The curious case of Carlos Beltrán

When the New York Mets first hired longtime MLB veteran Carlos Beltrán as their new manager, the move was met with no small acclaim. Of course, that praise evaporated with the revelations in Rob Manfred’s report on the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, a saga which culminated in the suspension and terminations of Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and skipper A.J. Hinch. Looming discipline also led to the Red Sox terminating manager Alex Cora. That just left Beltrán as the only non-player to escape discipline, and only because he was a player at the time of the scandal. But this led to a vigorous debate across the baseball universe: should the Mets terminate Beltran? Can they even terminate Beltran?

Of course, that’s all an academic debate now, with Beltran resigning as Mets’ manager today. But it’s worth noting what machinations might have gone into this decision – and whether the Mets could have fired him if he hadn’t.

Let’s start with the most basic points: there’s absolutely no doubt that Beltran was intimately involved in the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme. Manfred’s report noted that “[a]pproximately two months into the 2017 season, a group of players, including Carlos Beltrán, discussed that the team could improve on decoding opposing teams’ signs and communicating the signs to the batter.” Though Beltrán is mentioned only that once in the report, subsequent reporting has confirmed his involvement as an architect of the operation. So if Cora and Hinch were both fired, why not Beltrán?

Let’s start with the most obvious reason: practicality. Hinch and Cora were both going to be unavailable to the team for at least a full season, making their retention at best impractical and at worst disruptive. An interim manager for a full season would be a lame duck, but a long-term manager couldn’t be hired whilst Hinch or Cora waited in the wings. From an organizational management perspective, terminating Cora and Hinch made sense in that vein, and I daresay their terminations had far more to do with those factors than with any moral imperatives.

After all, this is the same Astros team which traded for Roberto Osuna on purpose, employed (and defended) Brandon Taubman, and blocked Anthony Fenech from interviewing Justin Verlander. This is the same Red Sox team which defended Steven Wright, and wouldn’t change the name of the erstwhile “Yawkey Way” until after racist epithets were hurled at Adam Jones. The Mets, of course, are not exactly bastions of moral stature in their own right; their general manager has conflicts of interest with several of the team’s highest-profile players, a front office advisor also works for ESPN, and their new owner has been fined billions of dollars for insider trading. So, at the end of the day, this isn’t about morality – it’s about practicality.

From that perspective, there’s really no incentive for the Mets to move on from Beltran. After all, because he was a player at the time, he escaped discipline from MLB, likely because, as I explained earlier this week, that discipline likely wouldn’t stick.

The MLBPA, on the other hand, would have a good case that disciplined players had no prior notice that the rule against sign stealing would be enforced against them, especially when the team was aware of their actions and expressly assented. Remember, that memorandum was sent to the teams, not to the players. In the absence of an express rule admonishing players that the use of technology was grounds for discipline as to the players themselves, I would expect an appeal of such discipline to likely be in large part successful — and that’s why, I suspect, Manfred elected to not pursue player discipline in the first place.

This presents another problem: could the Mets even legally fire Beltran?

Let’s assume that Beltran’s contract includes standard character language, like that in MLB’s uniform player contract. Most employment contracts do, after all. Let’s also assume that Beltran’s conduct with the Astros violated that language – a huge leap, because it occurred well before he was hired. This is a lot of assumptions, but we’re making them to prove a larger point. The Mets hired Beltran on November 1, 2019. Less than two weeks later, the Athletic first reported Beltran’s involvement on November 13, 2019. There’s a very real question about what the Mets knew about the sign-stealing scandal when they hired him. In fact, Daniel Epstein wrote last November that Beltran might have been hired by the Mets because of, not in spite of, his sign stealing acumen.

Now, it’s entirely possible that the Mets didn’t know anything at all. Given how quickly reports circulated that he would face no discipline from MLB, that seems unlikely, I’d hazard a guess that the Mets hired him with a pretty good idea that his status as a player would insulate him from fallout.

So why, then, did Beltran resign? We might find the answer in that November 13 Athletic piece, in which he provides this comment to Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich.

Beltrán, in a text message, said the Astros did nothing wrong.

“We took a lot of pride studying pitchers in the computer – that is the only technology that I use and I understand,” Beltrán said. “It was fun seeing guys get to the ballpark to look for little details.

“(In) the game of baseball, guys for years have given location and if the catchers get lazy and the pitcher doesn’t cover the signs from second base, of course players are going to take advantage.

“I don’t call that cheating. I call that using the small details to take advantage. I think baseball is doing a great job adding new technology to make sure the game is even for both teams.”

In other words, Beltran openly lied to the Athletic about his role in the scandal. That – more than his role in the scandal itself – is almost certainly a violation of his contract. Managers aren’t necessarily required to be truthful – and dissembling to the media is an art form with some managers – but there is a chasm of difference between obfuscation about a player’s availability for a given game and a very public lie about a baseball scandal which blows up in the team’s proverbial face weeks later. If the Mets terminated Beltrán for his November 13 comments, they’d have a pretty decent case to do so, and that very well may have provided sufficient leverage for Beltrán to decide to voluntarily exit. As is so often the case, Beltrán’s undoing was likely not the crime, but the cover-up.

Whether Beltrán seeks to recover any of his salary under the contract remains to be seen, and likely depends on whether the parties negotiated an exit so as to avoid acrimony. That would have been the prudent course by the Mets – negotiate a settlement of his contract in exchange for his voluntary exit.

The greatest harm from all this, of course, is that two of baseball’s few non-white managers – and arguably its two most high-profile Latinx non-players – have now lost their jobs within a week of each other. The damage from that might not be known for some time to come.

Update: It has also been leaked by the same account that leaked Beltrán’s departure, is now stating the following. While it has been reported that this may not actually be with the Beltrán family, one wonders if Beltrán’s exit is just the tip of the iceberg:

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