Though the sea change we’re experiencing in Major League Baseball’s drug testing regime is undeniable, the “we should get tougher!” crowd easily has the loudest voice in the grand shouting match that is our current baseball discourse. And easily the most fashionable get-tough argument in that crowd is the one which goes “players should have their contracts voided if they test positive!”
Let’s unpack that, shall we?
It’s pretty easy to see the logic when the player involved is named Ryan Braun or Alex Rodriguez and they are owed hundreds of millions of dollars that they may not be worth. The price is paid for a cheater’s ill-gotten gains! He’s out his deal! The team is out from under the specter of his unholy presence! Everything is right with the world!
But what if the player is Andrew McCutchen? Or Matt Moore? Or Jered Weaver or Sal Perez? Or some other star who is on a team-friendly deal? We still happy voiding that contract then? I’m guessing the team’s owner and GM aren’t. They know that no player is 100% a creation of PEDs and that even if one of those guys took something he shouldn’t have, he’d still be more than worth the money on his contract once he serves his 50 games. And he certainly doesn’t want to lose him because a bunch of sportswriters decided back in 2013 that everyone needed to “get tough.”
Question: Are we good with punishing the team even more than the player?
Let’s take that to the next step. Say you’re Matt Moore. You’re having a lights-out season just as guys like Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw are raking in gigantic bucks on contract extensions. And here you are, like a yutz, making an average of $2.5 million over the next four years because you went for the security of the pre-arbitration deal. If contracts are voided upon a positive test, might you not at least consider taking a shot of testosterone, taking a very small 50 game suspension, getting your contract voided and then peddling your wares to the highest bidder? Sure, you might take a haircut from what Justin Verlander got because you’d be seen as something of a bad seed, but you’d make orders of magnitude over what you’re making now. Especially if you play the apology-come-clean game as well as Andy Pettitte did.
Question: Do we want that incentive there? And what does that mean for the pre-arb players who didn’t sign Moore-type deals? If Bryce Harper or Mike Trout tested positive tomorrow, what does their void look like? Are they free agents too? Or do the teams violate the 13th amendment and not pay them at all?
Oh, and then there’s the matter of the incentives some owners may have to slip a mickey to an overpaid player in an effort to get out from under. Now, I’m not saying an honorable and honest businessman like Arte Moreno would do such a thing to a nice, upstanding man like Albert Pujols. But then again, George Steinbrenner is gonna be in the Hall of Fame some day and he literally paid spies to dig up dirt on one of his overpaid players once, and it’s not insane to think that can’t happen again.
One response I anticipate is that we make the contract voiding an optional thing. At the team’s discretion. In this case the team will clearly choose to void Alex Rodriguez’s deal but not Moore’s. But why should teams get a choice here? Why should what is supposed to be punishment for wrongdoing for which we are supposed to have zero tolerance suddenly be transformed into a cost-benefit analysis for a team? Or a windfall? Wouldn’t we then be saying “cheating is bad, mmm-kay, and you’re going to be punished severely. At least as long as you don’t have a team-friendly contract. If you do, well, we’re willing to let it slide a bit.”
That’s not what the drug testing program is supposed to look like and those odd incentives are probably a large part of the reason why the league and the union have never suggested actually doing it. Separate and apart from the fact that the union is not interested in doing anything to undermine the concept of guaranteed contracts in any way.
Maybe that’s the real thing to watch here, actually. What the league and the union say, not sanctimonious worrywarts who are looking for new ways to get tough. If and when league or union sources start to chatter about contract voiding being on the table I’ll start to take it seriously. For now it’s just bluster from people who don’t feel guys like Ryan Braun have suffered enough.