Over the last few days, you’ve no doubt heard a lot of grumbling about the fact that players with PED histories are getting paid. You heard it a little when Marlon Byrd (career earnings: approximately $22 million) signed for a guaranteed $16 million with the Phillies, and a little more when Carlos Ruiz (career earnings: approximately $15 million) accepted $26 million to stay in Philadelphia.
But of course, that was just a prelude to the howling that came when Jhonny Peralta, with around $30 million in career earnings to his name, picked up a $53 million contract from the Cardinals — and it’s only going to get worse if Nelson Cruz, who has earned approximately $20 million in his career, actually gets the 4/$75m contract he’s reportedly asking for.
Multiple MLB players took to Twitter to complain about Peralta, notably relievers David Aardsma — who said “getting suspended means you get a raise” — and Brad Ziegler, who chastised the owners for “encouraging PED use” and said that he didn’t mind Peralta being employed so much as he did that the new Cardinal got “a massive raise“.
The question, however, in regards to the signings, is this: What did they expect the Cardinals should have done?
Peralta got $53 million because the Cardinals acted in the best interests of their team. They recognized a Kozma-shaped hole on their roster, and determined that paying Peralta rather than giving up a pick for Stephen Drew or tons of talent and even more money for Troy Tulowitzki was the best way to fill that hole. They did it because a general manager’s job is to put out the best team on the field that he can, not police the morals of the sport, and while we’d love to think otherwise, the most talented players are not always Boy Scouts. Baseball teams employ drunk drivers, domestic abusers, and sexual abusers, offenses which are unarguably more dangerous to society at large than PED guys. (The hypocrisy of fans easily cheering for those players while crucifying PED users is another topic entirely.)
If St. Louis could have nailed down Peralta for $10 million, or $15 million, or whatever number the aggrieved would have deemed acceptable, then they most certainly would have. The free market said otherwise, so they paid what they needed to get the right man for the job. $53 million is more than anyone expected Peralta to get, to be sure, but with the incredible amount of money flooding the game these days, very few free agent contracts should shock us any more — and it was reported that Peralta could have made even more elsewhere, but wanted to go to St. Louis. (It should also be noted that Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS has that number as almost exactly his value anyway.)
Between the money, the need, and the player, it’s a completely defensible deal, one that likely makes the Cardinals better, but the players and fans who are upset aren’t looking at it from that point of view. They’re looking at it from an emotional stance: Hey, that guy cheated. Why is he getting paid?
He’s getting paid because he’d served his suspension, and it’s really not the job of front offices to collude against PED guys in the absence of collectively-bargained rules saying they ought to do so. Either way, it’s far too simplistic to suggest, as some have, that Peralta and the others got their big deals “because” of PEDs. The Cardinals are obviously aware of his past, and evaluated it analytically along with everything else they know about the player. They considered whether he was likely to get hurt; they considered if he was likely to regress as he ages, and if so, by how much; and they considered how much of his recent performance could be attributed to PED usage. They came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that Peralta’s 2013 was not fueled by chemical help, and so if anything the stain on his name was a detriment to his free agency, not an enhancement.
We don’t know their process, so we don’t know how they came to those answers. But what we do know is that they took it all into account, and their decision further cements what we already knew: Major League front offices look at PED busts very, very differently than fans and players do. Though fans like to include all “cheating” under one huge unforgivable umbrella, it’s rarely that cut-and-dry. Even now, what we don’t know about the effects of PEDs on baseball players probably outweighs what we do, and the various players nailed didn’t all use the same thing at the same time. (Ruiz was reportedly busted for Adderall, for example, a far cry from the big cartoon needle filled with Popeye’s spinach that many envision all users as having.) Peralta’s case adds even more mystery, since he’s part of the big Biogenesis mess that we still don’t — and may never — fully understand, as the Alex Rodriguez saga is showing.
You can certainly understand why the players and fans feel that way, of course, and Ziegler did later add that he’d be pushing the union to make chances to prevent this sort of thing in the future. (Many are asking for much harsher penalties for PED abusers; Peralta’s new St. Louis teammate, Matt Holliday, is on record as saying he’d prefer a full season for the first bust and a lifetime ban for the second.)
Perhaps the union and owners will do just that. Depending on your perspective, maybe it’s “hopefully” they’ll do just that, because the view that the current system isn’t enough of a deterrent is probably accurate. But until they do, the game rolls on under the system that the owners and players agreed to. It’s naive to expect a general manager who has certainly done his due diligence to hesitate on upgrading his team, knowing that other GMs would be all too happy to jump on that opportunity to strengthen their own roster instead.
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