The FBI is investigating whether the St. Louis Cardinals, one of baseball’s most respected and successful teams, hacked into the computers of the Houston Astros to steal player personnel data, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
So what does this mean for the Cardinals, Astros and Major League Baseball? Times baseball writer Bill Shaikin breaks down the ongoing probe:
Question: So the FBI is looking into whether the Cardinals hacked into the computers of the Astros. Were the Cardinals trying to get Social Security numbers or something?
Answer: Presumably not. The Cardinals reportedly got into the data bases of the Astros’ baseball operations department.
Q: What would be in there?
A: Each team has its own system for evaluating talent, keeping records and a base of statistics unavailable to the public.
Q: Has any of the hacked information been disclosed?
A: The website Deadspin last year reported on leaked documents that focused on confidential trade talks the Astros had with other teams in 2013 — for instance, with the Miami Marlins regarding outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and with the New York Yankees regarding outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Major League Baseball asked the FBI to investigate the leaked documents; that probe turned up links to the Cardinals.
Q: Why the Cardinals?
A: The Astros hired Cardinals executive Jeff Luhnow as their general manager in 2011. Luhnow had a hand in developing the player development system that helped the Cardinals flourish despite the departure of franchise icon Albert Pujols after the 2011 season. At least some Cardinals employees, according to the Times report, were concerned that Luhnow might have taken some proprietary information with him from St. Louis to Houston.
Q: How much of a competitive advantage could the Cardinals get?
A: That is uncertain, but as an example, the Cardinals could benefit from knowing how the Astros rate a player while bidding against them in trade talks and free agency. The Cardinals also could access new and proprietary analytical methods developed by the Astros.
Q: What does the league plan to do?
A: MLB issued a statement Tuesday saying it has cooperated with the investigation but would take no action until “the investigative process has been completed by federal law enforcement officials.” The league could suspend or fine Cardinals employees connected to the hacking. No Cardinals employees have been named publicly as targets of the investigation. The late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was suspended 30 months for paying a gambler to search for information that might discredit outfielder Dave Winfield.
Q: What does the government plan to do?
A: That could be the more intriguing question. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act would subject hackers to potential fines and prison terms; the Economic Espionage Act would allow the government to fine the Cardinals for violating a rival’s trade secrets.
Q: What might be the most lasting image of this episode?
A: The Cardinals have carefully cultivated an image as a respected and successful organization that wins year after year, reliant on a robust player development system that enables them to maintain success without stratospheric payrolls. They have appeared in the National League championship series in each of the past four years, and they have the best record in baseball this year. Their fans like to call themselves the best in baseball. Now all that success — and they can ask the New England Patriots — might be stained if the team is popularly branded as cheaters.