Astros history will never be the same

Assessing the fallout of the Astros' Black Monday

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Black Monday is typically the name given to the day following the conclusion of the NFL's regular season, the day many teams announce the firings of head coaches as a result of disappointing performances. There is no equivalent of that in the MLB, as managers and members of a club's front office typically come and go sporadically throughout the year. Still, whether you agree with the events that transpired or not, Monday, January 13, 2020, will go down as a stain on the Houston Astros franchise.

MLB levies severe penalties

Many expected the MLB and its commissioner to send a message through their punishment of the Houston Astros once they completed their investigation into 2017 sign-stealing. Nonetheless, the reports that surfaced on Monday afternoon still sent shockwaves through the sport.

The penalties included 1-year suspensions of Manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow, along with the loss of first and second-round draft picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, and a fine of $5 million, the most allowable in the sport's current constitution. The spectrum of reactions to the news was broad, ranging from being too harsh towards Houston to not being severe enough.

It came as no surprise, given Manfred's stance that he would hold a team's General Manager and Field Manager accountable for infractions of this kind, that he dealt the disciplines specifically to Luhnow and Hinch. It was a way to make a statement while avoiding the nearly impossible task of trying to narrow the scope of the investigation to individual players and the complexity that would come with trying to enforce those penalties.

Did Jim Crane act too hastily and harshly?

Shortly after the MLB announced commissioner Rob Manfred's statement and the subsequent actions, Astros owner Jim Crane called for a press conference to expand things further. He went several steps farther than the MLB, firing both Hinch and Luhnow for their lack of intervention into the scandal, which had the team in turmoil.

While Crane was rightfully displeased with his GM and Manager, completely severing ties with them was a drastic statement, especially considering the commissioner's report which concluded that neither directly took part in the sign-stealing, and in fact, had this to say about Hinch's involvement:

"Hinch neither devised the banging scheme nor participated in it. Hinch told my investigators that he did not support his players decoding signs using the monitor installed near the dugout and banging the trash can, and he believed that the conduct was both wrong and distracting. Hinch attempted to signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the monitor on two occasions, necessitating its replacement."

In regards to Luhnow, the investigation did not find any evidence that he directed or was involved in the team's cheating, and instead spoke to the mishandling of his GM duties:

"At least in my view, the baseball operations department's insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the Club's admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred."

You can read the full report here: Commissioner Rob Manfred's Report on Astros 2017 sign-stealing

Things escalated rapidly for the duo of Hinch and Luhnow, who went from learning about and starting to deal with an upcoming year of being suspended from their team to not having a team at all as Crane decided to clean house. It's no question that while the "it starts at the top" approach is valid, completely ending the tenures of two of the most influential members of franchise history is startling, to say the least.

Despite a lack of punishment, the rest of the team still has a burden to bear

Yet, although no current or former Astros players will receive formal discipline from the league, the damage has been done. Like it or not, the 2017 championship season has been disgraced. Whether it materially affected the outcome of the season is no matter, the league confirmed the cheating, and that will be enough to alter the story surrounding the year that brought the city of Houston it's first long-awaited World Series victory.

While we may never know the extent any specific player took part in the cheating, the league and its fans will now question the integrity of each player and judge them in the court of public opinion. The team formerly regarded as the feel-good story of 2017 by putting a city on their back after the wake of Hurricane Harvey will now be known as the team that cheated their way to a championship.

Still a strong group of players, but will start the season working uphill

While many will want to get back to baseball after these events, that may not be easy for the 2020 Astros. Not only will they have to find someone to be Manager and GM, but they will have to go up against potentially hyper-motivated opponents looking for revenge from years past.

Outside of the opposing players themselves, the Astros will also undoubtedly face harsh terrain in road stadiums, where fans will be vocal about their newfound opposition to the team. Does the roster have the ability to overcome that and still put together a strong season? Yes, but they now face uncharted territory as they assume their role as the new villains of the MLB, a role that few would have expected during the euphoric parade on the downtown streets of Houston a little over two years ago.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

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Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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