When former Tiger shortstop Jhonny Peralta signed a four year, $53 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, there were rumblings from some around the game who were obviously unhappy that Peralta could be well paid, even after receiving a 50 game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal.
Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher, Brad Ziegler tweeted this:
Mets pitcher David Aardsma said this:
Apparently getting suspended for PED's means you get a raise. What's stopping anyone from doing it? #weneedtomakeachange— David Aardsma (@TheDA53) November 24, 2013
These players are apparently drawing a connection between Peralta's PED usage and his new salary. In fact, there is no rational basis to support the notion that there is any connection between Peralta’s PED usage and his new contract. There is no evidence at all that Peralta's involvement with Biogenesis before the 2012 season had any impact on his performance in 2013 -- which is what led to him being paid by the Cardinals. In fact, Peralta had a very mediocre season in 2012. I'd suggest that this mentality is just flat wrong, at least in the case of Peralta.
Peralta arguably paid a steeper price than any other player who got caught in the Biogenesis scandal. He is one of only two players, the Rangers’ Nelson Cruz being the other, who lost meaningful games due to their suspensions. Peralta got exactly what he deserved. He got caught, paid the agreed penalty, became a free agent, and got paid as though PEDs had nothing to do with his performance, because they didn't. If the Cardinals believed that Peralta's numbers were enhanced by drug usage, they'd be foolish to pay him.
The system was never meant to prohibit players who get suspended from going on to receive their free market value when they become free agents, nor should it. Peralta, like many of the others caught in the scandal, was steered to Biogenesis by an employee working for his agent. The employee has been decertified and Peralta now has a new agent.
Peralta served his 50 game suspension without pay, which cost him almost $2 million in salary. He also lost his job as the starting shortstop for the Detroit Tigers, and lost the opportunity to return to the team where he really wanted to play. He made a mistake, and he paid the price that the players and owners bargained for. That should serve as sufficient deterrent to those thinking about using performance enhancing drugs, but there’s more to consider. Quite a bit more.
Is the system broken?
All the suggested changes that I am reading are aimed at changing the penalties, making them more severe. The problem with this approach is that it is not merely the severity of the punishment that creates a deterrent, but the certainty of getting caught. The 12 players who accepted suspensions for involvement with Biogenesis surely did not think they’d get caught.
I would submit that 50 games is plenty for a first time offense, but what is likely to change behavior is not the severity of the penalty. Most of the dirty dozen in the Biogenesis scandal never tested positive for any substance. Major League Baseball had to shake down Tony Bosch, owner of Biogenesis labs, and get him to tell all in order to bust those players. Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon got no additional penalties because they had presumably already been penalized for the same offense.
I would think that, after seeing 12 players being caught and suspended -- 10 of them with no positive test -- and watching Alex Rodriguez make a complete fool of himself, there is a stronger deterrent that did not exist before all of this went down.
There is another large factor involved in the most recent round of suspensions that was never previously involved. The 12 could see that the jig was up, and while they could have appealed their suspensions, they stood alone, as the MLBPA and other players made it clear that they didn’t have any intention of defending players in the face of strong evidence that they had cheated. Instead, the union encouraged the players to fess up and take their 50 games.
It has now been shown that a player can get caught, even if he doesn't test dirty. It's clear that players will not have the backing of other players nor the union if they get caught. They're on their own unless the commissioner does something foolish, such as acting like a King, giving out an arbitrary "because I'm the king and I said so" penalty.
This change in approach by the MLBPA is the real game changer in how PED usage will be viewed, and dealt with going forward. It is too soon to judge the impact that this will have in deterring players from using PED’s. Thus, it is premature to change the system when we don’t yet know if it’s broken.
And then, there's A-Rod
The bigger problems stemming from the Biogenesis scandal have to do with Alex Rodriguez, not with the dirty dozen who graciously accepted their penalties. The Union was forced to draw the line when Selig got into dealing with Rodriguez by playing the "best interest of baseball" card.
Only one player, Rodriguez, challenged Selig to use the nuclear option, and he did. The 211 game suspension given to A Rod has not been justified by the commissioner, who refused to testify at the arbitration proceeding. MLB claims that Rodriguez interfered with the investigation, in part by trying to buy evidence which was actually stolen, bought by MLB, and all traced back to Tony Bosch, now MLB’s chief witness against the players.
What changes are needed?
What needs to be written into the Joint Drug agreement (JDA), first and foremost, are specific penalties for specific actions beyond just PED usage. If obstructing an investigation should be penalized, then write it in the agreement. The "best interest" clause, being used by Bud Selig as a loose rationale for giving Rodriguez what is really an arbitrary 211 game suspension, is on thin ice legally. There is some chance that A-Rod will succeed in having it overturned in Court, if not at least limited by the arbitrator reviewing the suspension.
The JDA should also specify that players who are suspended for PED usage do not accrue service time during their suspension. They are already denied salary for that time, but service time is critical in baseball, where the salary structure is heavily skewed toward those who have accrued six years or more of service time.
Further, the JDA could delay any pending free agency, even for those players whose contracts are set to expire at the end of the season, by giving their present teams the right to extend their current contracts by one year. This would make up for the time that they cost their teams by getting suspended. This would only happen in cases where the club elects to keep the player at a cost that is lower than they would otherwise have to pay them. A player would risk postponing his potentially big pay day if he is caught using.
To present a deterrent to teams who sign players that have tested positive, if one is necessary, don't let the clubs escape paying the players, or deducting their salaries from any potential luxury tax calculations, in the event that they are caught again. The Yankees stand to benefit by not paying Rodriguez salary and could reap a huge benefit if the salary is deducted from the luxury tax calculation. A-Rod is not considered a repeat offender because the first dirty test is confidential by agreement, but those cases will not be duplicated. The Cardinals would be assuming the risk of paying Peralta's salary, even if it went into a charitable or other fund, if he were to be caught a second time.
Finally, at some point, a club should be able to void a contract for breech by the player if he is caught using PEDs, in the case of a repeat offender. Further, if a player is discovered to have violated the JDA within a year prior to signing a contract with a new club, the club should be able to void the contract for fraud. The contract would be voidable only by the club.
These penalties would go to the severity of punishment for repeat offenders, but any player who is on a multi-year contract would think twice about having their contract voided. The penalty then is directly targeted at the very benefit that the cheating player is hoping to get by using. Players with little experience would have their free agency delayed. Experienced players could have their payday delayed and have their contracts voided. The penalties are aimed at situations where a player does more than just get caught using drugs for the first time.
I do not favor enhancing penalties for first time users beyond their suspensions. This smacks of a draconian "scarlet letter" mentality. Once again, it is not just the severity of the penalty that might deter players from cheating, but the certainty of being caught that is the real deterrent. We are a society that encourages second chances and forgiveness, but if the culture in the clubhouse has really changed, there is an excellent chance that will serve as a sufficient deterrent to using PEDs.
Baseball has a stronger drug testing program with stiffer penalties than any other sport. They have come a long way to dealing with the issue of PED usage. They may have even overhauled the "culture" which was prevalent during the "steroid era." We should first find out if that’s the case, before rushing to change the system dramatically. By all means, clear up the murkiest provisions of the JDA to cover actions that should be penalized. But if MLB, or some players, feel uncomfortable about players who have cheated in the past being paid in the future, they need to rethink their logic.