For the fourth time in the past 15 days, Major League Baseball has handed down an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use, and for the fourth time it's a pitcher who tested positive for the substance Stanozolol. MLB announced the suspension of Mets closer Jenrry Mejia, currently on the disabled list due to elbow inflammation, on Saturday; he will be eligible to return on July 7. Beyond Mejia's suspension, the return of the easily detected Stanozolol to prominence has already caught the attention of commissioner Rob Manfred, as well it should.
The 25-year-old Mejia, who has pitched in parts of four seasons for the Mets but has yet to appear this year, follows the Mariners' David Rollins, the Braves' Arodys Vizcaino and the Twins' Ervin Santana in being suspended this year. They are the first four major leaguers subjected to 80-game suspensions for an initial violation under the Joint Drug Agreement. In the wake of the 2013 Biogenesis scandal, the league and the players' union agreed to increase the first-time penalty from 50 games to 80 games, a change that was announced in March 2014. But the only major leaguers suspended for drug violations last year were Padres outfielder Cameron Maybin and Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, both of whom drew a 25-game ban for testing positive for a stimulant.
All four of the pitchers suspended this year have tested positive for Stanozolol, a synthetic anabolic steroid commonly sold under the name Winstrol, approved for use on horses but associated with a long history of abuse among athletes. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for Stanozolol at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Slugger Rafael Palmeiro drew a 10-game suspension for a positive test for the drug in 2005, shortly after collecting his 3,000th hit. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are alleged to have used it as well.
Even before Mejia’s suspension, the confluence of Stanozolol-linked positive tests had drawn the attention of Manfred. He told the New York Times earlier this week that he had asked the sport’s investigative arm to search for possible connections among the players who had tested positive, a common supplier such as “the next Anthony Bosch,” referring to the quasi-physician at the center of the Biogenesis scandal. But where Bosch trafficked in substances that MLB’s drug testing program couldn’t detect, this latest wave features a drug whose lengthy history on the sporting scene means that it’s easily detected via urinalysis.
For his part, Mejia expressed bewilderment at the positive test in a statement released by the MLBPA, one that also included his apology:
“I know the rules are the rules and I will accept my punishment, but I can honestly say I have no idea how a banned substance ended up in my system … I have been through a lot in my young career and missed time due to injury. I have worked way too hard to come back and get to where I am, so I would never knowingly put anything in my body that I thought could hold me out further.
“I am sorry to the Mets organization, my teammates and the fans, as well as my family.”
Mejia's statement echoes that of Santana, who after being suspended on April 3 said, “I am frustrated that I can't pinpoint how the substance in question entered my body. I would never knowingly take anything illegal to enhance my performance.”
While there's certainly reason to be skeptical or even cynical about what any athlete says after being caught using PEDs, and while the provenance of the drugs for which they tested positive is unknown (at least with regards to the general public), it's worth noting that Mejia, Santana and Vizcaino all hail from the Dominican Republic, where many steroids are legal for over-the-counter sale, and where supplements aren't regulated as strictly as in the United States. In October 2013, Bloomberg Business reported that 53 percent of the sport's 435 PED-related violations dating from the release of the Mitchell Report in December 2007 to that point in time (only 33 of which covered major league players) had been committed by Dominican players. This is a longstanding problem, and while MLB and the Players Association have worked to educate players while underscoring the fact that they’re responsible for any substance they ingest, it’s unclear whether those efforts are having any impact.
Mejia’s suspension is the latest speed bump in a career that's seen more than its share since he was signed as an amateur free agent in 2007. Before debuting in the majors as a 20-year-old in 2010, Mejia missed significant time in the minors due to a rotator cuff strain and a finger injury, and since debuting, he's undergone Tommy John surgery in 2011 and surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow in 2013, the latter after spending all but a few weeks of the season on the DL.
Given all that, Mejia entered the 2014 season with just 82 1/3 major league innings under his belt over the previous four years. He began the season in the Mets' rotation and made seven starts before being moved to the bullpen in early May, a change motivated by concerns about his workload as well as his declining effectiveness as a starter. By mid-May he took over as closer, stabilizing a role that had seen four other pitchers—Jose Valverde, Carlos Torres, Kyle Farnsworth and Daisuke Matsuzaka—notch saves to that point after Bobby Parnell was lost to Tommy John surgery. Mejia, who had never recorded a major league save to that point, converted 28 out of 31 save opportunities, pitching to a 2.72 ERA with 9.6 strikeouts per nine in 56 1/3 innings in that role, compared to a 5.06 ERA in 37 1/3 innings as a starter.
In December, manager Terry Collins said that Parnell, who saved 22 games for the Mets in 2013 but underwent reconstruction of his ulnar collateral ligament last April 8, would be the closer once he returned. Mejia was slated to begin the season in that role, but while warming up to pitch the ninth inning on Opening Day he experienced elbow stiffness. Instead, 37-year-old journeyman Buddy Carlyle pitched the ninth to earn the first save of his major league career. Mejia underwent an MRI on Tuesday, which found inflammation but no structural damage. He was given a cortisone shot and placed on the disabled list retroactive to April 5. Jeurys Familia pitched the ninth with a four-run lead on Thursday, a non-save situation; he and lefty Jerry Blevins are the most likely candidates to handle closing chores until Parnell, who could begin a rehab assignment soon, returns to the roster in late April or early May.
On a pitching staff that’s been hit hard by injuries, Mejia’s suspension is just one more problem for the Mets to overcome. In a sport that’s battling a new wave of suspensions, it will be particularly interesting to see whether MLB can indeed find a link between his transgression and those of the other recent violators.