How Will Possible PED Suspensions Affect MLB Teams?

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images Nelson Cruz

Sometime after the All-Star break, Major League Baseball plans to suspend Ryan Braun along with as many as 20 other players accused of performance-enhancing drug use, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported Tuesday.

The report highlights the latest chapter in MLB’s quest to take down Braun and others implicated in the ongoing investigation into Miami’s Biogenesis clinic and its former proprietor, Tony Bosch. The Miami New Times first reported on the story in January. OTL’s own previous digging revealed the scope of baseball’s investigation, MLB’s attempts to suspend Braun and Alex Rodriguez for longer than the typical first-time offense would typically mandate, and Bosch’s cooperation. The only morsel of new news this week is that MLB now seems to have a timetable for its targeted suspensions — though a cynic could argue that “sometime after next week’s All-Star break” is an awfully open-ended estimate.

Click those links above to read Grantland’s take on how baseball is trampling due process with its investigation as it shadily tries to broaden the interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement and Joint Drug Agreement in its overzealous attempts to nail suspected PED users. For now, we’ll play along with MLB’s witch hunt investigation and the reported plans to suspend 20-plus players, we’ll ignore the shaky ground on which baseball’s case rests, and we’ll also set aside the mortal lock that the players’ union will appeal any and all suspensions within nanoseconds. Instead, we’ll ask a simple question: If the suspensions are issued, how might it affect those players and their teams?

Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers: Tuesday’s OTL report implies that MLB was displeased with Braun’s refusal to answer any questions about the Biogenesis case. It’s more than a little amusing to imagine how the line of questioning might have gone, depending on Braun’s level of cooperation: “Don’t want to answer, eh? Suspended!” “Answering, eh? Suspended!”

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, the quicker a Braun suspension comes and goes, the better off his team will be. As we recently documented with possibly more words than have ever been written on the Brewers in one article, Milwaukee’s not going anywhere this season, having succumbed to a rash of injuries and a wave of lousy starting pitching. So getting a 50-game Braun suspension out of the way between now and season’s end would seem a relatively painless punishment, all things considered.

Of course it’s not that simple. Leaving aside Braun’s right to appeal any potential suspension and the method through which it was levied, OTL’s reports have the commissioner’s office potentially seeking a 100-game suspension, which is what a second-time offender would get. The argument there is that Braun committed two offenses, one by violating Section 7A of the Joint Drug Agreement (“A Player who tests positive for a Performance Enhancing Substance, or otherwise violates the Program through the use or possession of a Performance Enhancing Substance, will be subject to the discipline set forth below”), the other by supposedly lying about his alleged PED possession and/or use. Even a 100-game suspension that started tomorrow would still take out a decent little chunk of Braun’s 2014 season. Also, as noted in last week’s Brewers feature, the team remains highly sensitive to fluctuations in attendance given its low-number TV deal. Losing Braun for any significant amount of time could accelerate this season’s attendance decline, already at 10 percent.

Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees: Sure, he’s a shadow of his former self. A-Rod is about to turn 38, hasn’t had a season in which he produced strong rate and counting stats in three years, and is now battling a serious hip injury that figures to hurt him both at bat and on the field. Hell, if you’re a cynic you could argue that Rodriguez isn’t likely to produce much now that he’s no longer juicing. Then you look at the murmurers’ row the Yanks have thrown out there at third and have to figure A-Rod would still constitute an upgrade. Even if the potential gain might amount to one win tops over the final two-plus months of the season, that’s one big win for a Yankees team in the middle of a playoff race despite multiple lineup holes.

Oh, and no, the Yankees would not be able to void Rodriguez’s contract if he’s suspended for PED use. The CBA specifically prohibits such a move.

Nelson Cruz, DH/OF, Rangers: Now we get to the big pennant-race influencers. Cruz seemed to be heading in the wrong direction from the moment he Rob Deer’d David Freese’s Game 6 ninth-inning drive into a game-tying triple. The following season, he hit .260/.319/.460 in 159 games — decent numbers under neutral circumstances, but not enough for a defense- and baserunning-challenged right fielder playing in hitter-happy Arlington. He has cranked up the power this year, hitting .277/.355/.529 with 22 homers in 87 games. Only Adrian Beltre has been more productive among everyday Rangers hitters. A hypothetical 50-game suspension starting soon after the break would knock him out for almost the entire remainder of the season.

So let’s pile some hypotheticals onto hypotheticals. If Texas lost Cruz for that long, a trade would make a ton of sense. Former Ranger Alfonso Soriano could be an option to shift between DH and left field, if the Cubs were willing to eat a big chunk of the $26 million and change he has left on his contract between now and the end of next season; Soriano catching fire over the past few games hasn’t hurt his trade value, certainly. It’s also important to note that if MLB is prompt but not TOO prompt in handing out suspensions, teams affected risk missing the July 31 non-waiver deadline. So even if, say, Texas wanted to acquire Soriano to replace Cruz, if it has to wait till after July 31 to do so, it gets much tougher to pull off. Alex Rios could also be an option, though he’d exact a much bigger prospect haul. Whatever they decided to do in the event of a Cruz suspension, that absence would hurt far more this season than even a Braun ouster would.

Bartolo Colon, SP, A’s: Here’s a confounding situation to project, even when toying with hypotheticals. Colon has already been suspended for a PED violation, missing the end of last season and the first five games of the 2013 campaign. Is his alleged violation this time a new offense, or the same one that prompted the initial suspension? If MLB wants to claim it’s the former, that would set up a potential 100-game suspension for a second offense.

