In the past couple weeks there have been two major suspensions based on the use of banned PEDs. Both Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon were suspended 50 games, the standard for a first-time offense, for use of synthetic testosterone. A quick rundown of both players:
Melky Cabrera was a middle-of-the-road major leaguer for years before having a career year in 2011 that led to a contract with the San Francisco Giants this year. 2012 had been an incredible year for him, with Cabrera being a centerpiece of the Giants’ lineup, an All-Star MVP, and competitive for the NL batting title. It was heralded as a journeyman finally figuring things out. As it turns out, not so much.
Bartolo Colon’s case isn’t all that different. Once a perennial ace-type pitcher (and winner of a Cy Young award), Colon suffered structural damage to his pitching arm and hasn’t been relevant over the past several years. He was serviceable for the Yankees last year, but has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance with the surging A’s this year. Not that he was back to Cy Young form, but he was a relevant pitcher again that was an important part of the A’s pitching staff. It seems, however, that a stem cell procedure on his throwing arm and lots of hard work aren’t the only reasons he’s been good.
Catching these guys (not to mention Ryan Braun in the off season, although his case was dismissed on what amounts to a technicality) is both good news and bad news for Major League Baseball. The good news is that random testing seems to be working, at least marginally. Baseball is catching cheaters. These two aren’t the only ones to be caught this year, although they’re by far the most high-profile. It’s a step towards clean sport. But the bad news is that it seems there are more cheaters out there than we’d supposed. The late ’90s to early 2000s were supposed to be baseball’s steroid era. We were supposed to be through with that.
As part of baseball’s agreement with the MLB Player’s Association, failing a first test results in a 50 game suspension. A second failure gets 100 games. These penalties are a joke. There’s no way a third of a season without pay is going to deter a player who’s making at least two million dollars (Colon’s base salary this season). Cabrera, had he not been caught, would have likely received a multi-year contract worth 7-10 million dollars annually during free agency this off-season.
Beyond the personal gain, the use of PEDs is markedly unfair to the other players and other teams in the league. Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is a statistic that is used to estimate the number of wins over the course of a season a player is worth to their team, a AAA call-up being the “replacement.” (Note: there are a couple of different methods for calculating WAR, but they arrive at similar numbers) Colon’s WAR for the year stands at 2.6. That’s almost exactly the difference right now between his Oakland A’s making the playoffs or just missing them. If the season were to end today, notwithstanding the good, and we’ll assume fair, play of the rest of his team, how can you say that the A’s deserve to be in the playoffs more than the Detroit Tigers or the Baltimore Orioles when their margin of victory is based on the efforts of a proven cheater? Likewise, the tightest divisional race in baseball right now is the NL West, where the San Francisco Giants are slugging it out with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Although the Giants pitching staff has carried the team this year, there’s a very good chance that they would not be in first place without the efforts of Cabrera, his league-leading .346 batting average, and his 4.6 WAR.
Baseball’s testing policy may be working (although according to some it still has massive loopholes), but it’s penalties are toothless. Track athletes, for instance, are suspended for two years for PED use. In a sport where players regularly play into their late 30’s, it’s time to institute something similar. Some people advocate a lifetime ban for a first offense. While it’s not something I vehemently oppose, I don’t think that’s a good idea. People should be given second chances. But penalties have to be suitably severe for the money that these guys are making. Baseball needs to suspend these guys for multiple years for a first offense. That’s hard to come back from. Possible, but hard. As it stands, should the A’s and/or the Giants make it far enough in the playoffs, Colon and Cabrera would be eligible to return this season and compete for a world championship. Their inflated stats this year prove that PEDs make a difference. It’s time for the MLB and the MLBPA to make players think twice before juicing.