Canó’s PED Suspension Has a Silver Lining for Mets

Not too long ago, Robinson Canó appeared to have a real shot at becoming the first second baseman to reach the twin milestones of 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, as well as an eventual berth in the Hall of Fame. In May 2018, however, while playing for the Mariners, he drew an 80-game suspension after testing positive for a banned diuretic. Now, as a member of the Mets following a blockbuster trade that has thus far looked like a flop, he’s drawn another suspension for violating the game’s joint drug agreement. As his second offense, this one will cost him the entire 2021 season as well as all of his $24 million salary. That’s a situation that could benefit the Mets, who under new owner Steve Cohen are already primed to be one of the winter’s more aggressive teams.

It’s the latest bum note for Canó in his second tour of New York. Acquired from the Mariners on December 3, 2018 along with Edwin Díaz and cash in exchange for a five-player package headlined by first-round picks Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn, the former Yankees star was limited to 107 games due to hamstring and quad injuries in 2019. Both his 93 wRC+ and 0.8 WAR represented his worst numbers since 2008, and the deal looked even worse due to Díaz’s collapse; the pair’s underperformance probably cost the Mets a Wild Card berth, as they finished with 86 wins, three fewer than the lower Wild Card seed, the Brewers. Adding insult to injury, Eric Longenhagen placed Kelenic 11th on his Top 100 Prospects list in the spring, the same ranking that both Baseball America, and gave him.

Canó did fare better in 2020. Though he served a 10-day stint on the Injured List due to a groin strain in early August, he hit .316/.352/.544 while tying for second on the team with 10 homers, and placing fourth via both his 141 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR. It wasn’t nearly enough to help the Mets, who sputtered to a 26-34 record and a fourth-place finish in the NL East.

Via ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the 38-year-old Canó tested positive for stanozolol, an old-school anabolic steroid sold as Winstrol, ingested as a tablet, and relatively easy to detect because of its long half-life, meaning that it stays in the body for longer. Best known as the drug for which Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was popped in 1988, and for which slugger Rafael Palmeiro was suspended in 2005, it’s seen as unsophisticated and outdated in drug circles, though it’s now been implicated in seven of MLB’s last 27 PED suspensions, dating back to the start of the 2015 season.

That rate is surprisingly similar to the one reported by the New York Times‘ Juliet Macur in April 2015. In the wake of a two-week period in which pitchers David Rollins, Jenrry Mejia, and Ervin Santana all drew suspensions for stanozolol in a two-week period in March and April, Macur reported that stanozolol positives accounted for one-fourth of MLB’s drug violations over the previous six years, about 80% of which were pitchers, and about 70% of which were from the Dominican Republic. Since then, the substance has been implicated in the suspensions of Mejia (his second one), Jorge Polanco, Tim Beckham, and now Canó.

Canó was first suspended on May 15, 2018 for violating the Joint Drug Program by testing positive for furosemide, a diuretic better known as Lasix. Used to treat high blood pressure, fluid retention and swelling caused by congestive heart failure, liver disease, kidney disease, and other medical conditions, it’s banned by MLB because it’s frequently used as a masking agent. By increasing the rate of urine flow and sodium excretion, diuretics such as furosemide can reduce the concentration of banned substances within the urine. At the time, ESPN’s T.J. Quinn — long one of the leading reporters covering the PED beat — reported that “players are NOT automatically suspended for using diuretics. The suspension means MLB was able to prove he was using it to mask a drug. Canó tested positive before the season, appealed and dropped the appeal.”

All of which made the claims of Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon look rather silly when the former — who had previously represented Canó as an agent, negotiating his 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners in December 2013 — traded for him. “I don’t want to get into semantics, but I do think it’s important remembering Robby was not suspended for a PED,” said Van Wagenen at the time. “I don’t think he’s a drug cheat,” said Wilpon. “I could be proven wrong, but I don’t think he’s a drug cheat.”

