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Cardinals get off light in MLB hacking scandal

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Rob Manfred’s penalties allow the Cardinals to keep their future first round choices and allows their player development machine to roll along virtually unencumbered.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Eighteen months ago, in the wake of the news that a Cardinals employee had breached the Houston Astros’s database of players and internal communications, I wrote that Major League Baseball needed to “hit the Cardinals organization where it hurts. Where they live. You need to take away what matters to them. The Cardinals have always prided themselves on playing “The Right Way” and of building their club through their excellent player development system. Major League Baseball needs to cripple that system.”

Today, in the wake of the news Chris Cotillo just reported, that the Cardinals would lose their first two picks this year (numbers 56 and 75) and $2 million, I am disappointed that the league did not go nearly far enough to establish a strong deterrent to other teams who might do something similar.

Look, I’m not going to pretend that this won’t hurt the Cardinals a little, but it won’t be nearly as much as it should. By signing Dexter Fowler, the Cardinals surrendered their first round pick this offseason. In essence, they lose a second round pick in the middle of the round and a competitive balance pick tacked on to the end of the second round. And in limiting the damages to this season, Rob Manfred is helping St. Louis in the long run by leaving them with the excellent center fielder they acquired for their first round pick (and several million dollars), and a first round pick next year as well. And, of course, $2 million is almost nothing to a Major League team. It won’t even buy you a decent middle reliever.

It’s all the more disappointing because, even though the league could not find any evidence that the Cardinals knew their employee, Chris Correa, had stolen the information, it beggars belief that Correa did not use the information he stole in the execution of his job as scouting director to help the Cardinals between the time he committed corporate espionage and the time he was arrested. Major League Baseball actually acknowledges this when it points out that the Cardinals are “vicariously liable” for what Correa did and that the Astros “suffered material harm.”

And what is that harm worth? Not even a first round draft choice. In 2016, the Red Sox were found to have “bundled” prospects, circumventing the league’s international bonus rules for amateur free agents by paying one player a large sum, and having some of that money redistributed to players whose bonuses were officially listed at $300,000 (the most the Sox were allowed to sign someone for at the time). As a result, Major League Baseball released all of those players and banned the Sox from signing anyone off of the international market that year. The move set a strong precedent for teams in the future. Indeed, what the league has taught us is that it’s only willing to bare its teeth when a team wants to give more money than it’s technically allowed to to poor amateur teens. With this move, Commissioner Rob Manfred makes it clear that everyone’s first round picks are safe, even if they are breaking federal law.

On the other hand, it would be surprising if the clubs in question can find an individual willing to break into another team’s system thanks to the lifetime ban against Correa is important in that it may act as a deterrent to future attempts to hack into private data systems. Many of Baseball’s executives sacrifice a great deal to remain in the game, taking positions for far below their worth in a more open market and working exceptionally long hours away from their families. The idea that that would all be for nothing is probably enough to terrify them into keeping their hands clean, at least in the near future, until the memory of what happened to Correa fades enough that someone else tries something similar.