Former Astros GM’s lawsuit claims firing part of deal to save team’s World Series title

Former Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow filed a civil lawsuit Monday against his old team, alleging that Major League Baseball’s investigation into the sign-stealing scandal that cost him his job was a “negotiated resolution” between the league and Astros owner Jim Crane that ensured Luhnow would be fired and the team would retain its tainted 2017 World Series title.

Luhnow received a one-year suspension from MLB on Jan. 13, upon conclusion of its investigation, and was fired later that day by Crane. Now, his suspension served, Luhnow is seeking the $22 million that remained on his contract from the franchise that, he claims in his legal filing, he “transformed from the worst team in Major League Baseball to one of the best in less than a decade.”

MLB declined comment on the suit, while the Astros did not immediately respond to request for comment from USA TODAY Sports.

Luhnow’s well-documented teardown and buildup of the Astros – who lost at least 106 games in three consecutive seasons, two under his watch beginning in 2012 – resulted in a 2017 World Series championship, three consecutive American League West titles and a 2019 AL pennant.

Former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow received a one-year suspension from MLB on Jan. 13 and was fired later that day by the team. (Photo: Kyle Terada, USA TODAY Sports)

Luhnow’s hyper-efficient management doctrine spread to other franchises and even to MLB’s central office. Yet Luhnow turned from visionary to villain just weeks after the 2019 World Series, when The Athletic first reported that the Astros’ 2017 championship was won while an elaborate and illegal electronic sign-stealing scandal was executed in the bowels of Minute Maid Park.

MLB’s investigation launched soon thereafter and found Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch failed to properly inform staff and players of league mandates against illegal sign-stealing. The league also claimed Luhnow, in acknowledging emails from lower-level staffers, had direct knowledge of the scheme – which involved illegally viewing a TV monitor and banging on a trash can to pass on opposing teams’ signs.

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Luhnow’s lawsuit, filed in Harris County District Court, paints a different picture: That MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and Crane – who hired Luhnow in December 2011 – reached an agreement that would absolve Crane of responsibility while ensuring Luhnow took the fall.

 “MLB’s ‘investigation,’ ’” Luhnow’s claim says, “actually was a negotiated resolution between Astros owner Jim Crane and MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred that enabled the team to keep its World Series championship, went to great lengths to exonerate Crane and scapegoated Luhnow for a sign-stealing scandal that he had no knowledge of and played no part in.”

The lawsuit provides no evidence of an agreement between Manfred and Crane to salvage the team's World Series title.

Luhnow’s lawsuit comes days after Hinch – suspended and fired the same day as Luhnow – was hired to manage the Detroit Tigers. Additionally, the Boston Red Sox re-hired manager Alex Cora, with whom they parted ways two days after his role in the sign-stealing scandal as Astros bench coach was revealed.

Luhnow’s future in the game is far murkier. His lawsuit, then, pulls few punches.

It insists that no credible evidence exists of Luhnow’s knowledge of the scheme, and that despite interviewing 68 witnesses and reviewing voluminous electronic communications, “produced only one untrustworthy source – the actual ringleader of the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes who ‘implicated’ Luhnow to save his own job.”

That would be Tom Koch-Weser, the team's director of advance information who remains employed by the club. Luhnow’s suit berates MLB for failing to reference, in its report, any of the 22,000 text messages sent and received by Koch-Weser – messages it claims do not reference Luhnow.  

The suit claims the Astros told Koch-Weser he’d keep his job “so long as his actions were sanctioned by his supervisors, including Luhnow,” and that Koch-Weser’s testimony to MLB that Luhnow had knowledge of the scheme remain uncorroborated.

Luhnow claims Manfred “ignored his findings that the players and video room staff – not the Astros’ front office – were responsible for the sign-stealing schemes. That is because the commissioner vetted potential penalties with Crane, and the two exchanged a series of proposals.”

MLB fined Crane $5 million and stripped the club of four draft picks but allowed the Astros to retain their title.

“I don’t think I should be held accountable,” Crane said in February, when Astros players apologized for their role in the scheme on the first day of spring training.

Crane was certainly emboldened by MLB’s report, which noted that “our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.”

Ultimately, Luhnow said he believes his termination was without cause; of the four conditions that would justify a firing with cause in Luhnow’s contract, it’s likely the Astros would contend Luhnow was fired for “any material failure or refusal of the Employee to follow the material, lawful instructions of the club relating to his duties.”

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