Starling Marte's PED suspension reveals the complicated reality behind the current ban

0:32 | MLB
Pirates OF Starling Marte suspended 80 games for PED use
Wednesday April 19th, 2017

Like most suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs, Starling Marte's 80-game ban, announced on Tuesday, came as a shock. Even so, nobody should be laboring under the assumption that the game is drug-free at the major league level, as evidenced by the fact that more than a dozen players have been suspended for steroid usage just in the three and a half years since the Biogenesis bans were handed down in the summer of 2013.

There’s an uncomfortable truth when it comes to these suspensions: they are not the deterrent the commissioner’s office and the player’s union wants them to be. Many of the players who have recently been caught have seen little to no damage to their contract status or to their popularity, with some quickly winning back respect in their own clubhouses, and sometimes even beyond. Below are case studies on five high-profile players who have been suspended for steroid use in the past five years that helps explain why even established stars continue to succumb to temptation. Marte may never be able to fully erase the stigma of his suspension, but some of these cases offer examples of how to get back into good graces inside the game and outside it.

Melky Cabrera, OF

Year: 2012
Length: 50 games
Reason: Failed test for testosterone

Cabrera was at the apex of his major league career when he was popped on Aug. 15, 2012. Five weeks after being named the MVP of the only All-Star Game he ever played in, the 28-year-old Giants outfielder ranked first in the National League in hits and second in batting average when the news broke. MLB was so concerned that Cabrera might wind up winning a batting title in absentia that the league joined forces with the players' union to announce "a one-time amendment" that waived Rule 10.22(a), which concerns the application of phantom at-bats to determine the winner if a player is short of the necessary 502 plate appearances to qualify (he was at 501). Without that waiver, Cabrera was left one plate appearance short of being eligible, so even though he finished the year with a .346 average—it would not have changed if he had been charged an extra hitless at-bat—that was 10 points better than teammate Buster Posey’s .336, it was Posey who was crowned the batting champion.

By the time that decision came down, reports of a bizarre plot involving Cabrera's creation of a fake website and a nonexistent product in an attempt to exonerate himself had already surfaced, which predictably, made him the subject of numerous jokes in the immediate aftermath, and he was left off San Francisco’s postseason roster during its run to that year’s World Series title.

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A free agent that winter, Cabrera received just a two-year, $16 million contract from the Blue Jays, a far less lucrative payday than he would have received without the suspension. His career has run hot and cold since then; a mediocre, injury-shortened 2013 was followed by a strong ‘14 that netted him an even bigger payday—three years and $42 million from the White Sox—followed by a down ‘15 and then a solid ‘16. While the rebuilding White Sox are looking to trade him, he's emerged as a clubhouse leader in Chicago, one praised by both current manager Rick Renteria and predecessor Robin Ventura. Teammates in Toronto held him in high regard as well.

In all, there was nothing tremendously notable about either Cabrera's public apology nor his performance since returning (110 OPS+ and an average of 1.8 WAR per season since, compared to a 157 OPS+ and 4.7 WAR in 2012, his second sizzling season in a row). If there's a lesson to be drawn from his experience, it's that shying from publicity—he chose to accept his 2012 World Series ring in private—and focusing on being a good teammate has paid dividends. 

Bartolo Colón, RHP

Year: 2012

Length: 50 games

Reason: Failed test for synthetic testosterone

Given the questions that surrounded the controversial stem cell procedure that facilitated Colón's return to the majors in 2011 at the age of 38, after five years in the wilderness due to a variety of shoulder and elbow woes, the big man's suspension one year later was hardly a surprise. Dr. Joseph Purita, who performed that surgery, had used human growth hormone on other patients in addition to transplanting their stem cells. He denied using HGH on Colón, and MLB couldn't prove any wrongdoing. Still, when the league popped the nearly 300-pound righty in 2012 while he was in the midst of a strong season for the A’s, he seemed destined to fade away sooner or later.

Instead, Colón's unlikely resurgence has not only continued, but he's become nothing less than a cult hero. In 2013, after finishing out his suspension, he made the AL All-Star team and finished sixth in the Cy Young race on the strength of an 18-6, 2.65 ERA season for Oakland, which he used as a springboard to a two-year, $20 million deal with the Mets. Though he finished both 2014 and ‘15 with an ERA+ below 100, his ability to eat innings was welcome within a rotation of young, high-ceiling sensations whose workloads were being closely monitored. In addition to helping New York reach the World Series in 2015, Colón became a social media sensation thanks to his rotund physique and ineptitude while swinging the bat, both of which belied a tremendous athleticism. Behind the scenes, he gained a reputation as a model teammate, leader and mentor, with Matt Harvey saying, "All of us would love to play with him for the rest of our careers. He's meant that much to us."

After re-signing with the Mets via a one-year, $7.25 million deal, Colón enjoyed a storybook 2016 in which he not only made another All-Star team while going 15-8 with a 3.43 ERA—a performance that helped the Mets to another playoff berth despite injuries that ended the seasons of Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz—but he exploded the internet with his first major league home run, hit off the Padres’ James Shields on May 7. When the Mets didn't act quickly to retain Colon this past winter, the rebuilding Braves signed him to a $12.5 million deal despite the fact that he will turn 44 in May.

Colón's wild post-suspension ride is testimony to the value that the industry has placed on his positive impact on younger players. Like Cabrera, he appears to have benefited from a language barrier or at least the perception of one, which has allowed him to keep a lower profile; though he does speak English, he typically conducts interviews in Spanish, and then only immediately after his starts. That hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the game's most beloved—and fascinating—players. If anyone has shown there's life after a suspension, it's Big Sexy.

