Tuesday was supposed to be the day that Robinson Cano learned of the prognosis regarding the fractured fifth metacarpal he suffered on Sunday. Instead, both he and the Mariners suffered a bigger blow, as MLB suspended the 35-year-old second baseman for 80 games for violating baseball’s joint drug agreement. The news is quite a shock, to say the least, given Cano’s standing within the game. It’s also quite a coincidence given his injury.
Cano will not be paid during the suspension, which means that he stands to lose about half of his $24 million salary. If the Mariners were to make the playoffs — something they haven’t done since 2001, giving them the longest postseason drought in major North American sports — he would be ineligible to participate. He can, however, serve the suspension while on the disabled list, a loophole that should have been closed a long time ago but for some reason has not been. Edinson Volquez (suspended in 2010) and Freddy Galvis (suspended in 2012) are among the players who served their PED suspensions while on the DL. Cano will be eligible to return for the Mariners’ 121st game of the season, on August 14.
According to MLB, Cano tested positive for furosemide, a diuretic better known as Lasix. Via WebMD, the drug can be used to treat high blood pressure, fluid retention and swelling caused by congestive heart failure, liver disease, kidney disease, and other medical conditions.
Via a statement by Cano issued through the Major League Baseball Players Association, Cano claimed that the substance was given to him by a licensed doctor to treat an unspecified medical ailment. (MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reports that it was an episode of high blood pressure.)
Here’s the statement in full:
While not a performance-enhancing drug itself, furosemide is banned by MLB because of its frequent use 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. According to the British Journal of Pharmacology, furosemide is one of the most abused diuretics among athletes because of its short half-life, as it is “undetectable in urine if samples are not collected within 24-48 [hours] after the last administration.”
ESPN’s T.J. Quinn, who has been one of the leading reporters covering the PED beat dating back to the days of BALCO and Operation Equine, said in a series of tweets (one, two, three) that furosemide is “the kind of drug a player is likely to say he took by accident and didn’t help his performance, and added:
“[P]layers are NOT automatically suspended for using diuretics. The suspension means MLB was able to prove he was using it to mask a drug. Cano tested positive before the season, appealed and dropped the appeal.
“I don’t know what the original drug was and the source I spoke to said MLB doesn’t, either. Not sure how they proved intent, but evidently they proved it well enough to convince Cano to drop his appeal.”
Ugh, ugh, ugh. Cano is the second major leaguer suspended this year, after the Twins’ Jorge Polanco. A total of 19 major leaguers have been suspended since the start of 2015, following the perdiod during which the Biogenesis suspensions had run their course. Five of those 19 have been former All-Stars, namely Ervin Santana (2015), Marlon Byrd and Dee Gordon (2016), Starling Marte (2017) and now Cano, an eight-time All-Star who made the AL squad in each of the past two seasons.
As noted previously, the Mariners (23-17, 1.5 games back in the AL West) are not well set up to handle Cano’s absence. Gordon Beckham, who was recalled from Tacoma to replace Cano on the team’s 25-man roster, owns a career 81 wRC+ and has been 0.3 WAR below replacement since the start of 2014; he got just 18 plate appearances in the majors last year. Utilitymen Andrew Romine (who’s on the 25-man roster) and Taylor Motter (who’s on the 40-man roster) both have a career wRC+ in the low 60s, meaning that they’re not good enough to justify regular play, either. Given the length of Cano’s absence, it’s worth wondering whether the team will reconsider its plan to keep Gordon, whom the Mariners acquired from the Marlins in December, in center field, where the small-sample metrics have been unflattering (-8 DRS, -2 UZR), to say the least.
[Update: Gordon will indeed transition back to second base.]
The impact of Cano’s suspension goes beyond this year’s Mariners roster. As I noted the other day, he appeared to be in excellent shape with regards to an eventual berth in the Hall of Fame, with 2,417 career hits, 305 career homers and the No. 7 JAWS ranking among second basemen at 59.0. (The average among enshrined second basemen is 57.5.) With five more years plus this one under contract, he has a chance of becoming the first second baseman to reach both the 3,000-hit and 400-homer plateaus, something only 11 players have done previously, with Adrian Beltre (2017) and Albert Pujols (2018) the most recent. His 67.4 career WAR (Baseball-Reference version) ranks 11th among second basemen, 2.1 WAR below the standard at the position (the average of the 20 enshrined second basemen), while his 50.5 peak WAR (from his best seven seasons) is tied for sixth at the position and is already six wins past the standard.
Cano’s statistical milestones and JAWS ranking may not ultimately matter much, however: neither the BBWAA voters nor those on any of the era committees have elected any player who has been suspended for PEDs. Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive in 2005, fell off the writers’ ballot after four tries, having never received more than 12.6% despite his superficially impressive totals of hits (3.020) and homers (569). Manny Ramirez, with 2,571 hits and 555 homers, received 23.8% of the vote in 2017, his first year on the ballot, and 22.0% in 2018. Players such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire, who never tested positive under the Joint Drug Agreement, have been held back by the weight of their connections to PEDs nonetheless, but other players more loosely connected, namely Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza (both of whom admitted to using steroid precursor androstenedione before it was banned in 2004), have been elected.
That said, by the time Cano becomes eligible — in 2029, if he retires at the end of his current 10-year contract — the landscape could be very different. By that point, BBWAA voters will have rendered their verdicts on Bonds, Clemens, and Ramirez, and they will have reckoned with the candidacy of Alex Rodriguez, who becomes eligible in 2022. The electorate itself will have changed in composition, with an increasing number of writers who did not cover the game during the height of the steroid era — a group that has generally regarded that chapter of the game’s history differently than older writers — gaining the ability to vote (this scribe included). Still, absent further insight into Cano’s current circumstances, one has to presume he faces an uphill battle to election.
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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.