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Is 50 Games Too Weak a PED Punishment?

As you know by now, Melky Cabrera failed a drug test and was suspended for 50 games yesterday for using synthetic testosterone during the best season of his career. Cabrera will miss the rest of the Giants’ regular season, but he’s already been worth 4.5 WAR to the Giants, and some people within the game are grumbling that a mere 50 game suspension isn’t enough of a deterrent to prevent ballplayers from taking performance-enhancing drugs. If it isn’t an effective deterrent, is it an adequate punishment?

Kirk Gibson, the manager of the Diamondbacks, was outspoken yesterday. “Obviously, there’s not a big enough deterrent if it continues,” he told the Arizona Republic. “I think it should be a minimum of a year (for a first positive) and after that it should just be banned.” So what kind of suspension would adequately deter players from using banned drugs?

It’s very likely that almost no number of games could compete with the $60 to $70 million that he may have cost himself in the offseason free agent market, as Dave Cameron writes. Nothing incents like dollars and cents, to coin a phrase. For a walk year player in Cabrera’s position, where cheating could literally earn him the better part of a hundred million bucks, it’s easy to imagine that even a one-year punishment wouldn’t be high enough, especially with disgraced BALCO founder Victor Conte claiming that “To circumvent the test is like taking candy from a baby.”

The effectiveness of the deterrent will depend on the player’s own expected value, how much they have to gain against how much they have to lose. A player like Cabrera, in a walk year, on a team in a dogfight for the division, could hardly have any more to gain. A player like Manny Ramirez, on his last legs, trying to prove that he still deserves one of 25 roster spots, could hardly have less to lose. Players like them would have the greatest incentive to cheat. And I doubt that either a 15-game suspension or a 150-game suspension would much affect their calculus, considering that the first stands to make seven years of guaranteed salary and the second is on the verge of retirement anyway.

The third type of player with an elevated likelihood of cheating would be a minor leaguer who is trying to stick in the majors. The major league minimum is an order of magnitude greater than the minor league minimum, and drug testing is more stringent in the minor leagues, where players are not covered by the MLBPA. A player who arrived in the major leagues and wanted to stick there would similarly have an elevated incentive to use. A player like Alex Sanchez, for example. But they have much more to lose, because a positive test could just about end their career.

(I’ve always thought it strange that the suspension for steroids is not much higher than the 60-day suspension that Otis Nixon received for testing positive for cocaine in 1991. Of course, that occurred in the context of Len Bias legislation and the recent memory of cocaine destroying baseball in Pittsburgh for most of the decade. It was a special circumstance.)

The more difficult question is how to deal with the aftermath. Obviously, the Giants won’t be vacating the victories they won with Melky Cabrera, and Gibson’s grievance is understandable, considering that Cabrera OPS’ed 1.167 in nine games against the D-Backs. If the D-Backs miss the playoffs by fewer than the four games that they lost to the Giants, Melky’s malfeasance may be recalled. Moreover, the winner of the ALCS may grumble that the National League gained home field advantage in the World Series thanks primarily to All-Star MVP Melky Cabrera’s chemically-aided heroics.

Worse, if Cabrera had waited until the end of the year to get caught, he might have won an MVP award. And, as we learned last year amid the saga of Ryan Braun‘s failed test and successful appeal, those are permanent, too, which means that whoever finished in second place to Cabrera would have a legitimate beef as well: people who win MVP awards are worth more money on the open market, and MVP awards add to a player’s historical legacy as well, so they can build momentum for a Hall of Fame case.

Take, for example, Vladimir Guerrero, who’s more or less borderline, with 60 fWAR in his 16 years. He won a single MVP award in 2004, so his case would be greatly strengthened if he had one or two more. He finished fourth in 2002, when Barry Bonds won; third in 2005, when Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz finished first and second; and third again in 2007, when Alex Rodriguez won.

I have no way of asserting beyond a shadow of a doubt that Guerrero is more clean than Rodriguez, Bonds, and Ortiz. But if Guerrero won a retroactive MVP or two — like the New Zealand shot-putter who won gold a couple of days ago after the Olympics ended, when the Belarusian winner tested positive for steroids — that would make him a near-certainty for the Hall, rather than a player who will struggle to stand out against many other talented peers from the Steroid Era.

(As it happens, there’s a very good chance that Melky Cabrera will deprive Andrew McCutchen or Buster Posey of the 2012 batting title. But it also bears mentioning, as Jonah Keri writes, that it’s unclear just how much of Cabrera’s 2011-2012 spike is attributable to PED usage, as opposed to BABIP variance and so forth.)

Gibson is almost certainly right that a yearlong suspension would be an increased deterrent, and it might lessen steroid use on the margins. It would also raise the stakes if there ever were to be a false positive with the test, which Major League Baseball has long denied, but Ryan Braun’s successful appeal was predicated on just that notion. And that is why the players’ union is unlikely to sign off on any increase in suspension time.

The union is also unlikely to sign off on any increased scrutiny of players in contract years or at the beginning or end of their careers, even if they are likely to be at elevated risk for PED use. The court of public opinion will have no such scruples, however, and the suspicion of chemical enhancement that greets every great performance in a walk year, from Adrian Beltre to Gary Matthews Jr., will continue unabated. So Melky will likely need to accept a one-year contract for next year, and hope that he can kill it — like Beltre in 2010 with the Red Sox, for example — to set himself up for a major payday in 2013.

That won’t help the Giants, of course, and the damage has already been done to the Diamondbacks, not to mention home field in the World Series. The 50 game suspension hurts the Giants a lot more than it hurts Cabrera, who already did irreparable damage to his free agent value and historical legacy. If teams can pressure their players not to use, because of the damage that their absence could do to the team, then the 50 game suspension would truly be an effective deterrent. If not, then it will always pale in comparison to the money.