2013 Preview: Why Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez and other big stars could face suspension this season

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As we approach Opening Day, HarballTalk will be spending the next few days previewing all 30 teams, all six division races and looking ahead at the major issues and storylines which will impact the 2013 season. This morning we look at the Biogenesis scandal, which could lead to the suspension of several high-profile players.

Some of baseball’s biggest stars including Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez, Nelson Cruz, Gio Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal, Bartolo Colon and many, many more enter the 2013 season under a cloud. Or a threat, if you will.  The threat of suspension for their association with a now-closed Miami clinic called Biogenesis, which is alleged to have supplied these players and as many as 90 more with testosterone, human growth hormone and other performance enhancing drugs which violate baseball’s rules against performance enhancing drugs. It is unknown if those suspensions will come. It is unknown when. But all teams with a player named in the documents of the Biogenesis clinic face uncertainty as Opening Day approaches.

The Biogenesis news broke in late January, when it was reported by multiple outlets that Major League Baseball was investigating the clinic and its operator, Anthony Bosch, under the suspicion that the clinic represented “ground zero” for performance enhancing drugs in Florida, where a disproportionate number of major leaguers grew up, played amateur and college baseball or where they currently make their offseason homes. On January 29, the Miami New Times obtained and published a large portion of the Biogenesis clinic’s records which contained the names of several major leaguers accompanied in many cases by notations which suggested that the players were given performance enhancing drugs. The documents were not conclusive of any player’s use and, in some cases — like with Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez — no connection could be found between the player and any substances which are banned by Major League Baseball.

source: APImmediately after the Miami New Times report came out all of the players involved either denied any involvement with Biogenesis whatsoever or denied that they obtained banned substances.  For example, Gonzalez claims that his father was a patient of Anthony Bosch’s. Ryan Braun claims that his attorneys used Bosch as a consultant in his successful 2012 appeal of his PED suspension. Despite the denials, the report and the documents set off a media firestorm which caused Major League Baseball to step up its investigation of the players named therein.

The biggest problem: Major League Baseball doesn’t actually have the Biogenesis documents. The Miami New Times and other media outlets which have seen all or part of them are unwilling to share them with the league and, at present, Anthony Bosch is nowhere to be found.  Last Friday Major League Baseball sued Biogenesis in an effort to obtain the documents, but it is not at all clear that they have any viable legal claims against the clinic. More significantly, many doubt that the original documents still exist at all.

What is clear is that Major League Baseball is stopping at nothing to investigate the matter with a clear eye towards suspending the players named in the clinic’s records if at all possible.  MLB is reported to be particularly interested in suspending 2011 NL MVP Braun, who they see as having evaded justice in prevailing on his appeal last year and Rodriguez who many in baseball believe lied to MLB investigators in 2009 when he admitted to past, but not present drug use.

MORE: The Rise and Fall of Alex Rodriguez

source: APCan Major League Baseball suspend these players without a positive drug test? Yes, it can. Pursuant to the Joint Drug Agreement which governs these matters, baseball can suspend players for “just cause” if there is non-clinical evidence suggesting that they have used performance enhancing drugs. Most believe that conclusive documentary evidence of past use, as may appear in the Biogenesis records, would provide such grounds. Baseball’s inability to obtain these records, however, is preventing almost all action at present. So far, all baseball has been able to do is to suspend one minor leaguer  — who happens to have been a college teammate and who is still a close friend of Braun’s — who was implicated based on the league’s belief that he was not cooperative when questioned. Major league players have not yet been questioned, but they almost certainly will be.  They will have greater legal and union protections from discipline than their minor league counterparts, however.

That’s where we are as the season dawns. Several players, including two former MVPs, in the crosshairs of a Major League Baseball investigation, the outcome of which and endpoint of is uncertain. At literally any time between today and, well, forever, baseball could suspend Braun, Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Cruz or any of players named in the Biogenesis documents for 50 games.

To put that in context, the most big leaguers Major League Baseball has ever suspended in a season for performance enhancing drugs is six, which occurred last year.  In most years it’s two or three.  Now dozens upon dozens of players may face a 50-game suspension for a first offense of the Joint Drug Agreement, with some facing 100-game suspensions for a second offense. Suspensions of this magnitude could conceivably tip the pennant races. And for that reason, even if you don’t care a lick about performance enhancing drugs in baseball, the Biogenesis matter is worth watching.

MORE: Team-by-team previews for 2013

Yankees oust Aroldis Chapman from the closer’s role

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The writing was on the wall, but the Yankees made it official on Saturday: Aroldis Chapman is no longer closing games for the Bronx Bombers. Comments from manager Joe Girardi suggested that the move is a temporary one, however, and he told reporters that Chapman will be utilized at “different points” in the game as the Yankees try to pinpoint the source of the left-hander’s struggles.

There’s no question that the flame-throwing southpaw has been off his game for a while, and his season 4.29 ERA, 4.3 BB/9 and 12.6 SO/9 hints at some of the issues he’s been facing. He imploded in each of his last three appearances, issuing a cumulative five hits, six runs and five strikeouts over just 3 1/3 innings. It seems plausible that the left rotator cuff inflammation that sidelined him several months ago has resurfaced, but the veteran lefty said Friday that he doesn’t believe any physical issues have caused his decline.

While Chapman works out the kinks in his mechanics, the Yankees will look to some combination of Dellin Betances and David Robertson to cover the ninth inning. Girardi wouldn’t commit to either reliever in the closer’s spot, however, and said he’d take it on a case-by-case basis depending on the match-ups in any given game. The long-term plan is still to reinstate Chapman, whenever that might make sense for the team.

“He’s been scuffling over the past 10 days, two weeks,” Girardi said. “I just thought for us to get him back on track, maybe the best way would be to move him around a little bit until he gets going. When we get him going like I believe he’ll get going, there’s a good chance I’ll put him right back in that closer’s role.”

Nationals activate Stephen Strasburg off the disabled list

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The Nationals officially activated Stephen Strasburg off the 10-day disabled list, the team announced Saturday. They’ll pencil him into the starting lineup for their second set against the Padres on Saturday night. Strasburg is expected to assume Max Scherzer‘s roster spot after Scherzer landed on the disabled list with neck inflammation prior to Friday’s series opener. No other roster moves appear to be necessary for the time being.

Strasburg, 28, is finally looking stable after serving a 26-day stint on the DL with a right elbow nerve impingement. It’s the first serious injury he’s sustained since last August, when he missed 20 days with inflammation in his right elbow, and one the Nationals are taking seriously as they juggle multiple stints for their elite starters. He’ll enter Saturday’s competition with a 10-3 record in 20 starts, supplemented by a 3.25 ERA, 2.7 BB/9 and 10.4 SO/9 through 121 2/3 innings.

Elbow issues are nothing to be played around with, but Strasburg’s performance in his lone rehab outing relieved any residual apprehension the Nats might have had about his activation this weekend. He tossed 66 pitches for High-A Potomac, hitting 95 MPH with his heater and logging three hits, one run, one walk and five strikeouts over five innings. Club manager Dusty Baker is hoping for a similarly dominant start against the Padres, and told reporters that he’ll hold Strasburg to a performance count as the righty works his way back to a full-time gig.