What will MLB do to the Red Sox for stealing signs?

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Yesterday all of baseball was buzzing about the news that the Red Sox had been caught stealing signs via instant replay monitoring equipment and the use of Apple watches. While that launched about 10,000 jokes at the Red Sox’ expense — and will launch more, I’m sure — the question now is what Major League Baseball can and should do about it.

At the outset, it’s worth noting that there’s nothing in the rule book about sign stealing. And, as many have noted, stealing signs is as old as baseball. There is, however, what amounts to an executive order on the matter which makes for a distinction between the age-old practice of a runner on second base flashing a sign to the batter on the one hand and an elaborate use of technology by multiple players and team employees on the other.

Specifically, back in 2001, then-Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Sandy Alderson sent out a memo to all teams that restricted the use of electronic equipment during a game. Such equipment and technology, Alderson wrote, “could not be used for communications or for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.” On that basis, it has been assumed that baseball can discipline a team for the misuse of technology for such purposes.

But for such a clear distinction, it’s not as if this situation has popped up very often. Back in 2010 Phillies bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was seen using binoculars to look in at Rockies catchers while Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino was seen in the dugout on the bullpen phone at the same time, which was presumably a sign-stealing relay. The Phillies received a warning from Major League Baseball for that. The following year the Blue Jays were accused of a sign-stealing operation which allegedly involved a mysterious “Man in White” sitting in the stands, but that’s never resulted in anything concrete and no discipline followed. Mostly, sign-stealing cases end with initial accusations which are almost always based on suspicion coming from frustrated players after a game and little more. We’ve chronicled a number of them over the years in this space. Discipline has never followed.

Here, however, the Sox seem to have been caught red-handed and are owning up to it, more or less, so something has to happen. As someone suggested to me on Twitter yesterday, it should probably be more than the mere warning the Phillies got back in 2010 because the Sox used the replay system, which should be seen as a more serious transgression than having someone schlep binoculars to the bullpen. It’s taking advantage of in-game mechanisms and stuff. It just seems worse.

All that said, I suspect that whatever happens to the Sox will be far less than what some people have been talking about online in the past 16 hours or so. No, Major League Baseball is not going to force the Red Sox to vacate wins. No they’re not going to take draft picks from them. There likewise won’t be some eye-for-an-eye kind of thing where the Sox, having used the replay system, will be prevented from making replay challenges. I saw someone suggest that and all I could think was that baseball never goes, well, biblical with its discipline, so it’s not worth talking about.

I suspect that there will be some sort of short suspension, possibly for John Farrell on a “the buck should stop with you” basis, even though he claims to not have known anything about it (sure, John). I could also see a suspension for any players found to have participated in the scheme (Dustin Pedroia, Brock Holt and Chris Young were named in the New York Times story).

Ultimately, I suspect this will end up looking like the fallout after an on-field fight or a ball-doctoring incident. Even if the parties involved — the Yankees and Red Sox — and the coverage all of this is getting is making it seem bigger than that.