That kind of absence would seem devastating given how well Colon has pitched this year. We’ve covered his amazing season already, and things have only improved since, with Colon now tied with Felix Hernandez for the lead among all AL starters in ERA, with a walk rate that is also best in the junior circuit. But the A’s own one of the deepest rotations in baseball, so much so that top pitching prospect Sonny Gray, who struck out more than a batter an inning, ceded just four homers in 16 starts, and posted a 2.81 ERA while pitching in the Pacific Coast League, is being relegated to bullpen duty following Tuesday’s call-up. Though prospect projections can be a crapshoot and Colon has been phenomenal all year, the strength of Oakland’s pitching could significantly soften the blow.

Gio Gonzalez, SP, Nationals: This one is trickier. OTL’s June report cited sources saying Gonzalez would likely be exonerated in any Biogeneis-related PED dragnet. We certainly don’t want to besmirch anyone’s name, especially someone who might have been swept up in what’s already a huge mess without any link to banned substances. But for the sake of the thought exercise — and because the league is collectively drunk if it thinks it can get away with some of what it’s reportedly trying to do — we can say this: Though we don’t know all of the 20-ish hypothetical names yet, Gonzalez would be the biggest loss among the 15 whose names have been made public. After a rough April in which he posted a 5.34 ERA, Gonzalez has been on fire since, striking out nearly a batter an inning, slashing his walk rate, putting up a 2.26 ERA, and limiting opposing batters to a line of .199/.269/.313.

With Ross Detwiler on the DL and the Nats already relying on known arsonist Dan Haren and unknown commodity Taylor Jordan, a Gonzalez suspension could prove devastating to what projected as one of the best rotations in the game at the start of the year. Sure, you could patch with Matt Garza or a healthy Jake Peavy. But at a certain point, when you cut deep enough into a contending team that has already underachieved and is chasing teams with better records, you might reach a point of no return.

Jhonny Peralta, SS, Tigers: Don’t sleep on the potential impact for this one. Though he has slowed down considerably after a monstrous start and might have more regression coming given his sky-high .387 batting average on balls in play, a first-place team losing a starting shortstop who is hitting .303/.359/.443 would sting. The good news is that Detroit owns the second-best park-adjusted offense in the majors, with Miguel Cabrera leading a deep and potent attack. Even if Peralta were to sit for 50 games, the Tigers’ main focus heading toward the trade deadline would likely remain help for their thin bullpen.

The bigger issue for the Tigers, other contenders, and the league in general is what kind of damage 20-plus suspensions would do to pennant races and the league’s reputation if they happened soon. Legitimate attempts to keep the sport clean are worth pursuing. If Bud Selig is desperate to burnish his legacy, fine, even that by itself isn’t necessarily devastating. But as SB Nation’s Steven Goldman wrote, the league would be following lousy precedents if it took these drastic actions at this time, potentially altering playoff races in dramatic and highly uneven ways, as it did most notably in 1972 and 1981. And it would be doing so on a scale that blows away, say, Melky Cabrera’s suspension last summer and its effect on the eventual world champion Giants.

Some other, smaller implications:

Melky Cabrera, OF, Jays: Same situation as Colon, in that he’s already served a suspension and it’s not clear whether these latest allegations are related to the same offense. Though Jays fans might fancy their team a contender after a recent hot streak, Toronto is still sitting dead last in the AL East, three games under .500, and trails five teams in the battle for the second wild-card spot. Cabrera is signed for 2014, so a 100-game suspension could put a dent in next year’s lineup, too.

Yasmani Grandal, C, Padres: Yet another player who’s already been suspended once, and another one could be a crusher for a 24-year-old catcher trying to establish himself in the big leagues. Doubly so given the news he recently received: a torn ACL that will require reconstructive surgery and knock him out for nine to 12 months.

Everth Cabrera, SS, Padres: The Padres were a .500 team 11 games ago. Since then, they’ve had a 10-game losing streak, plunged to last place, and seen their CEO resign. But Cabrera is in the midst of a career year, and who knows what can happen when a young player just starting to tap into his powers has to sidetrack his career for one-third of a season.

Jesus Montero, C, Mariners: This one would hurt almost exclusively from a development standpoint, given that Montero has been a prospect bust so far who has been trying to sharpen his skills at Triple-A. As is, he’s on the minor league DL with a knee injury.

Cesar Puello, OF, Mets: He’s hit a robust .323/.385/.572 at Double-A this year, and no team is hurting for outfield talent at the major league level more than the Mets. A suspension would be ill-timed for all parties involved, especially if this is a true breakout season for the 22-year-old and not just a flukish 60-some games.

Francisco Cervelli, C, Yankees; Fernando Martinez, OF, Yankees; Fautino de los Santos, RP, free agent; Jordan Norberto, RP, free agent: Nonessential, injured, unaffiliated, or all of the above. Though only one of the four has a Facebook group dedicated to his fist-pumping prowess.

Really, Tuesday’s news still leaves us in the same spot we were in six weeks ago, when we first heard that MLB planned to suspend about 20 players for PED-related violations. But if there truly are 20-plus names about to be called, five or more are missing from this list. OTL’s June report stated that MLB might still be sifting through Biogenesis logs to match up player names with codes, which could add new faces to the investigation. Translation: All of this could get a lot uglier. And that’s before the lawyers get involved.

Filed Under: Alex Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, MLB, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Oakland A's, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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