Major League Baseball already has the harshest performance-enhancing drug policy in professional American sports, but it could get even tougher.
Such is the consensus of the day. MLB Players Association executive director Michael Weiner recently told the New York Daily News that he's not ruling out a harsher system of penalties in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal, and he indicated that players are on board with the idea.
“I’m not surprised the players are disgusted with [the] Miami [situation],” Weiner said. “The players are sick of this issue.”
MLB commissioner Bud Selig is also in favor of tightening up the penalties, telling USA Today:
My view is that it should be done as expeditiously as possible...We've made meaningful adjustments to our testing and now the time has come to make meaningful adjustments to our penalties. I feel very strongly about this.
This is for the best interest of this sport, and everybody in it.
Selig declined to go into specifics about what he's looking for, saying simply that he believes in "stronger penalties" and that the league and the union "need to do everything possible to deter the use of performance-enhancing drugs."
To this end, a truly perfect system of deterrents would consist of the following.
One-Year Ban for First-Time Offenders
If MLB and the union want to deter would-be cheaters, their first move should be to forge a bigger banhammer. The league's 50-game ban for a first-time offense should become a full-season ban.
The penalties for first-time offenders to this point haven't been threatening enough. The 10-day bans for first-time offenders included in the first system of penalties were a joke. There were a dozen of those handed out in 2005 (see Baseball-Almanac.com). One went to veteran slugger Rafael Palmeiro, who had vehemently denied ever using steroids to Congress just several months earlier.
The current punishments—50 games for one offense, 100-games for a second and a lifetime ban for a third—were put in place in winter of 2005. The results have been better...but only to a degree.
But last year was the real wake-up call. After catching only four players in 2010 and 2011, MLB handed out five 50-game suspensions and one 100-game suspension to Guillermo Mota.
Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal were nabbed for using testosterone, and it's disconcerting that the three of them benefited from using. Cabrera was on his way to winning a batting title at the time he was suspended in August. Colon had a 3.43 ERA through 24 starts. Grandal compiled an .863 OPS and hit eight homers in only 60 games as a rookie.
MLB has since tightened up its testing procedure for testosterone and human growth hormone, but the writing is on the wall that making the testing tougher is only half the battle. There are always going to be more drugs for players to take and different ways for them to avoid testing.
The threat of a 50-game suspension clearly isn't enough to stop players from seeking out ways to cheat, so it follows that MLB needs a more menacing threat. And once you go from 10 games to 50 games for a first-time offense, the next logical step is a full-season ban.
That would mean an awful lot of money left on the table, seeing as how these suspensions are without pay, which is enough of a deterrent in and of itself.
But why stop there?
It's extremely difficult for an MLB team to void a contract, particularly if a team means to use a PED violation as an excuse to do so.
Case in point, see the Alex Rodriguez situation. Wallace Matthews and Andrew Marchand of ESPNNewYork.com reported in January that the New York Yankees were looking into voiding A-Rod's contract after his name surfaced in the Miami New Times report on the Biogenesis clinic, but there are a few things standing in the Yankees' way.
One, obviously, is that A-Rod hasn't been punished yet. The Yankees need him to actually be deemed guilty before they can even hope to act.
Even then, the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program states (see page 28) that only the league is allowed to discipline players for PED violations. Voiding a player's contract would indeed be a form of discipline.
"Baseball's drug policy was specifically written so that teams can't do things like this," a source told Matthews and Marchand. "You can't use this to try to get out of the last years of a contract."
The agreement does allow teams to take "adverse action" against a player if he is rendered unable to play by physical or mental issues resulting from his PED violation, and clubs are also allowed to withhold money from a player if "he is unavailable because of legal proceedings or incarceration arising from his violation of the Program."
However, clubs are always going to have a hard time pursuing either of those avenues. Players using PEDs is much more of a baseball issue than a legal issue, and proving a player is broken down because of PED use is a huge headache in and of itself.
MLB and the union can greatly simplify matters by allowing and even encouraging teams to pursue specific contract language that gives them the option of voiding a contract if a player commits a PED violation. It would be the team's decision to keep honoring the player's contract or to just cut him loose as a free agent.
And that's another area where MLB should look to add a deterrent for would-be cheaters.
