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Baseball's new drug problem: fast-acting synthetic testosterone

Major League Baseball has a drug problem again and is engaged in discussions with the players' association regarding what to do about it. The very specific problem is the use of fast-acting synthetic testosterone, the primary performance-enhancing drug of choice among emboldened players who believe they can avoid detection with dosages that are carefully timed and controlled.

Testosterone was the substance that triggered positive tests in the previous 12 months by Ryan Braun of Milwaukee, Melky Cabrera of San Francisco, Bartolo Colon of Oakland and Yasmani Grandal of San Diego. Braun's positive test, which occurred during the 2011 postseason, was overturned upon appeal after he challenged procedural issues related to the sample. The other players were suspended 50 games. Grandal, who flunked a test in September, did not challenge his positive test and was suspended this week -- the seventh PED suspension this year, the most in five years.

Synthetic testosterone, which aids in strength gain, muscle recovery and the prevention of tissue breakdown, has become popular because of how quickly it acts and leaves the system when measured by routine drug screening -- less than 24 hours, according to some reports. Players believe they can use the synthetic testosterone, which can be applied through creams, gels and patches, immediately after being tested or before off days without fear of being caught as part of a year-round regimen.

Human growth hormone remains another banned drug of choice because baseball does not test for it during the season. Players were subject to one blood test -- effectively an announced test -- when they arrived at spring training. Negotiations continue about more extensive blood testing.

One major league scout said he now includes notations in his reports about possible PED use when he sees spikes in performance. He lamented "how dirty" the game has once again become because of the popularity and ease of use of synthetic testosterone.

One head trainer, when asked last month about the popularity of fast-acting synthetic testosterone, replied, "I don't know anything about it." That's the kind of position -- either ignorance or complicity -- that helped put baseball into The Steroid Era in the first place.

Top baseball officials, however, privately acknowledge that synthetic testosterone is a problem in baseball, just as they believe it to be in all sports. Its rise is part of the "ebb and flow" of the business of testing and cheating, according to one baseball official.

The next step in that ebb and flow falls on the side of baseball to tighten the synthetic testosterone loophole, which has been the subject of the discussions between baseball and the union. The two sides have discussed two possibilities as a countermeasure. One idea is to run more carbon isotope ratio tests, a more expensive test than the standard drug test that, unlike the routine tests, is able to separate synthetic testosterone from the testosterone that naturally is produced by the body.

The other suggestion under consideration is the use of "longitudinal study" protocols that involve continually tracking a player's testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio. Humans typically have a 1:1 ratio. Baseball's testing program allows a ratio up to 4:1. A person's ratio does not vary much from birth to death. Any sudden spike in the so-called T:E ratio would suggest the introduction of a banned substance. Baseball's current testing program involves only one-time "snapshots" of the T:E ratio with no longitudinal study in place, meaning no way to connect the dots.

Think about the choice Grandal made. Neither the testing protocols, the possibility of a 50-game suspension nor the high-profile humiliations of Cabrera and Colon just one month earlier deterred him from using testosterone. He may have been caught only because he wasn't sophisticated enough in his usage. The point is that a confidence exists among the applicable players that they can beat the test -- and most of the cheaters do. Hopefully the owners and union will act on their discussions and throw more money and science at the problem to tighten the loophole.

I argue the rise in usage sends baseball another message: the penalty is far too light. When players calculate the risk-reward ratio, the risk of losing 50 games is insufficient. If the owners and players were truly serious about a clean game, first-time offenders would face a minimum of a one-year ban. Unfortunately, there are no current discussions about amending the penalties.

Justin Upton is available -- again. The Diamondbacks have made it known so many times for so long that Upton could be had that a trade looks increasingly in the best interest of both parties. Contrast how Arizona has treated Upton with how Seattle has treated Felix Hernandez (that is, repeatedly and unequivocally saying he is unavailable). Upton is 25, owed a reasonable $38.5 million over the next three years, runs well, defends decently enough, owns a career OPS of .832 and has no issues off the field.

So why would Arizona even entertain the idea of trading him? They want to see if they can find a club willing to overpay for such a young star under a decent contract -- and they know him better than anybody else. The Diamondbacks have lived with his inconsistencies, injuries and strikeouts -- big years followed by down years. Upton never has driven in 100 runs (he hits better with the bases empty than with runners on), has struck out far more than any player in history through his age 24 season (despite being 34th in plate appearances through that juncture), and has such alarming career home/road splits that away from Chase Field (.250/.325/.406) he essentially is Peter Bourjos (.247/.301/.402).

What really makes Upton attractive is the idea that the best is yet to come -- not unreasonable given he only now should be approaching his prime years. The potential of Upton is even more valuable than the track record of Upton, and the Diamondbacks, after giving him more than 3,000 plate appearances, appear willing to cash in on that value. It's even more likely bigger years are ahead if you believe Upton will flourish with a change of scenery. Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Detroit, Seattle, Texas, Washington, the Cubs and Atlanta all should be interested.

The Mets are smart to gauge the trade interest in R.A. Dickey, a guy who could win the NL Cy Young Award but who also might bring them two pieces to help them get back to respectability. That doesn't mean they will simply dump him. Think about how the Cubs dangled Matt Garza, but pulled back after his injury reduced his trade value. They will revisit a trade of Garza this spring or July.

David Wright, because he was drafted and developed by the Mets, is an entirely different story. This is not simply a baseball decision. "Some things are strictly up to ownership," said one club source. Wright's popularity gets in the way of making a baseball decision, about whether the Mets should commit $100 million or more for Wright's seasons from age 31 through 36. He's an important part of the Mets' identity, but at what cost?

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