Astros cheating scandal: What we know … and what remains unknown

Major League Baseball has levied unprecedentedly harsh penalties on the Houston Astros organization following an investigation into sign-stealing allegations dating back to the team's World Series-winning season in 2017. 

Astros owner Jim Crane later announced the firing of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow.

Here's what we know about the scandal … and some questions still left unanswered:

— Why did MLB come down so hard on the Astros? Don't all teams steal signs?

Yes, all teams bend the rules to some degree, but MLB issued a league-wide warning in 2017 when a Red Sox coach was caught stealing signs using an Apple watch. Around the same time, the Astros had already begun a much more elaborate system of stealing opponents signs using a center field camera, a video monitor near the dugout and a plastic trash can.

Astros using cameras to steal signs, a breakdown pic.twitter.com/rncm6qzXxw

Another reason MLB punished the Astros so severely (maximum fine of $5 million, loss of first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021) is because their actions were so blatant and they continued into the 2019 season.

MLB warned teams repeatedly in 2017, 2018 and 2019 not to use electronics to steal signs. The severe penalties are also meant to serve as a deterrent for any teams who might consider the practice in the future.

— With their manager and GM fired, who will run the Astros?

Even with Hinch and Luhnow no longer employed, the Astros aren't lacking in organizational brainpower. Crane will take over GM duties for the time being, but he did indicate he might turn things over to an internal candidate.

Astros owner Jim Crane just said he will oversee baseball operations and made reference to a general manager candidate internally. That would be Pete Putila, who was elevated this offseason to assistant GM.

Astros bench coach Joe Espada has been a hot managerial candidate the past two offseasons. He interviewed for several open jobs a year ago and most recently was interviewed by the Cubs before they hired David Ross in October to succeed Joe Maddon.

Espada, 44, has been on Hinch's staff since 2018 and is expected to be named interim manager for the 2020 season.

— Why weren't any players disciplined?

In his report, Manfred concluded the sign-stealing operation was "player driven," but he did not include any punishment for players in his decision. 

Although former Astros outfielder (now Mets manager) Carlos Beltran was mentioned specifically, Manfred said he was unable to "determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability." 

The fact that some players have since left the Astros and are playing for other teams complicates the issue. And if Manfred were to punish players, he could face opposition from the MLB Players Association. In the case of MLB team employees, Manfred's decision is final.

In addition, Manfred said in 2017 he would hold managers and club executives accountable if teams engaged in any further illegal sign-stealing. That's just what he did.

Manager A.J. Hinch, former bench coach Alex Cora and then-outfielder Carlos Beltran watch from the visitors dugout as the Astros play the Rays in 2017. All three are central figures in MLB's report on the Astros' sign-stealing scandal. (Photo: Jason Behnken, Getty Images)

— What about Alex Cora?

As the Astros bench coach in 2017, Cora seems to have played a major role in setting up the sign-stealing operation. According to the report, Cora was the one who arranged to have a TV monitor set up outside the Astros dugout. 

After the Astros won the 2017 World Series, Cora was hired as manager of the Boston Red Sox. MLB is currently investigating the Red Sox over similar allegations of sign-stealing in the 2018 season, when they won World Series.

If Cora is found to have been involved in two separate cheating scandals, he could face a suspension even longer than Hinch's.

— Will the Astros' World Series win in 2017 come with an asterisk?

MLB learned its lesson with Roger Maris. And Barry Bonds.

What happens on the field speaks for itself. The records and the stats from the games that have been played are recorded in the history books. How people interpret them is something else altogether. 

Despite any sign-stealing that may or may not have helped them reach the World Series, the Astros still defeated the Dodgers in seven games. Fans can debate whether or not the Astros won fair and square — the same way they debate whether or not Bonds is the "true" home run king. 

Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner

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