Ryan Braun, OF

Year: 2013

Suspension: 65 games

Reason: Biogenesis connection

The most accomplished player from among this group, Braun was a five-time All-Star who had won both NL Rookie of the Year and NL MVP awards before receiving a suspension in 2013 in connection with the Biogenesis scandal; he was given an extra 15 games compared to most players because his conduct was deemed to have violated the Basic Agreement. Still, his involvement in that mess wasn't a shock, as it marked his second brush with such discipline.

Less than a month after being named the NL MVP in 2011, ESPN reported that Braun had tested positive for PEDs during the 2011 playoffs. In February 2012, Braun became the first player to win an appeal of a drug suspension, due to a technicality involving the delay between when he submitted his sample and when the collector submitted it to the lab. In doing so, he publicly smeared the collector, Dino Laurenzi Jr., alleging that he was anti-Semitic. Between that ugliness and an effort to lobby fellow stars such as Joey Votto, Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Kemp (whom he had beaten out for the 2011 MVP award) for public support, Braun experienced a backlash both inside the Milwaukee clubhouse and outside of it, according to Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan. The Biogenesis suspension seemed to confirm the worst about him.

Braun had just returned from a month-long absence due to nerve inflammation in his hand when that suspension was handed down, and he's battled thumb and back injuries since returning, averaging 137 games a year from 2014 through ‘16. Even so, after a subpar 2014 season, he's returned to being a productive hitter, with a total of 55 homers and 8.2 WAR in 2015 and ‘16; he was named to the NL All-Star team as an injury replacement in the former year. Between his lousy conduct and weighty contract (he's owed a minimum of $76 million from 2017 through ‘20), he's become one of the league's least marketable players. In 2014, Sports Illustrated included him on its "Most Disliked People in Sports" list.

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Since then, Braun has been the subject of numerous trade rumors that have failed to come to fruition even as the Brewers have plunged into a rebuilding period, though the heft of that contract (which also includes a limited no-trade clause) is probably a bigger factor than the suspension and his vile smear campaign. Still, his charitable work in Milwaukee and a good relationship with the team's fans has kept him from complete pariah-dom.

Nelson Cruz, DH

Year: 2013

Suspension: 50 games

Reason: Biogenesis connection

Like Braun, Cruz was suspended in connection with Biogenesis, but he's retained far less baggage from his involvement there, and has continued to thrive, both in the batter's box and at the bank. The slugger's 50-game ban ended just in time for him to rejoin Texas' lineup in time for a Game 163 wild-card tiebreaker against the Rays, which the Rangers lost. While one can argue that Texas might have avoided playing in that game at all if had Cruz been available for the entire season, the reality is that trade acquisition Alex Rios was every bit as productive (according to bWAR) while the team won at a better clip during Cruz’s suspension than prior (.580 prior to Game 163, compared to .554 pre-suspension). One lasting effect from the possibility of Cruz’s postseason participation (and the actual postseason participation of then-Tiger Jhonny Peralta, also suspended for his Biogenesis connections) is that starting the next year, suspended players were no longer allowed to partake in the playoffs that year even if they’ve served their time.

Hitting free agency after that 2013 season, Cruz wound up accepting just a one-year, $8 million deal from the Orioles, well below the $14.1 million qualifying offer he declined from the Rangers, but that likely had more to do teams' reluctance to lose a first-round draft pick than their concerns over the drug suspension. Either way, Cruz made the best of the situation by thumping a league-leading 40 homers during his lone year in Baltimore, during which fans elected him to the AL All-Star team as the designated hitter, — beating out the iconic David Ortiz. Cruz finished seventh in the AL MVP voting and parlayed that season into a four-year, $57 million deal from the Mariners, the largest new contract for any suspended player. He's been more than worth it, hitting 87 homers while compiling 9.9 WAR in 2015 and ’16; he received down-ballot MVP support in both years, and again beat out Oritz for the starting All-Star DH role in ’15. In other words, he’s gotten off about as scot-free as any suspended player.

Dee Gordon, 2B

Year: 2016

Suspension: 80 games

Reason: Failed test for exogenous testosterone and Clostebol

The son of longtime big league reliever Tom Gordon spent three seasons (2011 to ’13) struggling to remain in the majors and in the Dodgers lineup before breaking out to make the NL All-Star team in ’14, a year in which he led the league in stolen bases (64) and triples (12). That off-season the new regime in Chavez Ravine—club president Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi—traded Gordon to the Marlins in a seven-player blockbuster, but he continued to build on his breakout performance. In his first year in Miami Gordon won the NL batting title with a .333 average and led the National League in hits (205) and stolen bases (58) while again making the All-Star team and taking home his first Gold Glove as well.

The Marlins signed Gordon to a five-year, $50 million extension in January 2016, but the season was less than a month old when he was suspended 80 games for failing a PED test. He issued a fairly standard and hollow-sounding apology about not "knowingly" ingesting the drugs, and struggled upon returning, finishing with a .268/.305/.335 batting line and 76 OPS+ compared to .333/.359/.418 with a 116 OPS+ the year before.

Perhaps the lone highlight of Gordon’s 2016 season highlight was doused with sadness. On Sept. 26, he led off the bottom of the first for the Marlins in their first game since the death two days prior of star pitcher Jose Fernandez. Wearing Fernandez’s helmet, Gordon paid tribute by taking a pitch in the righthanded batter's box before turning around to bat his usual lefthanded and smacking his first and only home run of the season. Though he's off to a solid start this year, the jury is still out both on his post-suspension performance and his reception, but that moment—including his tearful trip around the bases—did help to humanize him in the wake of his mistake.

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