Do the Cardinals deserve to lose draft picks for hacking Astros?

When Chris Correa hacked the Houston Astros multiple times, he broke federal law and will pay for his crimes. Determining an appropriate punishnment for Correa’s organization is a bit more difficult.

We still do not have all of the information. We will never have all of the information. At this point, we have enough to know that some sort of punishment is coming for the St. Louis Cardinals. We do not yet know the form it will take, but a very large fine seems likely, and there has been an increase in calls both in St. Louis and around the country for the Cardinals to lose some draft picks. Anything less, and it might be an indication that Rob Manfred is going soft on the man who chaired to committee that nominated him to succeed Bud Selig.

Jeff Passan wrote a piece on the scandal, and he lays out his feelings in the very first paragraph:

[T]his much is obvious: If Major League Baseball doesn’t dock the Cardinals draft picks in addition to a seven-figure fine, it is not just tacitly approving the computer crimes to which Correa pleaded guilty on Friday but encouraging similar nefariousness among other teams.

Passan is not the only one. Jim Bowden wants a minimum fine of $1.7 million, the Cardinals first two draft picks, and the Cardinals to pay the costs of the aftermath to the Astros. Mike Bates at SBNation is disappointed in the Commissioner for failing to act thus far, fairly pointing out that the Cardinals are responsible for the actions of their employees. As Alex Crisafulli wrote in his piece on whether the Cardinals offseason plans have been affected by the hacking scandal, Bernie Milkasz discussed the growing sentiment surrounding the scandal, and wrote that Manfred is left with little choice but to severely punish the Cardinals.

For their part, the Cardinals have attempted to paint the picture of Chris Correa as a rogue employee. Discussing the matter yesterday after introducing Seung Hwan Oh, Mozeliak indicated his first knowledge of the specifics of the hack came out when Chris Correa was indicted on Friday. While the incident might very well have been isolated to Correa, as it has been pointed out, Correa was a very important figure in the organization, rising to Scouting Director just over a year ago.

There is a small distinction to note in some of the reporting on this matter. That Chris Correa was Director of Scouting at the time of his firing and in charge of running the MLB Draft speaks to his importance within the organization, but he was not actually running the draft at the time the hacking occurred. Dan Kantrovitz was in charge of the Cardinals draft at that time. From the MLB.com article when Chris Correa was promoted in December 2014:

Correa joined the Cardinals in 2009 working in statistical analysis. He was promoted to Manager of Baseball Development in 2012 and named Director of the department last season, a role in which he provided statistical analysis and decision support tools to all areas of baseball operations.

Going to the Cardinals front office chart, it is not really clear who, if anyone, holds Correa’s old role today. The spin at this point would be to minimize Correa’s role in the draft in 2014 when the hacking occurred, but that is not totally true either. Howard Megdal has written a book coming out next month, The Cardinals Way (available for pre-order), that delves deeply into the Cardinals’ organizational structure at the time, including first-hand knowledge of that 2014 MLB Draft.

Megdal writes there were more than 40 people in the Cardinals’ draft room on the first day, but Chris Correa was sitting at a table with Chairman Bill Dewitt, Jr., General Manager John Mozeliak, Assistant General Manager Michael Girsch, and Director of Scouting Dan Kantrovitz. Correa’s input was important and Megdal noted Correa discussing with John Mozeliak right before the Cardinals supplemental pick, 34th overall, that was used to select Jack Flaherty. In the book, Megdal calls it, “the final mingling of pure scouting and analytics into the team’s process.”

Correa was not a decision-maker in that draft, but his role was an important one, and the Cardinals felt comfortable enough to give him a promotion to be a decision-maker just six months after the draft. How much Correa’s knowledge from hacking played a role in shaping the draft is unknown. Compared to the amount of hard work so many Cardinals employees put it into the draft, the effect was likely minimal. However, the possibility that competitive gain from hacking existed at all is a major problem.

As for a penalty, Bowden mentioned a deterrent effect, something akin to punitive damages to help make sure nothing like this ever happens again. I don’t by that deterrence is really a big factor in this case. A message does not need to be sent to clubs that they should not do something like this because MLB will come down hard. Any deterrent effect is served by Chris Correa’s guilty plea on Friday. The federal government had little problem identifying the culprit in this case, and prosecution of the crime figured to be fairly straight-forward, unlike domestic violence, which is incredibly difficult to prosecute and where the Commissioner faces some precedent-setting decisions with Jose Reyes and Aroldis Chapman.

The message that needs to be sent by the Commissioner is not one of deterrence, but of fairness. It is incredibly important that teams play on an equal playing field, finances somewhat excepted, and the Cardinals’ employee Chris Correa hacking the Astros on multiple occasions hurts that level playing field. The Astros had something stolen from them, and they need to be compensated. The Cardinals were the team stealing, so they should pay. Determining a figure is difficult.

Based on current public perception, a fine is too light a punishment. Taking away draft picks from the Cardinals is an option, but where do those draft picks go. While the player’s association has not spent a lot of time protecting the rights of amateurs, when they instituted the slotting rules, the league and players agreed that if a team went over slot and ended up losing a pick in the following draft, that pick would be replaced by a lottery similar to the competitive balance draft to ensure that bonus amounts stayed the same. This is further confounded by a CBA that ends at the end of the year, as potential changes to the draft and international acquisitions leave a future punishment up in the air.

Erasing picks without replacing them seems like something the player’s association would find objectionable. The bonus amount could be spread out among all teams, but again, that speaks to the deterrent effect of punishing as opposed to providing restitution to the Astros for being wronged. It is not clear how the rest of the owners would feel if the Astros received another pick. This also ties into the matter of Correa believing the Astros had stolen from the Cardinals.

So much of the rhetoric surrounding this hacking scandal has focused on the punishment for the Cardinals and that in order for everyone to know that Commissioner Manfred takes this matter seriously, he needs to exact a severe punishment. I disagree. If we want to know if Manfred is taking this matter seriously, then he needs to show an interest in actually finding out what happened.

When the Biogenesis scandal broke, MLB investigators showed no bounds in trying to determine who was using PEDs. They did not simply wait and hope that the authorities would turn over information. While interviewing Chris Correa might not be an option, there are many Cardinals employees who might have important information. Dan Kantrovitz, now with the Oakland A’s, was the person calling the shots in that 2014 draft. Has he been interviewed? If MLB wants to show that they are serious, it is not the punishment that matters, it is the investigation.

As it stands, MLB, the Cardinals, and the Astros all likely want this matter put to bed as soon as possible. There might be a fine. There might be lost draft picks or spending caps. If the interest is in hitting the Cardinals where it hurts and show that Manfred is not too close with Bill Dewitt, Jr., he could suspend the owner from baseball operations for a time. Those penalties would provide the perception that MLB is serious about this offense.

I am not calling for those penalties. Punitive damages in this case seem inappropriate when there is a guilty party in federal court. There might be some punitive aspect generally to deter teams from cheating, but it should not be as important as helping the wronged party. The Astros need restitution, and the Cardinals need to pay, but if the resolution comes before a full investigation, then what MLB takes seriously is the perception of punishment and not the actual crime.