MLB must hammer St. Louis beyond its checkbook for hacking Astros

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist

The ugliness builds page by page, incident by incident, and by the end of the federal indictment against former St. Louis Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa, this much is obvious: If Major League Baseball doesn't dock the Cardinals draft picks in addition to a seven-figure fine, it is not just tacitly approving the computer crimes to which Correa pleaded guilty on Friday but encouraging similar nefariousness among other teams.

Chris Correa leaves the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston. (AP)
Chris Correa leaves the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in Houston. (AP)

Shock rippled around baseball Friday when authorities released the five-page charging documents that detailed Correa's crimes. In accessing the Astros' proprietary Ground Control database, the team's repository for player evaluation, he sought draft information before and during the draft, trade information on the day of the trade deadline and, in the grossest breach, broke into an Astros employee's email to retrieve the new URL and password to Ground Control after the Astros had changed both.

As far as sins in baseball go, this exceeds any brushbacks or beanballs, any signs that can be stolen, anything shot subcutaneously through a needle. This is a direct assault on another team's front office, the triumvirate of immoral, unethical and illegal, and no matter where it emanated from on the corporate hierarchy, the punishment needs to be severe.

That it came from the director level – one step down on the organizational chart from general manager John Mozeliak – only adds embarrassment to a team that prides itself on conducting things The Cardinal Way, which presumably does not include vengeance hacking among its chief tenets.

It's bad when the best defense a team can muster is that an employee committed federal crimes in the name of retrieving something that may or may not have been stolen. In court Friday, Correa contended he hacked Ground Control in search of proprietary information Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, a former top Cardinals executive, may have taken with him to Houston – a charge the Astros denied in a statement. Were this a one-time job, that's a reasonable-enough explanation from Correa, even if the action is still wildly illegal.

Of course, this was far from an isolated incident, as the government laid out in its case against Correa, who lawyers believe could serve prison time even with his guilty plea. When an employee left the Cardinals in December 2011 – the Astros hired Luhnow on Dec. 8 that year – he turned in his computer and password to Correa. The employee, noted as Employee A in the indictment, used a similar password with the Astros, and Correa gained entry to Ground Control and an email account using it in March 2013.

On March 24, Correa downloaded an Excel file from Ground Control that ranked every draft-eligible player. He looked at other pages that included notes on trade discussions, what the Astros thought of Cardinals prospects, potential draft bonuses and scouting reports. The final 30 rounds of the draft took place June 8, when Correa accessed Ground Control again – and sorted the list of players by those still undrafted.

Seven weeks later, on July 31 – the day of baseball's non-waiver trade deadline – Correa logged into Ground Control to once again see the Astros' trade discussions. The talks eventually wound up on an anonymous sharing site in June 2014, the Astros' innermost workings laid bare for the world to see.

By then, Correa had pulled his most egregious trick yet. After the Astros changed the URL on Ground Control and ordered users to change their passwords, all in a security effort, Correa logged into the employee's email, found the new URL and default password, and accessed Ground Control once more, at which point he pored over 118 pages of documents, from trade discussions to potential international signings to a plethora of draft information. It was like a guy's ex changing the locks and him stealing her purse so he could get a copy of the new key. And the reason for St. Louis' interest surely went beyond plain curiosity.

In 2014, the Astros had the first pick in the draft and the Cardinals the last pick, meaning the Cardinals were always picking one slot ahead of Houston. As such, knowing the Astros' 2014 draft board, their analytics and scouting departments' favorite players and their scouting evaluations – all of which Correa saw – had great significance.

The legal world sees this as computer crime, plain and simple, and it exists to make such black-and-white cases. The baseball world is different. Even though the court valued the information taken from the Astros at $1.7 million, its potential influence – one successful draft pick alone can be worth tens of millions of dollars, even more – makes that number seem like pennies.

This was a break in trust, and if baseball is concerned enough about fair play to suspend performance-enhancing drug users for half a season, it will hammer the Cardinals well beyond their checkbook. Money is no object for any team these days, and a fine alone wouldn't act as a deterrent. A stand-alone fine may well embolden teams to skirt the rules similarly, knowing that the penalty is tantamount to being lashed with a spaghetti strand.

What speaks to any organization – what especially speaks to one like the Cardinals that have built their team through savvy drafting – is the prospect of losing picks. It's a penalty with legitimate teeth and unquestionable consequences. Take away picks. Take away draft-pool dollars. Take away international-bonus money. Hit them on the field as a consequence for their duplicity off it.

Around the game, as the Schadenfreude reverberates, rivals temper their excitement. They fear the influence of Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr., among the game's most powerful men, will buy St. Louis lenience. This is no time for commissioner Rob Manfred to play favorites, not with the awful message it would send.

The ugliness demands action beyond the norm, and if Manfred is at all balking at delivering it, he need remind himself of a single, simple sentence: One baseball team committed federal crimes against another.

Read the full indictment:

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