ROUND ROCK — Former Houston Astros president Reid Ryan put the franchise’s current sign-stealing saga in perspective on Wednesday.
“In some ways,” said Ryan, who was unceremoniously and wrongly demoted to executive adviser to team owner Jim Crane despite a very successful run as team president, “it feels like SMU in the ’80s.”
So are the Astros facing baseball’s version of the death penalty that set back the Mustangs’ high-flying football program decades to the extent that it has never been the same?
Not to minimize the damage done by the systematic cheating through the use of technology despite stern, prohibitive warnings from the MLB commissioner, equating Houston’s penalties with SMU’s crippling punishment in 1988 would be an extreme overreaction. And Ryan doesn’t, except on the emotional level.
“No, they’re different sports,” said Ryan, who was part of the Houston Astros’ media caravan that stopped at Dell Diamond on Wednesday. “In college, you have scholarships. Obviously, there are going to be a lot of changes because we now find ourselves without a manager, without a general manager and without a president. There are a lot of things in flux. But everybody knows there will be strong consequences.”
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch paid the ultimate price, losing their jobs for knowing or condoning the cheating and creating a culture that MLB.com’s Richard Justice called “a toxic environment” in an interview for our “On Second Thought” podcast.
SMU’s punishment took a much bigger toll.
The Mustangs, which had their 1987 and 1988 seasons canceled in the aftermath of booster-run, slush-fund payments that even Texas Gov. Bill Clements approved and eventually just phased out, was deprived of 55 scholarships over four years. They have had just six winning seasons since, three of them by a single game over .500. Only now, some three decades later, are the Mustangs barely peeking out of the ’80s carnage.
Similarly, the Astros will proceed with less talent, but it won’t be noticeable right away. Under commissioner Rob Manfred’s edict, they will be forced to forfeit their first- and second-round picks each of the next two years, punishments that will severely damage the club’s ability to stock its farm system and make trades.
If you don’t think so, consider that the Astros won the 2017 World Series with three first-round draft picks as the nucleus of the team in Series MVP George Springer, shortstop Carlos Correa and third baseman Alex Bregman.
It’ll hurt significantly, just not immediately, because the Astros are still flush with talent. Houston will still be able to spend money on international prospects and, as Ryan pointed out, the club has an outstanding roster that also includes 2017 MVP Jose Altuve, four-time All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley and first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who had a torrid July last season when he hit five home runs in five games and had eight RBIs in a single game.
Ryan declined to address whether the scandal has tainted the team’s only World Series title.
“That’s an interesting question,” he said. “Baseball is a really tough game. You still have to hit the ball. You still have to play on the road. I feel that in 2017 when what the city was going through with Hurricane Harvey, a joy was brought to the city of Houston that can never be taken away.”
And two other recent first-round selections by Houston are likely to be big contributors to the major league club this summer. Outfielder Kyle Tucker, the Pacific Coast League player of the year with 34 homers and 30 stolen bases while hitting .295 and driving in 97 runs, has been called up twice and should compete for a starting spot with Josh Reddick. He’s not eligible for AL rookie of the year because his 131 at-bats last season exceeded the major league maximum by a single plate appearance.
“It’s whatever,” shrugged off Tucker, a first-round choice in 2015. “I’m OK with it. I can still win the MVP, and I’d rather have that. That’d be nice.”
He was just joking. Kind of. But he would have been a strong candidate to duplicate former Round Rock Express designated hitter Yordan Alvarez’s season as rookie of the year.
Tucker was on the playoff roster that lost to the Washington Nationals in last season’s World Series, but said he had no knowledge of the elaborate sign-stealing scheme in 2017. He first heard of the reports of the punishments while he was out shopping with his mother.
His Express teammate Forrest Whitley, the 6-7 right-hander who was taken in the first round in 2016, will compete for a spot in the Astros’ rotation this spring. But a spectacularly bad season last summer and shoulder fatigue issues will likely plant him in Round Rock for most if not all of 2020.
“I’m going to be cautiously optimistic,” Whitley said. “But I’ve got confidence in myself that I will throw well in the Grapefruit League and make a good impression. If not, I will try to come and dominate here.”
But the loss of draft picks will hurt them more down the road, much as the four-for-one swap for Arizona ace Zack Greinke last summer will. Houston will be without two first-round prospects — first baseman Seth Beer and right-handed pitcher J.B. Bukauskas — and a second-round choice in pitcher Corbin Martin, who were all sent to the Diamondbacks.
The penalty will seriously undercut the Astros’ ability to make trades like those that brought Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Greinke. To bring in Cole in 2018, Luhnow had to part with four players who figure to be in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lineup this spring in starting pitcher Joe Musgrove, third baseman Colin Moran, outfielder Jason Martin (if he’s back from shoulder surgery) and reliever Michael Feliz.
It won’t happen immediately, but the Astros will take a big hit. It’s going to take some time for them to recover.
“It’s been a crazy week,” Ryan said. “It’s still very, very fresh. We’re appreciative for the good things Jeff and A.J. did for the organization, and the healing process is going on.”