Ex-MLB Pitcher files lawsuit against Astros over Sign-Stealing Scandal

Spring is here and baseball is finally returning from what has been a tedious offseason for just about everyone involved. Of course, at the heart of the frustration lies the now-infamous sign-stealing scandal that undoubtedly gave the Houston Astros a disproportionate competitive advantage en route to their 2017 World Series championship. However, while fans, players and front office execs alike are all justifiably upset with the Astros’ cheating, one former pitcher has particularly good reason to not only be frustrated with the ex-champions, but also take them to court.

On August 4th, 2017, Mike Bolsinger of the Toronto Blue Jays entered the game in the 4th inning to relieve as they were trailing the Astros 7-2. With a runner on and two outs, Bolsinger’s outcomes are as follows: walk, three-run home run, double, walk, single, walk, warning-track fly out. As a result of the horrendous outing, his ERA ballooned from 5.49 to 6.31 (league average was 4.36 that year) while his WHIP went from 1.66 to 1.81 (avg. was 1.33) and the Blue Jays promptly designated him for assignment after what would prove to be his final game in the big leagues since.

Given his stats —and if we’re being honest the eye-test too— it is clear Bolsinger certainly was never a Cy Young candidate by any means, yet the degree to which he gets teed-off seems oddly high. You can watch the entire appearance here, but the MLB’s investigation confirms part of what we see unfold in the clip: the Houston batters knew what pitches would be delivered before they were even thrown and allegedly used the trash-can-banging system on 12 of the 29 pitches Bolsinger threw. So, the question becomes, “If the Astros had not stolen signs, would the results of Bolsinger’s appearance be different in a way that would have ‘saved’ his job?”

The official way in which this civil suit is being framed is whether or not the Astros  engaged in unfair business practices and negligence via a “duplicitous and tortious scheme of sign-stealing.” Though initially filed toward the Astros organization on February 10th, the original grievance contained Doe defendants, essentially defendants to-be-named later, which reportedly likely include Astros Owner Jim Crane.

The significance of his involvement in this lawsuit stems from Commissioner Rob Manfred’s summary of Crane’s role in the scandal. Manfred wrote, “Jim Crane was unaware of any of the violations of MLB rules by his club,” plainly exonerating him. However, after the year-long suspensions and subsequent firings of general manager Jeff Lunhow and manager A.J. Hinch, Crane is the last man standing among a splintered front office and has been able to keep himself isolated from any sanctions. While it remains to be seen how directly the lawsuit aims to implicate Crane, it is possible that more details about his understanding —or lack thereof— of the cheating are made public which would inevitably drag out the controversy even further.

Odds are that the lawsuit will never reach trial, however if it did how would it play out? The only thing close to a baseball crime of this magnitude traces back to 1919 when eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of intentionally losing the World Series in exchange for a share of the profits from a gambling syndicate. So, while there isn’t a true precedent, a couple factors will outline the way the case proceeds.

First, grievances dealing with a player’s salary are covered by a labor law preemption, meaning that the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the MLB and MLBPA will govern any bargain between the feuding parties. To that end, the Astros can appeal the court to dismiss the lawsuit so that Bolsinger must arbitrate. There are several considerations that follow and make this aspect of the proceeding much more complex, however SportsIllustrated has covered these nuances in depth here for those who want to go a step further.

More interesting, however, is the question of whether or not the “Astros game” truly caused the derailing of Bolsinger’s career. As his aforementioned stats show, 2017 was already shaping up to be a make-or-break season for the 6’1″ righty as he was carrying a mediocre 6.83 ERA from the year prior into his first (and only) season with the Blue Jays. Yet, despite forfeiting 21 earned runs in just 27.2 innings in that 2016 season, 2015 provided a lot of hope for Bolsinger’s future in the league when he started 21 games, tossing 109 innings to the tune of a cool 3.62 ERA.

So, did Bolsinger, a 10th-round pick who never cracked any top-prospect lists, truly have a potential future that was unfairly derailed by Houston’s cheating? Or was his 2015 season just a fluke and his departure from the big leagues always inevitable? The most challenging aspect of all of this is that this outing against the Astros proved to be his final appearance in the MLB, so it is easy to hypothesize the “what ifs” that could have changed the course of history. Yet, I’m inclined to think that Bolsinger’s career would have been effectively over regardless of how bad a bashing the Astros gave him on that August 4th game.

Between his uninspiring rise from prospect obscurity to what seemed to be a failed starter-turned-reliever experiment, Bolsinger had the profile of someone destined to be in the MLB just for a cup of coffee while teams try to figure out if he has the “it” needed to stay. Toronto took a flier on him and despite returning to Triple A and posting an electric 1.70 ERA over 47.2 innings, its clear that the Blue Jays and the rest of the league were ready to move on from him.

These considerations are why this lawsuit figures to be so complex and monumental. Bolsinger’s attorney, Ben Meiselas of LA-based Geragos & Geragos, has a steep case to make, but successfully represented Colin Kaepernick in his collusion grievance against the NFL. The ramifications of any settlement that may be reached are far-reaching traveling all the way up to the office of the Astros owner and could prompt more players to follow suit (no pun intended). In any case, the dark cloud of Houston’s sign stealing scandal that looms over baseball won’t be going away any time soon.

