Since Major League Baseball instituted random drug testing with the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, more than two dozen big league players were suspended for testing positive for various substances. That list does not include last year’s National League MVP Ryan Braun, who managed to wriggle his way off the hook by challenging the way the sample was handled. Three players, including Giants reliever Guillermo Mota, Neifi Perez and free agent slugger Manny Ramirez, tested positive twice.
Three players had tested positive and were subsequently suspended in 2012 heading into this week: free agent outfielder Marlon Byrd, who played for the Cubs and Red Sox this season, Phillies infielder Freddy Galvis and Mota’s second ban, which cost him 100 games. There have been 70 suspensions in the minor leagues due to positive tests.
The number of big leaguers went up by one Wednesday as All Star outfielder Melky Cabrera tested positive for testosterone. Cabrera, in accordance with league policy, is suspended for 50 games, which takes him out of play for the remainder of the regular season (the Giants have 45 regular season games to play) and he’ll serve the remaining five games either in the postseason (should San Francisco make the playoffs and play that many contests) or at the start of the 2013 season.
The suspension is a devastating blow to the Giants, who entered Wednesday’s action tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers atop the National League West standings. Cabrera played a major role in keeping the Giants in the race despite their anemic offense, hitting .346 with 25 doubles, 10 triples, 11 home runs, 60 runs batted in and 13 stolen bases. He was second in the National League in batting average, trailing only Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen and his 84 runs scored were tops in the National League this season. He had 52 multi-hit games on the year and seemed poised to surpass his career highs in hits, runs scored and batting average.
Cabrera was acquired in what may have been the deal of the offseason. The Giants traded left-handed starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and minor league pitcher Ryan Verdugo to the Royals for Cabrera, who had flourished playing for Kansas City in 2011. Cabrera hit .305 with 18 home runs and 87 runs batted in for Kansas City, scoring 102 runs, totaling 201 hits including 44 doubles and stole 20 bases. While Cabrera was lights out for San Francisco after coming over in the trade, the players Kansas City received for him struggled.
Sanchez went 1-6 with an unsightly 7.76 earned run average in 12 starts for the Royals, averaging less than five innings an outing. He walked more hitters (44) than he struck out (36) and sported a WHIP of 2.044 in 53.1 innings of work. The Royals, fed up with his poor control and inability to get hitters out, traded Sanchez to the Colorado Rockies on July 20 and things have gotten no better for him back in the National League. He’s made three starts for the Rockies, going 0-3 with a 9.53 earned run average; he has lasted a total of 11.1 innings in those three starts.
Verdugo has made one appearance in a major league uniform for the Royals, that coming on July 17 against the Mariners. It too, did not end well: Verdugo lasted 1.2 innings, giving up six runs on eight hits with a pair of walks, taking the loss in a 9-6 defeat. He has been solid pitching for Kansas City’s Triple-A affiliate in Omaha, going 10-3 with a 3.51 earned run average in 23 appearances, 20 of which were starts.
Cabrera had the following to say about the suspension when it was announced on Wednesday afternoon:
“My positive test was the result of my use of a substance I should not have used. I accept my suspension under the Joint Drug Program and I will try to move on with my life. I am deeply sorry for my mistake and I apologize to my teammates, to the San Francisco Giants organization and to the fans for letting them down.”
The Giants won’t make a corresponding roster move until Thursday when the team is off prior to kicking off a series with division rival San Diego over the weekend. The suspension puts a damper on the Giants’ offense, which had struggled despite Cabrera’s stellar season and the acquisition of Hunter Pence at the trade deadline. Pablo Sandoval was just activated from the disabled list and he’ll have to help pick up the slack created by Cabrera’s absence. Pence has scuffled since the deal, hitting a paltry .186 in 14 games, though he has driven in 11 runs.
San Francisco will also need whoever replaces Cabrera in the lineup to perform. The Giants outfield group is fairly weak offensively when you remove him from the equation: Pagan is decent in center field, hitting .280 with seven home runs and 44 runs batted in, but Gregor Blanco (.232, 5, 27) is better known for his glove work, as evidenced by his grab to preserve Matt Cain’s perfect game earlier this season, than his bat. As stated, Pence has done little with the stick since joining the team and Nate Schierholtz is hitting all of .251 with five home runs and 16 runs batted in over 196 at bats this season.
The suspension definitely hurts Cabrera and in more ways than one. Not only will he not surpass career highs in certain categories, it may end up costing the Giants a potential postseason berth. From an individual perspective, Cabrera may have shot himself in the foot financially: he accepted a one year, $6 million deal to avoid arbitration in the offseason and was in line to procure a multiyear deal worth some decent money before this incident came to light. Now teams may be a bit more skeptical about whether to sign Cabrera based on what took place.
Baseball is a fickle game when you come right down to it. When Rafael Palmeiro tested positive back in 2005, his career was over within the month: he was cited on August 1 with a ten day suspension and played his final game on August 30. The same basically happened to Neifi Perez, who tested positive for a second time in July 2007 and a third time a month later. At the end of the season, he filed for free agency from the Tigers and that was it. The Rockies contemplated offering Perez a minor league deal but backed away from it after taking time to think it through, citing the fact that they had younger players competing for the role that Perez would have taken on.
Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez was popped in May of 2009 while playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He would play for the team into 2010 before being picked up off waivers by the Chicago White Sox on August 30. After finishing the year with the White Sox, Ramirez became a free agent and signed a one year deal with Tampa Bay. He played just five games with the Rays in 2011, choosing to retire after testing positive for a second time on a drug test, which carried a mandatory 100 game suspension. Ramirez wasn’t done yet: he inked a deal with the Oakland A’s this year, though he couldn’t play until he served a 50 game suspension as part of a deal made between him and Commissioner Bud Selig. As it turned out, Ramirez wasn’t called up by the A’s and the team released him on June 15.
Which way will Cabrera’s career go at this proverbial fork in the road? Will he get another chance to prove that his performance was based on talent, not substances or will he be forever shunned because of what was one poor decision?