Using the theory that anything that hurts the Astros helps the Mariners, the beleaguered Seattle baseball team already has had a magnificent offseason.
But if their overriding goal is to close the gap with the Astros — which has proven to be so vast as to be almost unfathomable — then the Mariners are succeeding merely by doing nothing. It’s as good a strategy as any: Sit back and watch their biggest rival self-destruct.
The Astros have absolutely owned the AL West for three seasons, and the Mariners are particularly distant specks. In that span, the Astros have averaged 104 victories per season, while the Mariners are 16 games under .500. The Astros are a cumulative 76 games better than Seattle since the start of 2017.
But from virtually the moment in October when they won their second American League championship in those three years, the Astros have been unraveling at an ever-growing rate. It was at the pennant celebration in the clubhouse that assistant general manager Brandon Taubman screamed the now-infamous words, in the direction of three female reporters:
“Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so (expletive) glad we got Osuna!”
The reference was to reliever Roberto Osuna, whom the Astros had acquired from Toronto in 2018 after he was suspended 75 games for violating baseball’s joint domestic violence policy. Their clumsy, tone-deaf and insulting handling of the resulting fallout from the outburst drew heavy criticism, cast a pall over the World Series and resulted in the eventual firing of Taubman on the travel day between Games 2 and 3. It also shined a spotlight on an organizational culture that was portrayed as toxic.
The Astros lost the World Series to the Washington Nationals in seven games by dropping the final two contests at home. Ace pitcher Gerrit Cole, who was 16-0 with a 1.78 earned-run-average in his final 22 regular-season starts, declared free agency and will almost certainly not re-sign with Houston.
Then came the unkindest cut of all — a story in The Athletic this past week that detailed a sign-stealing gambit in 2017 involving electronic surveillance at Minute Maid Park and the dissemination of upcoming pitches to Houston batters via banging on a trash can in the home dugout.
The Astros appear to be caught dead to rights, though MLB is investigating. They were hung out to dry by a former Houston pitcher in 2017, Mike Fiers, who went on the record with The Athletic to detail what the Astros did and how they did it.
A former Mariners pitcher, Danny Farquhar, backed up the story as well, and now all sorts of footage is emerging in which you can clearly hear the banging noise before certain pitches in Astros home games, as well as whistling. You might recall that the Astros were accused of whistling from the dugout to communicate pitches during this year’s American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
Now, the Astros are surely not the only team that cheated in this way — and it is, unequivocally, cheating. I subscribe to the belief, almost universal in baseball, that it is fair game to try to pick up signals via observation and brainpower, an activity as old as the game itself. But when it crosses the line into cameras and surveillance, that’s an ethical violation.
The Red Sox were fined in 2017 after an MLB investigation found they had stolen signs through the use of Apple watches and instant-replay monitoring. With new, sophisticated equipment readily available, the amount of paranoia over sign-stealing is rampant and not just limited to the Astros.
That said, the Astros seem to be at the forefront of the suspicion. During the 2018 postseason, both the Indians and Red Sox alerted MLB of a suspicious man with Astros connections who was taking pictures near their dugout. The Astros claimed they were merely trying to monitor those teams to make sure they weren’t cheating. MLB cleared them at the time.
But in light of these new revelations, you have to wonder. The Astros won the World Series in 2017, the year they are accused of sign-stealing; it stretches credulity to think they would just stop.
The Mariners are among the teams who have privately grumbled about Houston and its propensity for stealing signs — and like every other team the Astros dispatched on the way to the 2017 title and 2019 pennant, they are perfectly within rights to wonder how much it hurt them.
In 2018, in particular, the Mariners finished two games out of a playoff spot, so every game was vital. Facing the Astros in Houston that year, they actually had great success, winning eight of 10 games. That includes a four-game sweep in August in which they defeated, in succession, Justin Verlander, Cole, Charlie Morton and Osuna.
But as long as doubts remain about the fairness of play, MLB has a major problem on its hands. This is an integrity issue, above all else. When fans cease to believe that the playing field is even, that’s when any sport is in grave danger. It’s why Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis expelled eight members of the “Black Sox” from baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series. It’s why Pete Rose received a lifetime ban for gambling on baseball. It’s why the steroids scandal was so damaging to the sport’s reputation (at the same time that it was beneficial to their bottom line).
And it’s why most believe that commissioner Rob Manfred may well come down hard on the Astros. Sports Illustrated’s highly respected and well-connected baseball writer, Tom Verducci, reported this week that a source told him that “another former Astro may have information to share regarding a sign-stealing scheme by Houston this year. So that’s a potential death penalty for someone if it involved technology and can be proven.”
The ultimate irony is that Manfred’s star witness may turn out to be none other than Taubman. Perhaps he will be compelled to tell all the secrets he knows from his years in the Astros organization.
The upshot is that the Astros are now a team under siege. Once lauded for using every modern tool to build and sustain a championship team — as detailed, in admiring fashion, in the book, “Astroball: The New Way To Win It All,” by Ben Reiter — they are now replacing the Yankees in perception as baseball’s “Evil Empire.”
It’s highly unlikely that Manfred would make the Astros vacate their 2017 championship. But depending on what he finds, the commissioner could hit the Astros with a huge fine, with suspensions (or even lifetime bans; he’s done it twice before in other matters), and/or the loss of draft picks and/or a reduction of their international signing bonus pool.
Any combination would hit the Astros hard where it hurts most — and help do what the Mariners have been unable to do on the field: Close the gap with baseball’s most successful team.