The Houston Astros just got smacked down by MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred for the sign-stealing scandal that has rocked baseball like nothing since the steroid era.
There's no other way to spin the historic punishment the league levied against Houston on Monday: yearlong suspensions for manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow (who were consequently fired), the loss of first- and second-round picks for 2020 and 2021 and a maximum-allowable $5 million fine. Former assistant GM Brandon Taubman, who was fired in October for launching offensive comments toward female reporters, was also placed on the league's ineligible list.
As we sift through the wreckage of the Astros' fall from grace, the question is: What's next?
On the one hand, they're the defending American League champs. Other than co-ace Gerrit Cole, who bolted to the New York Yankees via free agency, they retain the bulk of their pennant-winning core. That includes top-tier stars such as second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman.
Their farm system isn't what it used to be. Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter ranked it No. 18, and the lost draft picks won't help—to put it mildly. Yet they have potential stars such as outfielder Kyle Tucker and right-hander Forrest Whitley knocking on the door.
On the other hand, outfielders George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick, as well as first baseman Yuli Gurriel, are set to hit the open market after 2020.
Add it up, and you've got a franchise in flux. New manager. New GM. Upcoming roster upheaval. And, most essentially, a scarlet "C." As in "cheaters."
The Astros' misdeeds have been well and widely documented, including in this official report from Manfred and MLB.
In a nutshell: Beginning in 2017, when they won the World Series, they used a camera, the video replay room and tricks including text messages and banging on a trash can to steal signs and relay the information to batters during home games.
Houston wasn't alone. The report also implicated the Boston Red Sox in similar sign-stealing behavior. Alex Cora, who was the Astros' bench coach in 2017, was relieved of his duties as Red Sox manager Tuesday.
It's not hard to imagine this was relatively widespread. Sport is always about gaining a competitive advantage, sometimes via ethically dubious means.
But the Astros' feet are closest to the fire.
The organization is also in a position to compete for another title. It's the favorite in the American League West, and, while New York snagged Cole and looks like a powerhouse, Houston will be a postseason factor.
At the same time, the Astros will undoubtedly be met with boos everywhere they go. This story isn't going away. It's already tarnished their recent run of success and will follow them through the 2020 season and beyond.
So, they have a choice: Put their heads down, drown out the negativity and do their thing or engage in some sort of apologetic PR campaign.
The latter approach might appease some league officials, fans and media members. They started down that road by firing Hinch and Luhnow.
They could go full Barry Bonds, who kept smashing home run records while allegedly taking performance-enhancing drugs and didn't seem to give much of a darn what anyone thought.
Probably, the Astros will straddle the line between those two approaches: apologizing in vague terms for their mistakes while trying to reach the playoffs and rehabilitate their image. That effort has already begun.
"I have higher standards for the city and the franchise, and I am going above and beyond MLB's penalty," Houston owner Jim Crane told reporters while announcing Hinch's and Luhnow's terminations. "We need to move forward with a clean slate, and the Astros will become a stronger organization because of this today. You can be confident that we will always do the right thing and will not have this happen again on my watch."
Even though MLB found no evidence Crane was aware of the sign-stealing scheme, the notion he had no hint of it strains credulity. When you own something valuable, usually you pay close attention to it. But he's trying to say the right things.
As for the Astros, after years of not doing the right things, they've been smacked down. It remains to be seen what shape they'll be in when they get back up.