Checking in on Boston’s 2019 Payroll

Image result for red sox contractDespite dropping two out of three games against the Chicago White Sox, the Red Sox stand at 44-22 on the year, good for best in all of baseball. While the team has been experiencing incredible success, it has certainly come at a steep cost – $235 million to be exact, also best in baseball by a large margin. Playing in a large market, Boston is always expected to have a big payroll, however this year’s is the highest is has ever been. It is a result of a combination of factors such as a trio of poor, past investments (see: Pablo Sandoval $95 million, Hanley Ramirez $88 million and Rusney Castillo $72 million), a wealth of mid-money talent and large contracts for the team’s most reliable stars like J.D. Martinez and David Price. The good news, however, is that a lot of money will be coming off the books after the season, when several players will have to make decisions about their free agency.

The first round of savings will come from the aforementioned poor investments made under General Manager Ben Cherington. Hanley Ramirez, who was cut from the team earlier this season, was signed by Cherington to a 4 year, $88 million dollar deal in 2014, so the Red Sox will have $22 million dollars to play around with in free agency if they are comfortable with their current payroll figure. Moreover, the John Lackey trade that brought Allen Craig to the Red Sox will take its toll for the final year, as the team will shed the last $1 million of the $25 million the team has paid (for close to zero production might I add).

The next group of players, Chris Sale, David Price and Eduardo Núñez, all have options, be it club or player, that will have just as big an impact on next year’s payroll. While Sale has a club option (meaning the team gets to choose whether or not he is on the team next year), Price and Núñez have player options. However, it is hard to imagine any of them not being a part of the 2019 ball club.

Sale, again pitching at a Cy Young caliber level, is on tab to earn $15 million next season. Yes, it is a nice bump from the $13 million he is earning this year, but it is well below market value for a pitcher of his pedigree. So, the Red Sox will certainly activate the option and he will have to wait one last year before a large payday in free agency.

Price’s player option for 4 years and $127 is slightly trickier. Much has been made about Price’s struggles and unhappiness in Boston, but a large portion of this has been overblown by the media driven by last year’s altercation with fan favorite Dennis Eckersley. In reality, Price is the second ace on a team that will be a World Series contender for the foreseeable future and is pitching well in a big market like Boston. Couple this with teams’ unwillingness to give big contracts in last year’s free agency, it is virtually impossible to see Price walking away from so much guaranteed money and a chance to win his first-ever World Series ring.

Núñez is in the midst of a subpar 2018 campaign where he has hit .256 with four home runs. His player option for next year is for $4 million, which is about right for a middle infielder with his levels of production. Although originally signed as a utility player, he has seen much more starting time than anyone anticipated thanks to the recurring knee injuries to Dustin Pedroia. So, while he has not exactly impressed, he is serving a decent replacement role that adds value to both himself and the club. Barring a strong second half, it is hard to see Núñez testing free agency, especially with a 2019 market that includes plenty of other strong infield options.

The final area where the Sox can cut some payroll is from their pending 2019 free agents. This class consists of Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz, and Joe Kelly. Kimbrel is earning $13 million this year, but is in line for a big raise, having recorded 86 saves alongside a 2.23 era for the Red Sox since they acquired him in 2016. While the team will certainly want him back, they will have to open up their wallets as Kimbrel has arguably been the most reliable closer in the league over the last decade, with over 300 saves. The good news for Boston is that Zach Britton and Kelvin Herrera, both very strong relievers, will also be free agents in 2019. So, if the team elects not to get in a bidding war, there are fallback options, however they have been thrilled with Kimbrel’s production thus far and will do everything they can to have him back in uniform next year.

Drew Pomeranz has faced a little “Clay Buchholz syndrome” during his brief time in Boston. After the controversial trade in which the Padres failed to disclose Pomeranz’ necessary medical information, the curveball-heavy pitcher has been off, then on, then off-again in what has been a rollercoaster experience with the Sox. Given, it is hard to say what he could earn on the open market. Teams will likely be wary to invest multiple years into Pomeranz with his recent performance and injury struggles, so he will likely sign a one-year deal to build up some value. However, it is hard to see the Red Sox being that team. Between Steven Wright impressing in his first few starts of 2018 and top prospect Jalen Beeks knocking on the door, there is simply no need for Boston to bet on a Pomeranz renaissance campaign.

And finally, Joe Kelly. His first four years with the team saw many ups and downs and he was probably the hardest player to “figure out” on the team. While he always possessed a fastball that could touch 99 mph, he often struggled with control and composure late in games, even leading to a demotion in 2016 to AAA Pawtucket. However, Kelly in a new player in 2018. An early season brawl with the Yankees’ Austin Martin has made the reliever a fan favorite and given him a new edge on mound. He has been stellar in his 28 appearances so far and has provided stability to the setup role, which has sorely missed Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg to injury. Kelly is another hard case to predict what he might earn in free agency given his spotty past, but a two to three year contract averaging around $5 million per year should be a reasonable price tag to retain him.

Ultimately, while the Red Sox are shedding some money from their payroll next year (likely around $32 million), they will need a sizable chunk of that cash to bring back Kimbrel and Kelly (or another reliever). This also does not yet account for arbitration eligible players like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, amongst roughly ten others, that will all be due for a slight bump in pay. So, while the 2019 free agent class is loaded with young talent, the same can be said with the current Red Sox team which features five key starters age 25 or younger. Accordingly, don’t expect to add any big names to next year’s jersey wish list, because the team will likely be investing in their own talent rather than entering what is likely to be a competitive free agent market. But that’s not such a bad thing after all, because the 2018 Boston Red Sox already have the talent they need to make a deep playoff run and they will be back to do it all over again in 2019.