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MLB finds misconduct by Red Sox replay operator; Alex Cora suspended through 2020 for role with Astros

Alex Cora led the Red Sox to a World Series in his first season as manager, but was out after his second season.
Alex Cora led the Red Sox to a World Series in his first season as manager, but was out after his second season.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Former Red Sox manager Alex Cora was suspended for a year and the team lost a draft pick, and a video technician was banned as part of Major League Baseball’s investigation into sign stealing in 2018, it was announced on Wednesday.

Cora’s one-year suspension stemmed from his role in sign stealing while serving as bench coach of the Houston Astros in 2017, not from his role as manager for the Sox. He will serve the suspension this year, as baseball is shut down during the coronavirus crisis.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, were not fined. They will lose a second-round pick in this year’s draft, and video replay operator J.T. Watkins has been banned through 2020 and cannot return to his job in 2021.

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“We have to earn back trust. We’re prepared to do that. It’s very important,” Red Sox president Sam Kennedy said Wednesday night on a conference call that also included chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and general manager Brian O’Halloran. “We recognize that as an organization. Ultimately we fell short. We need to do better.”

Shortly after hearing commissioner Rob Manfred’s ruling earlier in the day, the team released a statement:

“As an organization, we strive for 100% compliance with the rules. MLB’s investigation concluded that in isolated instances during the 2018 regular season, sign sequences were decoded through the use of live game video rather than through permissible means.

“MLB acknowledged the front office’s extensive efforts to communicate and enforce the rules and concluded that Alex Cora, the coaching staff, and most of the players did not engage in, nor were they aware of, any violations. Regardless, these rule violations are unacceptable. We apologize to our fans and Major League Baseball, and accept the Commissioner’s ruling.”

The team noted that Watkins is still with the organization, but there’s uncertainty regarding what his title would be when and if he returns in 2021.

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“He remains an employee of the organization,” Bloom said. “As of right now, we don’t plan to take any additional action against J.T. I think the penalty obviously speaks for itself."

The report said that Manfred’s investigative team found that Watkins, “on at least some occasions” during the 2018 season, violated MLB’s rules surrounding the use of game feeds in the replay room. Watkins used the feeds to update the information he usually gave to players before a game.

The report essentially exonerated Cora, saying he — along with the rest of the coaching staff, the front office, and most of the players — weren’t aware of Watkins’s use of in-game video.

In comparison to the 2017 Astros, Watkins’s conduct “was far more limited in scope and impact,” according to the report.

JT Watkins, seen here as a player watching a 2015 spring training game, was punished for his role.
JT Watkins, seen here as a player watching a 2015 spring training game, was punished for his role.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

“The information was only relevant when the Red Sox had a runner on second base (which was 19.7% of plate appearances league-wide in 2018), and Watkins communicated sign sequences in a manner that indicated that he had decoded them from the in-game feed in only a small percentage of those occurrences,” the report read.

No other Sox personnel will be disciplined, according to the report. While it had been established that players would not be punished for telling the truth in interviews with the league, Manfred pointed out, “this is not a case in which I would have otherwise considered imposing discipline on players.”

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While it would be possible for Cora to return as Red Sox manager in 2021, Bloom didn’t give any indication the team would consider it.

“At the time that we parted ways with Alex, we were clear that that was the result of his role in what happened with the Astros and everything that the investigation over there revealed," said Bloom. "It had nothing to do with what may or may not have occurred in Boston. That’s still the case.”

Kennedy said he believes Cora eventually deserves a second chance to manage in the big leagues, however he first must go through a rehabilitation process.

“What he did was wrong,” Kennedy said. “He acknowledged that to us and apologized to us for that. I’m a big believer in second chances. We all wish him well.”

Cora issued a statement Wednesday night.

Alex Cora, seen here in 2017, made a statement about the situation Wednesday evening.
Alex Cora, seen here in 2017, made a statement about the situation Wednesday evening.John Tlumacki

“I am relieved that these MLB investigations are concluded and that Commissioner Manfred has released his findings that I did not violate any MLB rules as a member of the Red Sox organization in 2018 or 2019,” Cora said. “I also take full responsibility for the role I played, along with others, in the Astros violations of MLB rules in 2017.”

The report on the results of the investigation had been anticipated since January — Manfred initially said he hoped to have the matter concluded before spring training — but was frequently delayed. On March 25, Manfred said the investigation was complete, but time was needed to prepare a report, and the league was also dealing with the implications of the coronavirus pandemic.

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In January, team officials — including principal owner John Henry (who also owns the Globe), chairman Tom Werner, Kennedy, and Bloom — asked that fans and media “reserve judgment” until MLB’s report was released.

“We ask our fans to reserve judgment on any conclusions that they may reach until the commissioner’s investigation is over,” Werner said at a news conference after the team parted ways with Cora.

Many players, including Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, Steve Pearce, Matt Barnes, and Andrew Benintendi, denied wrongdoing by the 2018 team. Asked at the Boston Baseball Writers’ dinner in January if he thought the 2018 World Series championship season was tainted, Bogaerts said, “Nah, absolutely not.”

“I’m excited for the investigation to be over so they can see there was nothing going on here,” Martinez said at the team’s Winter Weekend event in January.

Xander Bogaerts has always been vocal in his support of Alex Cora.
Xander Bogaerts has always been vocal in his support of Alex Cora.Jim Davis

Still, the league found something. Kennedy, however, doesn’t believe the 2018 season was tarnished in any way.

“No. Not at all,” he said. “Clearly there was a rule violation that was detailed in the report that sign sequences were communicated from the video room — not in real time. In no way do I think it’s appropriate to invalidate the accomplishments of the 2018 team based upon this infraction.”

Ron Roenicke, who was Cora’s bench coach in 2018 and 2019, was named interim manager in February, and at the time Bloom said, “We have no reason to think that there’s anything that would cause an adverse result for Ron in this investigation."

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Bloom also said the team would address removing the interim tag once the investigation was complete, and on Wednesday it was removed, the Globe confirmed via a league source. Roenicke’s contract — the team modified his prior deal as bench coach — runs through the 2020 season, according to two league sources.

“Given all the unique circumstances of the hiring, we felt that that term was the appropriate term for him in this role, and that continues to be the case,” Bloom said.

Roenicke denied involvement in any sign-stealing activity, and that turned out to be the case, as his name wasn’t mentioned once in Manfred’s 15-page report.

The Sox believe losing a second-round pick this year is huge — particularly if you factor in a draft that could be slashed to five rounds because of the pandemic.

“The potential limitations on the draft this year obviously makes that punishment a little larger,” Bloom said. “It’s significant."


Julian McWilliams can be reached at julian.mcwilliams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @byJulianMack.