Major League Baseball is now in its second decade of testing and suspensions, so we should be past surprises when it comes to the type of players getting caught for using performance-enhancing drugs. The controversy surrounding Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire might have made PEDs famous in baseball, and Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, and Alex Rodriguez have all been suspended by MLB for PED use, but there’s no single type of player using PEDs. Bartolo Colon, Freddy Galvis, and Dee Gordon have all tested positive, as well — Gordon representing the most recent case after testing positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol. In most cases, a suspension is held up as an example that the system works and that MLB is catching users. Given Gordon’s contract situation, however, that might not be the case here.
Gordon is regarded as a bit of a late-bloomer, something upon which we can now look back and consider how PEDs might have helped him. While Gordon certainly has produced his best two years over the past two seasons, those also represented his age-26 and age-27 seasons — which is to say, years during which it’s not uncommon for a player to post career numbers. Gordon received decent playing time in 2011 and 2012. Despite having recorded considerably worse slash lines during that time, those seasons aren’t actually all that fundamentally different from Gordon’s most recent seasons. Gordon’s success has been heavily reliant on BABIP, which of course is prone to greater variance than other metrics.
In Gordon’s first season in 2011, he received 233 plate appearances, posted a strong .345 BABIP, and after accounting for his base-running, was a better-than-average offensive player. The next season, his BABIP dropped to .281 and his speed on the bases couldn’t compensate for that deficit. He barely got any playing time in 2013, but the Dodgers gave him a shot as a starter in 2014 and a .346 BABIP rendered him an average hitter. The extra speed on the bases made him an above average-offensive player, and the Dodgers, surely believing they were selling high, traded him to the Marlins in a deal that brought them Howie Kendrick.
Gordon’s batted-ball outcomes improved even more last season: a .383 BABIP led to a .333 batting average, and with defensive improvements, he was nearly a five-win player. Jeff Sullivan admitted he hadn’t seen this coming and touted Gordon’s improved defense. Eno Sarris wrote just yesterday how a combination of coaching and effort helped utilize both Dee Gordon and Adeiny Hechavarria’s talents to create one of the better shortstop-second base combos in baseball. Gordon’s BABIP was going to fluctuate, but with his speed on the base paths, it was reasonable to expect Gordon to be around average offensively — sometimes better — and the improvements on defense made the Marlins feel comfortable giving Gordon five-year contract worth $50 million.
That $50 million contract bought out Gordon’s final three years of arbitration plus two years of free agency and a potential third as a team option. It came with a signing bonus of $1.5 million and a salary of $3 million this season, which means Gordon will lose $1.3 million as a result of his suspension. And when he returns, the Marlins will still owe roughly $45 million to Gordon. That extension money is where the current controversy lies.
Earlier this week, Ken Rosenthal talked with multiple players about the current system for suspending PED users, covering a wide range of issues: the efficacy of the system (in light of players who’d been caught outside of testing), the penalty and whether it was too lax, and the possibility of tiering suspensions if a player knowingly took a banned substance. These are thorny issues.
While certainly some players have been caught outside the testing process, enough of them have been caught to presume the system works to some degree and that it makes players aware of the risks — professionally, that is — associated with taking banned substances. The length of the penalty could be modified, but there’s a delicate balance between players purposefully cheating and those who are negligent about what they put in their body. Eighty games with essentially no excuses available provides a significant punishment for cheaters. It acts as deterrent for those who might cheat, helps to increase awareness of what goes into a player’s body — and, at the same time, still provides some recourse for those without malicious intent. No testing system is perfect and innocent parties could get caught up. Eighty games provides a midpoint for the varying concerns associated with the testing and suspension process.
The issue here, when a player signs a big contract and is subsequently suspended, is whether the deterrent is sufficiently robust. Gordon loses less than 3% of his guaranteed money. Ervin Santana only lost around 10% of his $55 million guarantee. Ryan Braun is still paid under his extension. So is Alex Rodriguez. Jhonny Peralta signed for $53 million after his suspension. Nelson Cruz had to take a one-year deal before cashing in with Mariners. Players and owners can be upset about this, but a solution does not neatly present itself.
The idea of voiding a contract has been rasied, but who would be responsible for making that sort of decision? If a contract is voided automatically, players would have the incentive to fail tests. Take Giancarlo Stanton as an example. Stanton has a massive contract, but he would have been a free agent after this season without it. If the Marlins fall out of the race, Stanton could simply refuse to take a test, take an 80 game suspension, and then – -regardless of whether he’d used PEDs — become a free agent when his contract was voided. The same goes for other players who’d stand to benefit from such an arrangement, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Lucroy, and Buster Posey. On the other hand, if owners had the choice to void a contract after a suspension, they would likely make the decision based not on the grounds of integrity, but whether the player was still worth his contract. They could utilize the system as an easy out on a player’s decline years.
Anecdotally, using the names from the previous paragraph, players seem to have played close to reasonable expectations after getting hit with suspensions. However, we’ve also seen the Yankees benefit from not having to pay Alex Rodriguez. We’ve seen the Angels react adversely to a situation that allowed Josh Hamilton to avoid a suspension without pay. The players might want a greater punishment for PED users, but potential solutions take money out of players’ hands and put them in the owners’ pockets — not necessarily to be redistributed among players.
The goal is an even playing field, and given the potential reward, there will always be those trying to game the system despite the risks. The current system works as both a deterrent and a punishment, and it is not really clear how changing the system as it stands would change that calculus without risking disastrous results for those who were merely negligent or the test failed for one reason or another. While we do not know if Gordon or the recently suspended Chris Colabello took PEDs on purpose — they both maintain it was an accident — there certainly are players who have, and punishing them for a season or more seems unduly harsh.
For the Marlins, a team with a slim margin for competing this season, the loss of Gordon for 80 games will definitely hurt. Derek Dietrich is a solid replacement as a low-average, decent power hitter. He might reproduce Gordon’s expected production in a different manner, although he likely doesn’t possess the same upside. For Gordon, this will be a stain on his permanent record, but in all likelihood, he will come back, play as expected over the next few years, and earn the money in his contract extension. For the testing procedures, this is a victory. For the players, they have some difficult decisions to make to ensure that the playing field is level without transferring too much power to ownership.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.