Free-Agent Cheaters Should Only Be Guaranteed the Minimum
Players are always going to be tempted to use PEDs, in large part because of the paycheck they could potentially get after posting juiced-up numbers.
Take Cabrera and Colon, for example. They were both caught and suspended in August last year, but both still managed to do well in free agency.
Cabrera got a two-year, $16 million contract from the Toronto Blue Jays. That's a far cry from the contract he would have gotten as a free agent had he not been suspended, but that's still not a bad raise for a guy who made only $6 million in 2012.
Colon didn't do as well as Cabrera, but he still did all right. After making $2 million in 2012, Colon re-signed with the Oakland A's for $3 million guaranteed. Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, his deal also includes over $2 million in performance bonuses.
These two proved that it's still possible for known cheaters to get raises in free agency, and that's something that can't be sitting well with Selig.
One thing Selig can do is move to implement a rule that allows free-agent players who are fresh off PED suspensions to only receive the major league minimum for one year in their next contracts. Per MLB's CBA, that's around $500,000.
Restricting teams to offering only the major league minimum for one year would obviously create a bidding problem, so MLB would have to grant teams the option of adding performance bonuses to their offers. That would allow a player to pick from several different contracts rather than a collection of identical offers.
Known cheaters could still benefit financially in a system such as this, but they'd have to perform on a level playing field in order to do so.
And before you ask, MLB could make sure these players would be performing on a level playing field by keeping a much closer eye on them.
Extra Random Testing for Known Offenders
MLB's PED program calls for players to submit urine tests upon reporting to spring training. Beyond that, both urine and the new HGH blood tests are random and unannounced.
Known users have it tougher, as the Program calls (page 13) for them to be subjected to three unannounced tests in a 12-month period following their initial violation.
That's an area where MLB can up the ante by subjecting known users to even more random tests, thus making it even harder for those who would cheat again to avoid getting caught red-handed.
In particular, that's a real concern with testosterone. BALCO founder Victor Conte told the New York Daily News in August that testosterone creams can clear one's system in a matter of hours, meaning there's a very small window in which testosterone users can be caught red-handed.
Additional random testing would be a strong deterrent because a player who has it in mind to cheat again would be doing so with a great amount of risk. A test one day could just as easily be followed up by another test the next day as another test a couple weeks or a month down the line. It would be impossible for would-be cheaters to come up with a safe plan.
In the event that a player is busted a second time, that's when he should really be in trouble.
Permanent Lifetime Ban for Second-Time Offenders
Right now, MLB is using a three-strikes-and-you're-out rule, as it takes three PED violations to earn a lifetime ban.
If MLB makes the penalty for a first-time offense a one-year ban, the next logical step would be to make the penalty for a second offense a lifetime ban. Instead of three strikes and out, it would be two strikes and out.
This possibility already has some support among players, including Colorado Rockies outfielder Michael Cuddyer. Here's what he told The Denver Post in February:
I think 100 percent guys would be for it. I can't speak for everybody, but listening to certain guys' comments and talking to certain guys, I think guys would be all for stiffer penalties. That's a full year's pay and then you can never play again. If that's not a deterrent, I don't know what is.
St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday feels the same way. Here's what he said on MLB Network Radio in January, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
I’d go first time (you get caught) you miss a full season, 162 games you’re out. And then the second time I think you are suspended for a lifetime with the eligibility after two years maybe to apply for reinstatement. That’s what I would do. I feel like that’s pretty harsh but I think that’s what we need...
Holliday brought up a good point about the possibility of a player being able to apply for reinstatement following a lifetime ban. MLB's program (page 22) allows players to apply for reinstatement one year after their lifetime suspension is imposed, and they can be cleared to return two years after the fact.
That's the one complication of the whole lifetime ban thing. If a player gets himself suspended for life under the current rules, it's not a given that he'll actually be suspended for life.
But Cuddyer was on to something with his comment. If MLB is going to suspend players for life, it should suspend them for life, period. No applications for reinstatement. No possibility of ever playing again.
That would indeed be an effective deterrent, especially if it was mixed with the other deterrents outlined above. Getting one strike would make a player's life extremely difficult, and the second strike would be final.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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