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The Cardinals Hack Punishment: Leniency, Frustration, and Important Gaps in the Story

Analysis and Commentary

In the first, say, 30 seconds after MLB announced the punishment for the Cardinals’ hacking of the Astros now many years ago, I was satisfied to see that it was an actual punishment. I had so convinced myself that the Cardinals would receive almost nothing as a punishment – given the length of the investigation and the soft punishment given to the Padres – that I nodded to myself, “Yes, OK, they’ve actually been punished. This will sting a little.”

… and then those 30 seconds passed, and I remembered that the only reason the punishment seemed satisfying was because it stood in contrast, in my mind at that moment, to no punishment at all. That doesn’t mean the punishment was actually significant or even satisfactory.

Sure enough, as I typed out what would become my initial post on the punishment, I became more and more aggravated as I wrote – heck, you can see it evolving in the post.


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Reactions to the penalty from around the league were generally uniform, and in agreement: the punishment was too light.

Some examples:


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Ken Rosenthal writes about the perceived lenient punishment, describing in various comparative ways just how light it is. Moreover, he mentions that at least one rival executive believes the Cardinals aggressively targeted qualified free agents – eventually signing Dexter Fowler – because they knew they were going to lose draft picks anyway, and if they’d already lost their first rounder for signing Fowler, the punishment would effectively be less.

A reminder: the punishment enunciated in Commissioner Manfred’s statement holds that the Cardinals send their two “highest available” selections to the Astros. Surely that language wouldn’t have been the same if they still had their first rounder, right? Or are we to believe that, quite literally, the Cardinals shrank their own punishment by signing Dexter Fowler?


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To that end, and as a half joke, here’s what I wrote back in December, when the Cardinals signed Fowler:

A random thought on the Cardinals signing Dexter Fowler, and thus losing their first round pick in 2017: wouldn’t it just be the most awful kind of perfect if, after the signing was complete, MLB came out and said, “OK, Cardinals, now your punishment for hacking the Astros is the loss of your highest pick in the 2017 Draft!” I wouldn’t call that a likely thing to happen (and, even if it did, MLB might just frame it as “loss of a second round pick” anyway), but I also wouldn’t characterize that kind of thing being brokered behind the scenes as “absolutely impossible.”

Again, we don’t know that the phrasing of the punishment wouldn’t have been different if the Cardinals still had their first round pick, but … I mean … that’s almost exactly what happened. There will be some cynicism for years about this one.


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(You could also be frustrated that one of the picks the Cardinals lose in this punishment is a pick they are gifted by the CBA – a competitive balance pick, because of the size of the St. Louis market (ignoring their consistent spot in the top third of the league in revenue, and obvious consistent track record of competitive success). For me, I see that as an entirely separate issue, so I’m not going to expend too much of my anger on it.)


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Shortly in advance of yesterday’s announcement, Buster Olney wrote at length about the prevailing “hammer them” attitude around baseball. A sufficient punishment, according to the execs Olney asked? They talked about stripping multiple years of picks, international bonus pool money, and making sure the picks were high enough to really hurt. So much for that. (Olney also notes the history between Commissioner Manfred and Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., who was seen as a champion of Manfred’s ascension to the Commissioner’s seat when Bud Selig retired; some have seen that as, at a minimum, an optics problem if the punishment wound up being too light.)

The full statement from Commissioner Manfred can be read here, and you will see that heavy emphasis is placed on a “lone wolf” conclusion.

In the first dispositive finding, Manfred writes, “The evidence did not establish that any Cardinals’ employee other than Mr. Correa (who was the only individual charged by the federal government) was responsible for the intrusions into the Astros’ electronic system.” No other Cardinals employee, Manfred concluded, should be subject to punishment. That’s a good, and fair, and necessary element of the case, but the unstated implication here is that the “lone wolf” explanation also tempered the punishment for the Cardinals’ organization.


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And what rankles me there is that it shouldn’t matter if any other Cardinals employees were “responsible for the intrusions” if they knew about and benefited from them. I would have liked Manfred to acknowledge Correa’s admission in open court that he told Cardinals colleagues that he found Cardinals information in the Astros system. If that were true, then many other Cardinals employees knew about his hack while it was happening. If that is true, then saying that those employees were not “responsible for the intrusions” is akin to saying that someone who helps bury a body was not “responsible for the murder.” Yeah, we know. But that’s not the issue. The issues, and remaining questions, center on just how much the Cardinals were able to benefit from the information illicitly gathered by Correa, and just how little they did as an organization to stop it.


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Maybe no other Cardinals employees actually knew, and Correa simply lied about telling colleagues (for reasons I can’t quite fathom, but, hey, who knows). But at least address it. Not doing so – and resting on a “lone wolf” explanation – leaves a huge gap in this story.

There was no real precedent here for the punishment, and I do sympathize with Commissioner Manfred in that regard. He has a number of balls in the air that we aren’t even aware of, and I’m sure there would have been angry and frustrated constituencies no matter what he decided.


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That said, I question just how much deterrent value this punishment offers. Sure, many will point to the 46-month prison sentence for Chris Correa as enough deterrence, to which I’d say … sure, a deterrent against committing serious electronic crimes. But that already existed in the law. The deterrence here was supposed to be against MLB organizations crippling each other, and putting every other team in baseball at a competitive disadvantage through illicit means, whatever form they take.

With this punishment as the precedent for a very serious offense, I wouldn’t be surprised to see organizations continue to push the boundaries.


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Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor of Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation.