in June of 2015, and this is in keeping with his analysis. There was never going to be, say, a postseason ban. There would be a lost job, or lost jobs, and there would be a fine. As Grow wrote, “the commissioner cannot fine an MLB team more than $2 million for any single offense.” That not being sufficient, MLB has also taken a couple picks. All a draft pick is to a team is money in a different, more human-like form.

I think it was inevitable it would come down to money and picks. It was simply a question of how much, and based on baseball’s investigation, Correa acted alone. As such, they didn’t want to treat the Cardinals too harshly, but what’s happened is that they probably went too soft as a consequence. I don’t personally know that many people in the game, but they’ve had the same response. Buster Olney knows a lot more people in the game. He used the words “shockingly light.” While this case was unprecedented, within major-league baseball circles, that’s all the more reason to err toward something tougher. By definition, this case was going to set a precedent, and the response suggests this isn’t a strong-enough deterrent.

To be clear, Correa is in jail. That’s a good deterrent. And there’s no history of picks being taken from one team and given to another, compensation picks aside. This is a first, and we all know how organizations value young players higher than ever. What really colors things in this case is that, from the outside, it looks like the Cardinals get to benefit from having already surrendered a high pick to sign Dexter Fowler. While it’s impossible to say what might’ve happened under other circumstances, it’s likely the Cardinals would’ve had to give up their top two picks no matter what. The penalty, then, could be considered reduced, because the Cardinals opted to sign a valuable free agent. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, and as you probably already knew, draft picks, on average, lose their value fast.

The best draft picks are the earliest draft picks. That’s how it’s supposed to work, but the historical drop-off is extreme, after the earlier part of the first round. The Cardinals are forfeiting a pick in the back half of the second round, and then the last pick between the second and third rounds. Nothing is ever perfectly demonstrated by a single anecdote, but consider the Rays draft in 2011, when they had 12 of the first 89 picks. They also had none of the first 23. From that whole crop, the Rays have gotten Blake Snell, and then no one better than Mikie Mahtook. The picks the Cardinals are losing simply aren’t that valuable, and any real value, anyway, wouldn’t materialize for a number of years. You could estimate that, overall, this violation has cost the Cardinals an employee and something like $5 – 10 million.

Maybe that’s okay with you — I don’t know. I can’t exactly say what’s fair, because this had never happened, so there isn’t an outline of how to proceed. It’s also impossible to determine to what extent the Cardinals organization benefited from the information Correa took. It’s not like he kept it all to himself, and it’s not like he was un-influenced by what he saw. On the other side of the same coin, we don’t know how badly the Astros were hurt. Yet I’m also not sure how much that matters. At the end of the day, this was one team employee hacking into another team’s database. Said employee repeated his act dozens and dozens of times. Baseball would’ve been under pressure to send a forceful message, and it would appear, in that regard, they’ve failed.

I’m not sure how many draft picks would’ve been sufficient. There might’ve been the additional opportunity to give the Astros some or all of the Cardinals’ international signing pool. A small fine won’t do much to affect an organization, so you have to go after the pipeline of talent. Losing two non-premium picks doesn’t sting. The Fowler consideration makes it all worse. The Cardinals were never going to get completely and utterly torn apart, but all this is is a bump in the road, following the first known hack in major-league history. I don’t know how effectively this is going to prevent a second.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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