A story that has been slightly dormant over the past few months has picked up in intensity as former Cardinals employee Chris Correa has been sentenced to 46 months in prison for hacking the Houston Astros database on numerous occasions while working for the Cardinals. There have been calls for wide-ranging punishments, but the loudest voices tend to agree that a fine is not enough, and that a more direct, on-field punishment is necessary. It’s not clear that Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred agrees.
It’s probably time to punch a hole into the arguments that any punishment is needed for a deterrent effect. Chris Correa will be serving 46 months in prison. No person in baseball can claim ignorance about the potential penalty. Any member of any organization is now very much aware of possibility of jail time for participating in any scheme involving another team’s private data. Any executive would have to be a complete idiot to try and push someone down the ladder to participate, thereby risking their own freedom that some other employee would later take the fall. Teams will do just about anything to try and win games, but the deterrent effect of individuals risking federal charges is greater than any penalty MLB could possibly impose.
The easiest analogue to the Cardinals situation might be the Boston Red Sox international penalties. Due to exceeding monetary caps in previous years on international spending, mainly to sign Yoan Moncada, the Red Sox were limited to signing any player above $300,000 last year. As an organization, the team decided to circumvent that limit by spreading out bonuses among multiple players with the player they wanted to sign for more than $300,000 eventually getting money from the signing bonuses of the other, packaged players. No federal charges are coming to the Red Sox for this situation, so to prevent other organizations from doing the same and to prevent the Red Sox from benefiting from breaking the rules, they voided the contracts of the players involved (eliminating the benefit), and disallowed any international signings during the current period (deterrent effect).
The Commissioner doesn’t see the same situation with the Cardinals:
"I do not see a great parallel between the Red Sox situation and the St. Louis situation, principally for these reasons: The Red Sox, to their credit, accepted organization responsibility for what went on," Manfred said. "We don’t have all of the facts in the St. Louis/Houston situation. To date, there has been no implication that this was an organizational problem but there has been an indication that it was one employee, did something inappropriate, the organization found out about it, and fired the employee. Those are very, very different things."
For the Cardinals, no deterrent is needed given the prison time involved. We are left with eliminating the benefit and punitive damages for the Cardinals. In terms of eliminating the benefit, determining exactly what the benefit was is tricky. Correa was in the Cardinals draft room and imparted knowledge, some of which was likely ill-gotten, but how do you determine the benefit and then eliminate the same? In January, I discussed the difficulty of removing collectively bargained draft picks and whether other teams would appreciate any extra picks heading the Astros way.
There is of course a relatively easy way to do this, and that is to put a monetary value on the information taken, and then force the Cardinals to pay that value to the Astros to make them whole. While it might not seem as though that compensation is enough to truly make the Astros whole, that is exactly what happens in the real world every day. In this case, instead of going to court, the Commissioner has the power to award those damages in a painless ruling, and the government, with the assistance from the Astros has already determined the value of the information taken was $1.7 million.
Of course, its possible that the painless part of the potential ruling is what gets people upset. Awarding the Astros the damage for what was taken from them is simple and fair, but people don’t want simple and fair. Writing a check doesn’t appease the outrage. The holier-than-thou Cardinals need to be punished.
For the punitive part, the Commissioner can fine the Cardinals $2 million, but again, writing a check doesn’t feel like a punishment. The Cardinals’ pain needs to be public—a flogging for all to see—so that everyone knows the punishment hurts. Penalties like draft picks and limits on international signings seem to meet those qualifications for most of those upset with the organization.
Perhaps the Cardinals need to be punished to downsize the perceived smugness of the "Cardinal Way" and "The Best Fans In Baseball". Maybe it’s what the Cardinals deserve, but let’s not pretend this has anything to do with a deterrent effect or fairness among MLB teams. It’s a punishment intended to make the Cardinals squirm, and if that’s what you want to see, just admit it.