Veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd has been suspended by Major League Baseball for 162 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Byrd, who previously received a 50-game suspension for a positive test in June 2012, is just the third player to receive a suspension of that length for his use of performance-enhancing drugs—joining Alex Rodriguez and Jenrry Mejia—and just the second, after Mejia, to receive an automatic 162-game suspension for a second positive test. Given his age—Byrd will turn 39 in late August—and marginal value on the field, this suspension could very well prove to be a career-ending one for the 15-year veteran.
Byrd’s initial positive test in 2012 was for Tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker which was used in connection with steroids to prevent the growth of breast tissue and post-cycle crashes. This time, Byrd tested positive for the actual performance-enhancing drug itself, Ipamorelin, one of a class of drugs known as growth hormone secretagogues which induce the secretion of the body’s natural grown hormone.
Some may find it inexplicable that a player who already had tested positive once would risk the 162-game suspension associated with another positive test, but it’s not difficult to see the risk/reward ratio of Ipamorelin use from Byrd’s perspective. Given his advanced age, declining skills, and the fact his legacy had already been tarnished by one positive test, the potential financial rewards of further use likely far outweighed the risk of losing a career which he may have feared would come to an end if he didn’t continue to use.
Byrd’s baseball career almost never happened. He suffered a major leg injury in college which led to acute compartment syndrome and nearly to the amputation of his right leg. Byrd required three operations and two years of rehabilitation to recover and, as a result, transferred from Georgia Tech to a local junior college, where he earned an associate’s degree in business while working to reestablish himself in the game. Drafted by the Phillies in the 10th round in 1999, Byrd impressed at the plate, in centerfield and on the bases in his first few minor league seasons, emerging as one of the game’s top prospects. Despite an impressive showing as a rookie in 2003, however, he never lived up to that promise with the Phillies, who soured on him quickly, trading him to the Nationals for Endy Chavez in May 2005. Non-tendered by a bad Washington team in December 2006, Byrd found his first sustained major league success as a leftfielder for the Texas Rangers, hitting .295/.352/.468 (113 OPS+) from 2007 to 2009, making his first seven-figure salaries via arbitration along the way.
A free agent after the 2009 season, he signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Cubs covering his age-32 to -34 seasons and got off to a great start in Chicago, making his first, and only, All-Star team in 2010. In May 2011, however, he was hit in the face by an Alfredo Aceves pitch. He spent five weeks on the disabled list with multiple facial fractures and was not the same hitter after returning to action in July. After an abysmal 3-for-43 start to the 2012 season, he was designated for assignment and traded to Boston, which, in turn, released him on June 12. Two weeks later, his first suspension was announced.
Thirty-four that August, Byrd’s career appeared to be over then, but the Mets brought him to spring training as a non-roster invitee the following spring and he not only made Opening Day roster, but established himself as the everyday rightfielder and one of the best players on the team. Traded to the Pirates in a four-player deal that netted New York second base prospect Dilson Herrera that August, Byrd proved to be a key addition for Pittsburgh as the Pirates secured their first winning season and postseason berth since 1992. It was Byrd’s first, and still only, postseason appearance, as well. After hitting .318/.357/.486 (137 OPS+) down the stretch for the Pirates, he continued to come up big in October, opening the scoring in the Bucs’ 6–1 wild-card game win over the Reds with a solo home run off Johnny Cueto in the bottom of the second inning and putting up a .364/.391/.591 line while starting in rightfield in all six of Pittsburgh’s games that postseason.
A free agent that winter, he signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies and hit a career-high 25 home runs in his age-36 season in 2014. Traded to the Reds that offseason for pitching prospect Ben Lively, then again in August to the Giants, Byrd again hit for power in 2015, but his declining play in the field and poor walk rates undermined those contributions and that decline in value combined with his advancing age made him an afterthought as a free agent last winter.
Byrd didn’t sign with Cleveland until March 18, settling for a minor league deal with a $1 million guarantee if he made the major league roster. Byrd did that, again making the Opening Day roster after coming to camp as a non-roster player, but despite the injuries that have plagued the Cleveland outfield thus far this season, he never really rose above the level of a fourth outfielder making semi-regular starts in both outfield corners with a severe platoon split. Ineligible to return to action until next June, by which point his Cleveland contract will have expired, he seems like a long-shot to get another major league opportunity. Despite his track record of accepting and making good on non-roster invitations, he’ll be 40 before he’s again eligible to attend spring training. Then again, Byrd’s career has taught us never to count him out.
As for Cleveland, Byrd is the second outfielder it has lost to a performance-enhancing drug suspension this season, following centerfielder Abraham Almonte, who received an 80-game ban prior to the season for testing positive for the steroid Boldenone. Add in Michael Brantley’s continued shoulder problems, which have limited him to 11 games thus far this season, and the Cleveland outfield could ill-afford to lose the depth Byrd provided. Having apparently rushed Brantley back from off-season shoulder surgery too quickly in April, Cleveland is unlikely to rush him again. However, with Almonte ineligible to return until early July, things are awfully thin in the Indians’ outfield, with 35-year-old Rajai Davis filling center and converted infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez in the corners. Rookie Tyler Nanquin, who may yet claim a starting job, has replaced Byrd on the roster.
Byrd is the eighth player on a major league 40-man roster to test positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2016. That’s just one fewer than in 2013, the year the Biogenesis suspensions were handed down, and the second most since 10 men were suspended 10 games each in 2005, the first year that suspensions were handed down for first offenses. Given that it’s only June 1, that could be taken two ways, either performance-enhancing drug use is up, or the tests are getting better. Given the variety of drugs being detected this year, and the increased variety in the type of players testing positive, both in terms of demographics and style of play, I suspect it’s the latter.
|Jenrry Mejia||P||Dominican Republic||Boldenone||Life|
|Abraham Almonte||CF||Dominican Republic||Boldenone||80|
|Dee Gordon||2B||Florida||Clostebol and exogenous testosterone||80|
|Josh Ravin||P||California||Growth hormone releasing peptide||80|
|Raul Mondesi Jr.||SS||California||Clenbuterol||50|
The fact of the matter is that as long as performance-enhancing substances exist, there will be players that use them. For players on the margins, such as Almonte, Stumpf, Colabello, Ravin and the 38-year-old Byrd, the anticipated rewards of enhancing one’s performance may outweigh the risk of a being caught. Some have urged baseball to tip the scales the other way by increasing the penalties, but increasing the efficacy of the tests can have a similar effect. Think about it this way: would you be less likely to speed if you had a 10% chance of getting a $1,000 ticket or if you had 90% chance of getting a $100 ticket.
We’ll never know for sure how effective MLB’s drug testing is, but if you believe that the percentage of users will never be zero, an increase in positive tests is likely a good indication of the efficacy of the drug program. Given the pace at which these suspensions have come this season, averaging nearly one per week from mid-February through early May, Byrd seems unlikely to be the last player suspended this season, but, counterintuitive as it may be, that could be a good thing for Baseball.