SAN DIEGO — To lead off, A.J. Hinch went with a joke.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever been so popular,” the Astros manager quipped Tuesday, to about 40 reporters, at the winter meetings.
For sure, Hinch has never been so scrutinized. Of the 31 questions he received in his news conference, 18 covered the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing scandal that has galvanized the other 29 teams and sparked Major League Baseball to conduct a lengthy investigation. Which meant that Hinch, a strong candidate to start the 2020 campaign with a suspension, worked to find 18 different ways to not comment.
Just like his fellow managers and persons of interest Carlos Beltran of the Mets and Alex Cora of the Red Sox, Hinch dodged and ducked all queries about the allegations — voiced by pitcher Mike Fiers to The Athletic — that the 2017 Astros used illegal means to steal signs from opponents and help them win a championship. Beltran played for that club, while Cora served as Hinch’s bench coach.
“To address the elephant in the room, I’m happy to see all of you,” Hinch offered in introductory comments. “I know you’re all here for obvious reasons, and I have great respect for…