Saying he was a ‘scapegoat,’ Jeff Luhnow sues the Astros
By Tyler Kepner
Jeff Luhnow, the former general manager of the Houston Astros, is free to work again in Major League Baseball. His one-year suspension — punishment for the team’s sign-stealing scandal — expired at the end of the World Series, as did suspensions for former Astros manager A.J. Hinch and former bench coach Alex Cora.
But while Hinch and Cora have already returned as managers — Hinch for the Detroit Tigers, Cora for the Boston Red Sox — Luhnow has remained in exile. Now he has sued the Astros in Harris County (Texas) District Court, seeking the $22 million remaining on his contract when owner Jim Crane fired him in January. The suit claims that a “flawed report that had been negotiated with Crane” by Commissioner Rob Manfred was an invalid basis for his firing.
“The Astros’ termination of Luhnow is an attempt — like the Commissioner before them — to make Luhnow the scapegoat for the organization while the players and video-room staff who devised and executed the schemes went unpunished,” the suit said. “Even more egregiously, most of the culprits in the sign-stealing scheme remained employed by the club. The Astros concocted grounds to fire Luhnow ‘for Cause’ in order to save more than $22 million in guaranteed salary.”
The Astros and Major League Baseball had no comment on the lawsuit as of Monday afternoon, and Luhnow referred questions to his lawyer, John Potter, of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLC in San Francisco.
“He believes that he’s entitled to the payments under the contract, but even more important than that, he wants to clear his good name,” Potter said. “He had an unimpeachable, impeccable record for decades and he was widely respected for his integrity. What transpired, unfairly in our view, tarnished his integrity. More than anything else, he wants to set the record straight so people can really understand what happened with respect to the sign stealing.”
The Astros hired Luhnow in December 2011, attracted by his adherence to data and his willingness to challenge conventional methods of finding talent, as he had done as scouting director for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Astros were the worst team in the majors then, and Luhnow kept them that way for two more seasons, loading up on prospects who would soon help transform the team.
By 2015, they had made the playoffs, and in 2017 they won their first World Series, outlasting the Los Angeles Dodgers while winning eight of their nine home games in the postseason. They returned to the World Series in 2019 but lost to the Washington Nationals, who won all four games played in Houston.
Last November — with on-the-record confirmation from former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers — The Athletic reported that the Astros had stolen signals throughout 2017 by reading the catcher’s signs off a television monitor and banging a trash can to alert batters of the next pitch. The activity continued even after MLB had warned all teams against electronic spying.
Manfred granted immunity to players who were on the team at the time in exchange for cooperation with his investigation, and while he fined Crane $5 million and docked the Astros four draft picks, he was roundly criticized for neither punishing the players nor stripping the Astros of their title.
The lawsuit claims that Manfred “let the ringleader keep his position in exchange for providing information that would implicate Luhnow” and goes on to identify Tom Koch-Weser, who is listed as the team’s director of advance information, as the mastermind. Manfred, the suit said, ignored more than 22,000 text and chat messages from Koch-Weser.
“Tellingly, none of these messages sent or received by Koch-Weser included Luhnow or suggested that he had any awareness of the activity,” the suit states, adding that Koch-Weser “even texted his colleagues ‘don’t tell Jeff’ ” and emphasized that Luhnow was never aware of or involved in the scheme.
Luhnow did, however, have knowledge of a system called Codebreaker that used an algorithm to decode sign sequences and was mentioned in a PowerPoint presentation in 2016. But the suit said this effort was only undertaken after games were completed, not in real time, and that Manfred acknowledged it was not a rules violation. As for an August 2017 email the league used to implicate Luhnow, the suit said that while it refers to “dark arts,” it does not mention electronic in-game sign stealing.
The suit contends Koch-Weser was the only witness to implicate Luhnow and that Koch-Weser “lied repeatedly” to save his job. The suit said that Luhnow gave proper warnings to staffers about following the rules on electronic equipment and that it was unrealistic to expect him to be aware of the activities of everyone on his staff.
The Astros signed Luhnow in May 2018 to a contract extension worth $31 million, plus performance bonuses and a profits interest in Houston Baseball Partners LLC. Several teams have open leadership positions in baseball operations, including the New York Mets, the Los Angeles Angels, the Miami Marlins and the Philadelphia Phillies, but Luhnow, who is writing a book, has not surfaced publicly as a candidate for any opening.