Gordon's PED suspension proves we know nothing about steroid users
Major League Baseball delivered some stunning news late Thursday night, when it announced that Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon had received an 80-game suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug test. A two-time All-Star, the National League's 2015 batting champion and the major league leader in hits last season and in stolen bases the last two, Gordon is the highest-profile player to receive a PED ban since MLB suspended Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta and others in connection with its investigation of the Biogenesis clinic in 2013.
According to MLB, Gordon tested positive for two performance-enhancing drugs: exogenous testosterone and Clostebol. The latter is an anabolic steroid that was popular with East German athletes, albeit one not as powerful as dehydrochlormethyltestosterone. That drug is the one that triggered the suspensions of Phillies lefty Daniel Stumpf and Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello, the latter of which was handed down last Friday. The announcement of Gordon's ban came late in the night, after the conclusion of Miami's 5–3 victory over the Dodgers in Los Angeles; Gordon went 1 for 4 with a game-tying single in the seventh inning to help his team finish a four-game sweep. In a statement released on Friday morning, Gordon denied "knowingly" using PEDs. He did, however, accept the blame for his positive test, ending his statement with, “I made a mistake and I accept the consequences.”
Beyond the direct impact on the Marlins (who did not enter the season with serious playoff aspirations), Gordon’s suspension challenges what some think they know about steroid users in baseball. A 5’11”, 170-pound toothpick, Gordon is the antithesis of the stereotypical performance-enhancing hitter. He has hit just eight home runs in 2,069 major league plate appearances and had the 10th-lowest isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) among all qualified batters last season with a .085 mark. Of his major league-leading 205 hits last year, 57 of them didn’t leave the infield and 16 of them came on bunts; both of those figures topped the majors.
Gordon isn’t the first player of his type to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis, who had the ninth-lowest isolated slugging among qualified batters last year (.081), also tested positive for Clostebol in 2012. In fact, the very first player to be suspended by MLB for performance-enhancing drug use, back in 2005, wasn’t a slugger; it was slap-hitting Devil Rays centerfielder Alex Sanchez, who hit six home runs in 1,651 career plate appearances with a .076 career isolated slugging.
Gordon’s suspension also sends two messages about steroid use in baseball. The first is that no player is above suspicion. The second is that we have no idea what steroid users look like, and any attempt to identify one simply by appearances is both reckless and irresponsible. That latter point is particularly cogent in light of recent allegations lobbed at Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, who, it should be noted, threw just as hard when he was struggling with the Orioles as he does now that he is dominating for Chicago, and whose journey from busted prospect to Cy Young award winner was outlined beautifully by our own Tom Verducci last month. Yes, Gordon and Colabello are both players who had belated breakout seasons, but Gordon was an All-Star in 2014 as well as '15, and he didn’t test positive in either year.
As for the Marlins, Gordon's suspension comes at an early high-water mark for the team, as Miami is in the midst of a four-game winning streak that has brought the team to within one game of .500 (10–11) on the season. That makes it all the more interesting to see how the Marlins will respond to the loss of their All-Star second baseman. As good as Gordon was for Miami last year (and for the Dodgers in the first half of 2014), however, the team is actually set up well to endure his loss.
In the short term, after playing 11 games against the Nationals, Giants and Dodgers, the Marlins are moving into a softer portion of their schedule. Nine of their next dozen games come against the Brewers, against whom they open a three-game set in Milwaukee on Friday night, and the Phillies; the other three are against the Diamondbacks. Nine of those games will also take place in Miami.
More significantly, the Marlins have a ready replacement for Gordon in the lineup in 26-year-old infielder Derek Dietrich. Though he failed to nail down the team's second base job in the two seasons prior to Gordon’s arrival, Dietrich has hit .263/.352/.471 with 11 home runs in 321 plate appearances between 2015 and ’16. That performance is right in line with his career .278/.352/.483 line in the minors and similar to the .333/.359/.418 line Gordon contributed last year. A lefthanded batter like Gordon, Dietrich is coming off a cluster of starts at third base in place of Martin Prado, who was on paternity leave, and this development gives him a chance to keep his bat warm (he has a .992 OPS over his last six games).
The only question is whether or not the Fish would be better off shifting Prado (who returned to the team on Tuesday) to second base and keeping Dietrich, who is a poor fielder at the keystone, at third. Gordon was off to a sluggish start at the plate (.266/.289/.340, including a .572 OPS during the Marlins' current winning streak), but Miami is likely to feel his loss most acutely in the field. Both Dietrich and Prado have ample experience at both second base and third, but the Marlins’ best defense in the wake of Gordon’s suspension is likely one with Prado at second and Dietrich at the hot corner.
As Miami plans for life without Gordon for the next 80 games, his suspension will renew calls for the consequences of a failed drug test to be harsher. The unfortunate reality, however, is that no matter how tough the punishments may be, there will always be players who turn to performance-enhancing substances.