Alas, here we are… well, not Wilpon or Van Wagenen. On November 6, less than an hour after the Wilpon era ended with the completion of Cohen’s $2.4 billion purchase of the team, the Mets announced Van Wagenen’s departure as well as those of several of his lieutenants. Sandy Alderson, whom Van Wagenen replaced as GM in 2018, is back as team president, overseeing a search for a head of baseball operations. In response to Canó’s suspension, Alderson offered a boilerplate statement (“extremely disappointed… very unfortunate… fully support MLB’s efforts toward eliminating performance enhancing substances…”).

Canó, at this writing, has yet to comment, but really, what’s left for him to say now that he’s in this position a second time? In 2018, while maintaining that the diuretic was given to him by a licensed doctor for a medical ailment, he said via a statement, “While I did not realize at the time that I was given a medication that was banned, I obviously now wish that I had been more careful.” Given that he’s seen that the league means business when it comes to its strict liability policy — that is, that players are accountable for what goes into their bodies, regardless of intent — any claim that he again accidentally ingested a banned substance is going to ring hollow.

Here it’s worth noting that Canó is just the second major leaguer to be suspended for PEDs in 2020; the first one, the full-season suspension of Astros pitcher Francis Martes, was issued in February. The dearth of suspensions, as you might guess, is related to the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, the New York Post’s Joel Sherman reported that the league did not test during the period between the close of spring training in mid-March and the reopening of camps in July, in part because the Montreal laboratory that handles the samples was closed due to the pandemic and because in some jurisdictions, sample collectors were not deemed essential personnel under COVID-19 protocols. Additionally, a Salt Lake City lab that MLB uses for PED testing was converted into the league’s central facility for handling COVID-19 tests.

The information about limited PED testing wasn’t made public, likely because it would have encouraged players to exploit the situation. Via Sherman, roughly 1,000 tests were performed, but 1,289 players appeared in a major league game, so many players were tested only once during the season, and some not at all. As part of the Joint Drug Program, the league and the union are supposed to issue a report of the total numbers of tests and of positive results by December 1, which suggests that more suspensions could be in store this month.

Thus, it appears quite possible that Canó realized that under pandemic conditions, MLB wasn’t testing with its usual regularity, and he was willing to gamble his salary and whatever remained of his reputation and legacy on not getting caught. It’s a sad and depressing fall given that he already has Hall of Fame numbers and accomplishments. His total of 2,624 hits ranks ninth among players who spent the majority of their careers at second base, while his 334 home runs ranks second to Jeff Kent’s 377 (going by the strict split, counting only home runs as a second baseman, he trails 351-316). He’s seventh in JAWS among second baseman; among active players, only Albert Pujols (second among first basemen) and Mike Trout (fifth among center fielders) rank higher at their respective positions.

Given the history of the way that BBWAA voters have handled PED-linked candidates, it’s not hard to see how rough the sledding will be for Canó. Both Palmeiro and Manny Ramirez, thus far the most prominent of the suspended players to reach the ballot, have been roundly rejected by voters despite Hall-caliber numbers and achievements. Palmeiro, just the fourth player to reach both 3,000 hits and 500 homers, fell off the ballot after four tries, never receiving more than 12.6%. Ramirez, who ranks 15th on the all-time list in homers (555), eighth in slugging percentage (.585), and 10th among left fielders in JAWS (54.6, one point above the standard), hasn’t gotten more than 28.2% in four years on the ballot. While both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — neither of whom was ever suspended for PEDs, but both of whom were implicated by other means as having used during the period before testing — climbed above 60% on the 2020 ballot, other candidates similarly connected to the drugs during the pre-testing era, such as Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, and Sammy Sosa, have lagged.

