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Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow speaks during a media availability during the Major League Baseball general managers annual meetings Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The Houston Astros are like the New England Patriots. They have been a juggernaut in recent years . . .  and they have long been accused of taking their gamesmanship too far, thus diminishing their standing among peers.

Or, to put it more bluntly, their opponents believe they cheat.

During the 2018 playoffs, security removed an Astros baseball operations staffer from a camera well during American League series against the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox. He was caught pointing a phone toward the opposing dugouts.

During the most recent playoffs the New York Yankees suspected that the Astros were whistling to relay stolen signs.

"We've never done anything that's been deemed to be incorrect," Astros baseball czar Jeff Luhnow told reporters. "Last year, we were trying to prevent other teams from doing things. It was dumb and we shouldn't have done it because it made us look guilty. We haven't done anything wrong."

Previous teams believed the Astros were banging on a trash can to tip off batters. And now The Athletic exposed of the ballclub's video surveillance.

Oakland A's pitcher Mike Fiers, a former Astros pitcher, told the website that the Astros used a center field camera to feed video to a monitor near the dugout so players could steal signals and relay them to hitters.

After leaving Houston, Fiers warned teammates with the Detroit Tigers and A's about the Astros' tactics. He decided to go public to warn the whole industry.

"I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they're going in there not knowing," Fiers told The Athletic. "Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It's [B.S.] on that end. It's ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared. But most people don't. That's why I told my team. We had a lot of young guys with Detroit [in 2018] trying to make a name and establish themselves. I wanted to help them out and say, 'Hey, this stuff really does go on. Just be prepared.'"

The Astros offered this response to the story:

"Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball, It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time."

And blah, blah, blah.

This blockbuster report came on the heels of the Astros firing assistant general manager Brandon Taubman for taunting female reporters after the team's playoff victory against the Yankees.

The club initially tried to sweep the incident under the rug, but finally acted after others witnesses to his outburst stepped forward.

Writing for USA Today, Gabe Lacques took the team to task:

Once again, the Houston Astros are challenging us. The task: Determining if the potentially systemic toxicity within their organization – a strain that Major League Baseball is investigating and one that defended and possibly enabled a high-ranking executive’s misogyny – can be unpacked from the objective brilliance of their baseball operations.

To a degree, the Astros’ decisions not directly tied to acts of baseball – be it the Bandon Taubman saga or the marginalization of a team president leading to the alienation of baseball legend Nolan Ryan – are intertwined with decisions that affect competition on the field.

Culture is culture, after all, and ethics and morals can affect both the concept of fair play as well as the treatment of employees and those who interact with your organization.

With that, Tuesday’s The Athletic report on the Astros’ elaborate sign-stealing methods during the 2017 season – as detailed in a startling bit of on-the-record chutzpah by former Houston starter Mike Fiers – perhaps best captures what we might call “Astros culture.”

TALKIN' BASEBALL

Here is what folks are writing about free agency:

Jeff Passan, ESPN.com: "Is this offseason going to be a protracted mess? Probably! There are countless factors at play here -- this big, messy stew of changing valuations, disincentives to spend, no penalties for not spending, greater understanding of the aging curve and dozens more issues. And it's the same as it was last year and the year before. Why, then, would the behavior of teams change? It's just a reality that both sides acknowledge is unlikely to end until this collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021. Midterm talks between the league and union to address economic issues went nowhere, and that almost certainly won't change. And while other teams talk about being aggressive this winter, you've got the Boston Red Sox -- much more on them later -- wanting to slash payroll. What's saddest is that just about everyone in baseball recognizes that a winter in which the best players don't sign until the new year isn't ideal for the game. If these early calls to agents wind up being significant -- four others confirmed to ESPN that conversations have been much more active in the days leading up to free agency -- then the return of competitiveness in free agency will be the story of the winter. Here's the issue: The players think it's eyewash -- a beloved baseball term that means something done purely for optics. Teams are changing things up, hoping players will bite on below-market deals early. The upshot of recent free agency is a deep, deep distrust of teams' intentions. Even if teams are evolving, placing an emphasis on winning, the players aren't buying it. Talk is empty. They want substantive action."

R.J. Anderson, CBSSports.com: "The good news for the Nationals is they just won the World Series in seven games against the Houston Astros to cap a wild October run. The bad news for the Nationals is both right-hander Stephen Strasburg and third baseman Anthony Rendon are headed for free agency. The Nationals permitted Bryce Harper to walk last offseason, but only after making an offer that was loaded with deferrals. Presumably the Nationals will attempt to retain both Strasburg and Rendon, though it's unclear if they'll rely upon deferred payments as they have in the past. One thing is for sure: The Nationals have plenty of incentive to retain the pair. Besides having just won the championship, the Nationals have significant payroll space available to them. Currently, they're projected around $105 million, including arbitration raises. They entered the 2019 season with a payroll of $197 million, suggesting they could have $90-plus million to spend. That doesn't mean the Nationals will re-sign both Strasburg and Rendon -- they're likely to face steep competition on both, including from their rival Philadelphia Phillies . But it does seem likely that the world champions keep at least one of the two."

Tim Brown, Yahoo! Sports: "So, a winter that will offer the likes of Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg looms. A thin Yankees rotation calls. And so does the sort of impatience that follows a World Series-less decade, though it only comes up every century or so. You’d have to assume these are not idle hours for them, given, for instance, they just changed pitching coaches. Their payroll reflects about $160 million in obligations for 2020, a big number but not Yankees big. There would seem to be room for one of the two right-handers whose teams fought to the end of October, whose teams arrived there in large part because of the work of those two, one of whom — Strasburg — finished October with an MVP trophy in his arms. The last World Series MVP for the Yankees retired seven years ago. If the 2019-20 free-agent market is about anything, it’s pitching. That, and Scott Boras clients. Beyond Cole and Strasburg (both Boras guys), there are Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu (Boras guy), Jake Odorizzi and Cole Hamels. The game changers, on their own, are the first two, particularly Cole, who is 29 and has made a habit out of 200-inning seasons."

Michael Shapiro, SI.com: "In terms of pitching success, it’s hard to argue any team other than Houston is the best for Cole to sign with. The Astros are the premier pitching Svengali in the game, resurrecting careers and launching top-end starters toward historic heights. Cole had electric stuff in Pittsburgh. The Astros unlocked a new level of dominance. The track record and comfort of returning to the same team work in Houston's favor. But how likely is it the club will win a bidding war? That’s the greater question. The Astros have already shelled out major money for Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman. Presumably the Astros would also like to dish out extensions to cornerstones George Springer and Carlos Correa soon. Adding another $200-250 million isn’t in line with Houston’s history. It seems most likely the Astros will be relegated to just one ace in 2020." 

MEGAPHONE

"We have a lot of great players, we have a really good manager, and fan base and we have accomplished a lot. I think that stands for itself, I'm hopeful we will find out exactly what happened and we will address it if it needs to be addressed and we can move on. The reason we won the World Series in 2017 (were) Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman and Justin Verlander and we have a lot of great players. They do things the right way, and we as an organization that's what we aspire to do as well."

Luhnow, on the defense Tuesday.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.