A year later, Biogenesis barely a speed bump for suspended stars
The Biogenesis scandal was one of the biggest stories of the 2013 baseball season, one that saw 15 players suspended for 50 or more games for performance-enhancing drug use. Including the late-2012 positive tests of Biogenesis customers Bartolo Colon, Melky Cabrera and Yasmani Grandal, that number jumps to 18, seven of whom were former All-Stars. However, with the obvious exception of Alex Rodriguez, who is serving a season-long suspension this year, those bans and the associated scandal have had little to no apparent effect on the careers of the best players to be caught.
For evidence, look no further than the major league's home run leader. Nelson Cruz, who said that he turned to Biogenesis to deal with a gastrointestinal infection in February 2012, has 19 homers, three more than runner-up Edwin Encarnacion. He also leads baseball in total bases (128) and the AL in RBIs (48), slugging (.663), OPS (1.039) and OPS+ (182), all of which put him on pace for career highs in those respective categories.
Cruz turned down the Rangers' qualifying offer in November and it took until late February, after spring training had started, before he settled for a mere one-year, $8 million contract with Baltimore. His involvement in the scandal, however, may not have been as big a reason for the delay as it initially seemed. Several other players who turned down qualifying offers had long waits to find new teams and one, Kendrys Morales, still hasn't done so. That would suggest that the draft pick compensation attached to Cruz's price, along with his age (33) and poor fielding, had far more to do with the limited market for his services than his drug suspension.
Fellow Biogenesis player Jhonny Peralta had no such trouble as a free agent. Peralta and Stephen Drew were considered the top free agent shortstops heading into this past offseason — Peralta hit the market coming off a 50-game Biogenesis suspension, while Drew did so having declined a qualifying offer from the Red Sox, whom he had just helped to a world championship. Peralta, who turned 32 on Wednesday, signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the Cardinals in November. Drew, who turned 31 in March, went unsigned until last week, when he returned to Boston on a one-year deal for a pro-rated portion of that qualifying amount (roughly $10 million). Peralta has put up a 110 OPS+ thus far this season and is also on place for a career high in home runs.
Peralta and Cruz are also notable for having been immediately restored to their team's lineups at the conclusion of their suspensions last year, something made possible by their teams playing past game 162. Peralta, in fact, was one of the stars of the Tigers' postseason run last year, hitting .333/.353/.545 and starting Detroit's final nine games in October.
There are obvious incentives for teams to continue employing these players. There are only a handful of people on the planet who can perform at their levels, and the financial benefits of winning are dramatic and well-documented. Fans too have already proven to be accepting of these players, as demonstrated by the early All-Star vote tallies released the last two days by Major League Baseball.
Ryan Braun is the third-highest vote-recipient in the National League, due in part to his .910 OPS. This is the same Braun who served a 65-game ban last year and whose repeated denials of wrongdoing in the wake of a December 2011 positive drug test and his slander of the collector who handled his sample added layers of shameful public behavior to his violation of MLB's drug policy. Yet Braun's vote total is far closer to the second-place tally of the likable and admirable Andrew McCutchen than it is to any of the four players behind Braun, all of whom (Giancarlo Stanton, Yasiel Puig, Carlos Gomez and Justin Upton) are more deserving of an All-Star honor this year anyway.
In the American League, Cruz is a close second among designated hitters to David Ortiz -- who himself reportedly failed a drug test in 2003 -- and Melky Cabrera is fifth in the outfield vote. Cabrera, notably, was not welcomed back by the Giants in the 2012 postseason, but he did land a two-year, $16 million contract from the Blue Jays that winter; he currently boasts a 134 OPS+ and is also on a career-high home run pace. While those players have many loud detractors, they also have hundreds of thousands of votes from fans who think they deserve to be honored.
Then there's Bartolo Colon. He staged an improbable comeback in 2011 at the age of 38 with the help of a stem cell treatment that prompted an MLB investigation, then tested positive for a synthetic testosterone and drew a 50-game suspension in 2012, but was re-signed for $3 million by the A's after that season. He made the 2013 All-Star team, and this past winter landed a $20 million contract from the Mets for his age-41 and -42 seasons. And how is Colon, who leads the NL with a 7.36 strikeout-to-walk ratio, viewed by fans and the media? As a jolly clown who shakes his belly fat and is comically out of place doing anything athletic other than pitching.
Whatever the intention of the punishments handed down by baseball may have been, they clearly did not hurt the standing of these players within the game. Perhaps that's just as well. They served their time, and they now know that their next violation will wipe out an entire season. With baseball having increased its PED penalties in March, suspended players will no longer be eligible for postseason play in the season in which they were suspended and will be banned for 80 games, one shy of half a season, for their first offense and 162 games for the second.
What's also interesting to note, however, is that those suspensions don't appear to have had an impact on those players' performances. The punishments for PED use are predicated on the fact that players who use performance-enhancing drugs are gaining an unfair advantage over their competition, but based on the performances of the Biogenesis stars, there's something amiss in that assumption. Either these players have not stopped using -- perhaps by finding an alternate and perhaps undetectable method by which to obtain that advantage -- or just as likely, they were never getting that advantage to begin with. The latter possibility is further supported by the fact that Rodriguez's involvement with Biogenesis from mid-2010 through 2012 appears to have been unsuccessful in arresting A-Rod's decline. It may be that Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch was either an incompetent pharmacist or an even bigger crook than previously believed. Still, the performances of the players involved with Biogenesis add weight to the many questions that remain not just about the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, but also about their efficacy.