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Off to an 8–9 start in their defense of their American League East title, the Toronto Blue Jays suffered a significant loss Friday afternoon when it was announced by Major League Baseball that first baseman Chris Colabello has been suspended for 80 games for testing positive for an illegal performance-enhancing substance. That substance, dehydrochlormethyltestosterone, is an anabolic steroid that was favored by the East German government in the final two decades of that country’s existence. The last major league player to receive an 80-game suspension, Phillies Rule 5 lefty Daniel Stumpf, whose suspension was announced last week, tested positive for the same substance.
Colabello was an important part of the Blue Jays’ first playoff berth in two decades last year, hitting .321/.367/.520 with 15 home runs in 360 plate appearances while splitting his time between the outfield corners, designated hitter and a first-base platoon with switch-hitter Justin Smoak. Colabello then hit .282/.317/.513 in 41 PA while starting at first base in 10 of Toronto’s 11 games in the postseason. That was a breakout season for now-32-year-old Colabello, who went undrafted out of college and spent seven years in the independent Canadian-American Association before being signed to a minor-league deal by the Twins in February 2012 and making his minor league debut in Double A at the age of 28.
Colabello first came into view of major league fans in 2013 when he played for the Italian team in that year’s World Baseball Classic, following in the footsteps of his father, Lou Colabello, who pitched in the Italian Baseball League in the late 1970s and early ‘80s and for Italy in the 1984 Olympics. Chris made his major-league debut that May and hit 13 home runs in 401 plate appearances over two seasons for Minnesota, albeit with a weak overall line of .214/.284/.364 (80 OPS+). Claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays in December 2014, Colabello opened the 2015 season in the minors, but injury and underperformance in the Toronto outfield prompted his recall in early May and he quickly solidified his place on the team by going 6 for 8 in his first two games and homering in his third.
In light of his positive drug test, that breakout season, a remarkable story taken on its face, will now falls under suspicion, though it’s worth noting that Colabello passed every drug test he took in 2015 as well as in his previous three seasons in organized baseball. In a statement released Friday afternoon, Colabello said that he was informed of the positive test in March, but, somewhat cryptically, denies having knowingly ingested the drug. Here’s the full text of his statement:
On March 13, I got one of the scariest and most definitely the least expected phone calls of my entire life. I was informed by the Players Association that a banned substance was found in my urine. I have spent every waking moment since that day trying to find an answer as to why or how? The only thing I know is that I would never compromise the integrity of the game of baseball. I love this game too much! I care too deeply about it. I am saddened more for the impact this will have on my teammates, the organization and the fans of the Toronto Blue Jays. I hope that before anyone passes judgement (sic) on me they can take a look at the man that I am, and everything that I have done to get where I am in my career.
It is unfortunately difficult to give Colabello the benefit of the doubt here given that claims of innocence have become pro forma among players who test positive. Nonetheless, the fact that he has played the first three weeks of this season with this suspension looming would seem to go a long way toward explaining his brutal 2-for-29 start without an extra-base hit.
Colabello was an obvious regression candidate coming into the season, both because of his age and lack of track record, as well as his .411 batting average on balls in play last year. However, his power was well-established, giving the Blue Jays reason to expect him to continue to be a reliable contributor as the shortside of a platoon with Smoak. Now they will be without him until late July, placing increased pressure on Smoak, but creating an opportunity for another right-handed first baseman, quite possibly former catching prospect Jesus Montero, whom Toronto claimed off waivers from Seattle at the end of March.
Now a 26-year-old first baseman, Montero has made an obvious effort to salvage his career over the last two years, getting his body in shape and hitting .322/.374/.530 in 839 plate appearances at Triple A over the last two seasons. However, he was given very little opportunity at the major-league level by the Mariners, who gave him just 17 plate appearances in 2014 and 116 in 2015, the latter of which he did very little with. Coming into Friday’s action, Montero has hit .316/.344/.456 for Triple-A Buffalo and would seem to stand a far better chance of realizing his former potential while calling the Rogers Centre home than he did while playing in Safeco Field, which is particularly hard on right-handed power hitters.
Beyond Montero, the Blue Jays’ Triple-A team features left-handed hitting veteran first baseman Casey Kotchman, but a more compelling alternative to Montero would be the promotion of a right-handed-hitting outfielder who could form a complex platoon with Smoak by pushing Jose Bautista to first base or to designated hitter, which would push Edwin Encarnacion to first. The primary option there is 23-year-old switch-hitter Dalton Pompey, who opened last season as the Blue Jays’ centerfielder before being displaced by his own poor production and the emergence of Kevin Pillar. Pompey doesn’t offer anything close to the power potential of Colabello or Montero, but his legs are an asset both on the bases and in the field and his current .371 on-base percentage for Buffalo is a dead match for his career minor league OBP. Colabello’s immediate replacement on the roster is left-handed reliever Chad Girodo, but one assumes a subsequent move will be made, likely this weekend, to restore balance to the roster.
Meanwhile, the Jays will indeed get Colabello back for the season’s final two months, but he will be ineligible for the postseason. His return roughly one week before the non-waiver trade deadline thus presents them with a difficult decision should Montero, Pompey or another player not emerge to sufficiently fill Colabello’s shoes in the meantime. Given the opportunity to trade for an upgrade at first base, will the Blue Jays make a move or trust that a 32-year-old Colabello coming off an 80-game suspension will be able to provide that upgrade himself? That decision is still half a season away, however, as is Colabello’s next appearance in a Blue Jays’ uniform.