Cheating is bad, but are the drugs?

53 Comments

One of the issues many of us have with steroids is that they make players something they’re not. Or so we think anyway. Barry Bonds was practically a superhero in the early part of the last decade. Ryan Braun was probably destined to be a major leaguer, but now we assume that he was never meant to be an MVP. And it’s likely the case that more than a handful of pitchers who would have topped out at Double- or Triple-A otherwise turned themselves into major league relievers for a spell by juicing and adding a few miles per hour to their fastballs.

But what about the other side of juicing? What about the players who just want to be what they were? Many players have used the excuse that they turned to performance-enhancing drugs to aid in the recovery from an injury. Some of those people were undoubtedly lying, but others weren’t. Players want to play.

Bartolo Colon was pretty much written off as a major league pitcher after hurting his shoulder in 2009. Following a controversial surgery in which he had stem cells inserted into his right shoulder, he resurfaced with the Yankees in 2011 and was surprisingly solid, going 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA in 164 1/3 innings. It was the first time he had cracked 100 innings since his Cy Young season in 2005.

Colon performed even better for the A’s in 2011, going 10-9 with a 3.43 ERA, but then he was nabbed for testosterone use. The A’s re-signed him anyway, and this year, he’s been flat-out terrific, going 14-3 with a 2.54 ERA that ranks third in the AL.

We now know that Colon was a Biogenesis client alongside Braun, Alex Rodriguez and others. Many suspect he’s still cheating to this day. Even if he isn’t, he could still be deriving some benefit from the meds he got to help strengthen his shoulder.

And, oddly enough, I just don’t seem to care much about it. In reality, Colon’s crime is the same as Braun’s, and I pretty much despise Braun at the moment.

Colon, though, isn’t something he isn’t supposed to be. Instead, he’s a guy who simply bought himself a few more years. According to Baseball Info Solutions data, Colon is currently defying American League hitters with a fastball that averages all of 90.1 mph. That’s down from 92.7 mph in his Cy Young campaign eight years ago. The data doesn’t go back to when he first came up, but he probably averaged 94-95 mph in the late 90s, often going higher.

Steroids didn’t give Colon the excellent fastball accuracy he’s always enjoyed. They also haven’t helped him master a slider or a curve, which he never really did in the first place. He’s throwing two-seamers and four-seamers 85 percent of the time this year.

Now, maybe Colon’s cocktails will come back to bite him in the long run. We don’t know. Steroid use has always been reported to have dangerous side effects. Since we’ve demonized and criminalized steroid usage, studying whether these more modern regimens could prove relatively harmless is pretty much impossible.

We all like the idea of a level playing field, and if Colon is artificially extending his career, he’s taking a roster spot from a clean player. But, of course, depending on where you want to draw the line, half of the league is composed of guys who are now or will later artificially extend their careers. That’s just modern medicine doing its part.

It’s not like we’re ever going to win the war on performance enhancers. Chemists are always going to come up with new things. Someday, these new things won’t even be frowned upon. We shouldn’t be trying to outlaw substances that make us feel better and look better. We should just be making sure they’re safe.

Someday, people will look at the steroid era and wonder why so many people were so upset. They’ll have moved on. Perhaps not for the better. Perhaps they’ll simply be complaining about genetically engineered people ruining sports.

In the meantime, yes, by all means, punish the cheaters. But don’t pretend that the performance enhancers themselves are a black and white issue. The drugs keep getting better, and they’re not just for bodybuilders and professional athletes. Maybe they should be for everyone.

Evan Longoria: “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base.”

Joe Scarnici/Getty Images
10 Comments

The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.