Setting the scene
For players who choose to use performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), Major League Baseball has a one-size-fits-all approach to punishment. A first offense results in a 50-game suspension, two offenses merits a 100 game suspension, and a third offense garners a lifetime ban.
In the wake of Melky Cabrera‘s suspension, many have wondered if baseball does enough to PED use. Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson is particularly incensed, as his team can blame several losses on Cabrera.
Last Thursday, Fangraphs’ Alex Remington had some thoughts on the subject. Of those covered, he pointed out that there are essentially three scenarios where it’s possible to rationally justify PED use.
Players like Cabrera, who are nearing a big free agent payday, have everything to gain from enhanced performance. Getting caught cost him many millions of dollars, but he’s still in line to earn several million dollars next year. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Manny Ramirez types who have nothing to lose.
The third flavor is embodied by players like Alex Sanchez or Kevin Frandsen. These 26th men are in a desperate situation. Perform and they might just cling to a bench job. Struggle for even a couple weeks and they’re back in the minors dealing with long bus rides and a fraction of the pay. No wonder some of them cheat: They have a strong incentive to do so.
These cases highlight that the current MLB policy is lacking. The uniform punishment structure is not a uniform deterrent. So, what are some creative approaches that baseball could use to effectively eliminate PEDs from the game?
1. Individualized punishment
If MLB is insistent on a blanket punishment, 50 games is reasonable. There are players who have been caught for PEDs who appear to be victims of laziness rather than intentional cheating. J.C. Romero comes to mind.
However, nothing says a punishment must be uniform. Some cheating is worse than others. Synthetic testosterone, HGH, and amphetamine related offenses should be punished more than marijuana use, for instance.
The specific circumstances should be taken into consideration as well. A healthy, soon-to-be free agent player like Cabrera possibly deserves a stouter punishment than Sanchez—especially given recent news that Cabrera attempted to create a fake product webpage during his appeals process.
This approach would require MLB and the players’ union to form a task force to explore how to enforce “fair” punishment.
2. Vacate the player’s current contract
This punishment is particularly harsh as it requires several layers. Obviously, the player’s contract would be immediately vacated upon a failed appeal. Imagine for a moment if Ryan Braun had not had his suspension overturned. His long-term contract would be nullified.
We need several wrinkles to make this idea work as a deterrent. One way that could be achieved is to have the club receive some number of additional arbitration seasons over the player. This would prevent players from intentionally nullifying bad contracts and to serve as further punishment.
The player would be paid at the major league minimum for these years while the club would pay an amount decided via traditional arbitration. That money would go to a league-managed fund.
If the player has remained clean throughout the club control period, he would receive one-third of that money. The remaining two-thirds would be dispersed evenly to clubs who have no PED offenses at the MLB level in the last five years.
Admittedly, the idea is deliberately punitive and would require specific contract language to enforce.
3. Force teams to roster suspended players
One of the weaknesses of the current policy is that it punishes only the individual. An individual who is asked to make a risky choice that only affects himself will have an easier time accepting the risk. If he’s caught, only he has to live with the outcome.
So what if his choice punishes his entire team?
By forcing teams to use a 25-man roster spot on a suspended player, everybody loses. The Giants would be wringing their hands quite a bit more if they were stuck with a 24-man roster for the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.
Ostensibly, in addition to digging at a player’s conscience, such a policy would result in improved self-policing.
4. Penalize teams in the draft
Similar in theme to number three, this approach would take draft picks from a team based on the number of offenses at the major league level. The more PED offenses one team suffers, the more draft picks it would lose. Essentially, this idea is a recognition that clubs need to bear some of the responsibility for making sure their players make healthy choices.
For example, the Giants would lose their first round pick in 2013 for Melky. If Aubrey Huff tested positive tomorrow, they would lose two more picks. If Brett Pill tested positive the next day, they would lose another three picks.
The punishments need not be limited to a single year, although they should reset under some condition, perhaps if a club goes two seasons without a PED suspension.
The idea is that if the team is being punished, it will be careful not to subtly encourage PED use. Further, players who are caught will find it much harder to find major league jobs and will have to “pay their dues” before earning significant money.
The challenge facing baseball is to discourage players from using PEDs. The current solution has proven to be good but not great. Plenty of players, and not just fringe talent, have been caught using banned substances.
So long as there are scenarios where a player can rationally decide that PEDs are an appropriate risk, players will use them. It might be time for baseball to employ creative, punitive solutions that punish more than just the player involved.
Ultimately, the powers that be need to make a decision. Is the goal to completely remove PEDs from the game, such that it is exceedingly rare for players to take the risk? Or does baseball want to employ an efficient solution that takes care of the low hanging fruit but leaves some hanging in the upper branches?