SAN DIEGO — For a man hired last month to manage the Mets, it should have been a rudimentary question. Yet Carlos Beltran could not answer directly when asked this week if he expected to be managing at the start of the 2020 season.
“I’m looking forward to managing this ball club,” Beltran said, a comically vague response that underscored the extreme awkwardness for those involved in Major League Baseball’s sweeping investigation into the Houston Astros.
Beltran finished his playing career as the sage of the Astros’ clubhouse in 2017, when the team allegedly stole signs electronically in a brazen scheme that might have helped them win the World Series. The league had hoped to be finished with its investigation before the winter meetings, which began on Sunday, but it has broadened the scope of it to stretch into last season, too.
So while deals were made and free agents were signed and a study on the integrity of the baseball was issued this week, the meetings concluded with a sprawling investigation still lingering over the league and many of its most prominent figures, including players.
“This is probably the most thorough investigation that the commissioner’s office has ever undertaken,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said Wednesday. “I think we’ve interviewed already nearly 60 witnesses, 76,000 emails, a whole additional trove of instant messages. That review has caused us to conclude that we have to do some follow-up interviewing.
“It is my hope to conclude the investigation just as promptly as possible, but it’s really hard to predict how long something like that is going to take.”
Baseball is said to be focused on those in the Astros’ leadership, including General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch, who probably stand to receive the most severe penalties, in addition to any fines or loss of draft picks for the organization. But uncertainty surrounds everyone involved, including Beltran and Boston Red Sox Manager Alex Cora, who have been interviewed as part of the probe.
The usually voluble Cora, the Astros’ bench coach in 2017, deflected questions about the issue at his news media availability on Monday. The similarly affable Hinch tried to do the same at his session on Tuesday.
“I’ve got great relationships in baseball,” Hinch said. “I stand behind who I am.”
But how is this for uncomfortable? Hinch is close with Dave Roberts, the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in a taut seven-game World Series in 2017. Roberts acknowledged he had spoken with Hinch this off-season and said they remain good friends. But does he believe electronic sign stealing threatens the fundamental integrity of the game?
“Yes,” Roberts said. “Absolutely.”
Roberts hinted that, since the investigation began, he had found himself thinking back to moments in that World Series — “Possibly,” he said — which stands to reason. A victory would have capped the 2010s for the Dodgers, a decade in which they won 20 more games than any other National League team but failed to win a title. It would have changed lives and legacies, but Roberts insisted he was not dwelling on what might have been.
“Correct,” he said. “Because it’s not going to change, no matter how I feel.”
Indeed, in baseball, there is no pretending that actual outcomes never happened, no absurd N.C.A.A.-style vacating of championships. If the Astros cheated to win in 2017 — whether in the regular season or the postseason, or both — they will have gotten away with it, and they will keep their rings and trophies.
The Dodgers were suspicious of the Astros, anyway, but not all of their pitchers were careful enough at Minute Maid Park in that World Series. The Dodgers struck out only 16 hitters in their three games in Houston, losing twice.
“Were we taking extra precautionary measures in that series? Yes,” said Roberts, acknowledging that the team knew something shady might be happening. “But to what extent, we didn’t know to what extent.”
That is what baseball hopes to discover as it delves into the shadowy subculture of sign stealing by its most tech-savvy franchise. The Astros have a streak of three consecutive seasons with at least 100 victories, and nearly won a second World Series in October before falling in seven games to the Washington Nationals — who reportedly used multiple sets of signs to combat any possible cheating in the Series.
The investigation — sparked by an on-the-record admission by the former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers to The Athletic — could taint everything. The Astros’ uncanny knack for slugging without striking out might be an extraordinary skill deserving of praise. Or it might be the result of widespread cheating.
Amid the greatest stretch in franchise history, the Astros’ credibility is in serious doubt. But Hinch would prefer not to dissect their legacy.
“We’re trying to build the 2020 team,” he said. “Our energy’s been spent on that. Obviously, it’s been a different off-season for us. I hope there’s going to be a day when we get past this and we can move forward. But until they’re done with the investigation, everything that it encompasses, I just can’t talk about.”
Others can talk, though, like Roberts and Yankees Manager Aaron Boone. The Astros eliminated the Yankees — then managed by Joe Girardi — in the 2017 American League Championship Series, and again in the A.L.C.S. this year. In both series, the Astros had home-field advantage on the strength of a superior regular-season record.
“Some of the stuff is, you know, eye-popping, eye-opening,” Boone said on Tuesday. “We will see where it leads. We know obviously Major League Baseball is taking it seriously and going through a thorough process of talking to a lot of people and really trying to get to what truly happened, didn’t happen, what was going on.”
Boone added: “Hopefully in the end, the result is a better game, a more fair game between the lines. That’s something that we should all want to strive for as a sport.”