Next year, Alex Rodriguez, who was suspended for the entire 2014 season due to his connections to the PED-dealing Biogenesis lab, and David Ortiz, who reportedly failed the 2004 survey test, will become eligible for the first time. It seems entirely possible and perhaps even likely that the former will receive the lesser support of the two despite superior statistics, for his suspension was shocking and at the time unprecedented within the sport. Between the full-year suspensions of Rodriguez and Canó, just three other players have drawn such discipline: the Mets’ Mejia (who during that suspension tested positive a third time, incurring a permanent ban), Indians outfielder Marlon Byrd, and Martes.

For the Mets, this might actually work out in their favor, as they now have an additional $20.25 million in expected payroll to play with — that’s Canó’s $24 million annual salary, minus the $3.75 million annual payment from the Mariners that was part of the trade — and Cohen doesn’t appear inclined to stash that money under his mattress the way the Wilpons did when it came to the insurance payments for David Wright’s inactivity. Per our Depth Charts, Canó was projected to produce 2.1 WAR in 2021, which is nontrivial to replace, but the Mets now have additional routes via which they can do that while also shopping for a center fielder, starting catcher, and rotation help.

For example, they could pursue free agent second baseman DJ LeMahieu while using Jeff McNeil as an everyday utilityman at second and third base, and in the outfield corners; return McNeil to his natural position at second and find a competent defender to pair with J.D. Davis at third; or pair Amed Rosario and Andrés Giménez in the middle infield and put the savings towards free agents. While trading for Francisco Lindor remains an option, and a risky one at that unless they’re prepared to back up a Brinks truck to keep him, they can now more easily afford Nolan Arenado, who might want out of Colorado badly enough to waive his post-2021 opt-out clause.

Of course, what the Mets intend do about the $40.5 million they still owe Canó is another matter, but under Cohen, that promises to be much less of a problem than it was during the Wilpon era. In turning the bad news of a suspended star player into potential good news when it comes to spending and roster flexibility, this really might be a new era for the Mets.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

As a Braves fan, when I first heard the news my immediate reaction was “crap, that might be the best thing to happen to the Mets”

Their roster is pieces together by a lot of positionless bat-first guys, and Cano was one of the many awkward fits. He makes their infield situation slightly less murky all though it’s still a mess. But if the Mets are available to avoid his ‘21 payout, under Cohen’s ownership, they should be able to make several splashes this offseason. Getting 2006 Mets vibes this offseason

3 years ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

I sent and received a number of text messages yesterday celebrating this news. Which feels odd to do, morally, but it’s the best thing that could have happened to the Mets on so many levels. There’s the obvious (let McNeil play his natural position; spend the $20M; etc.). There’s the next-tier (range was declining and looked to drop further; lefty bat in a lefty-heavy lineup, although he doesn’t hit lefties poorly). But most of all, there’s the fact that Cano is a vestige of a disappointing era, and that fans will always tie him to BVW and to losing Kelenic. If Diaz pitches well, I think Mets fans will embrace him… but Robbie felt like an active-roster albatross even while posting a nearly .900 OPS (that was now, obviously, chemically-enhanced).

3 years ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

Those ‘positionless bat-first guys’ being just Dom Smith and JD Davis. They should keep both, as in addition to having a lineup with several better defenders there that can limit the damage Davis’s defense does at 3B, with Davis and Dom the Mets have a DH platoon and / or power off the bench, a rarity for them, and even a respectable LF platoon in case they lose an OFer to serious injury.

—Adding Springer in CF now lets the Mets move Nimmo to LF, frees McNeil for, probably, 2B, and assuming Giminez at SS gives the Mets an above average defense for the first time in years. They should also live with JD Davis at 3B, given Springer’s salary and the desperate need for more starting pitching. That will include a #2 SP if they want to do more than just make the postseason, but actually want a shot at the World Series, and another SP on par with Stroman if the want a *real* shot at the World Series. $80m AAV worth of offseason spending only lets you add a bullpen arm and defense-first catching after that, since even with Cano’s salary freed up they’d be up against the luxury tax. They’ll be a WS threat, in the tier below the Dodgers.