Carmont: Thoughts on M’s PED stance

 After what seemed like an entire winter of Nelson Cruz rumors, the outfielder and his connection to the Seattle Mariners has been back in the news over the last couple of days. On Friday, Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune reported that the M’s had a one-year deal in place with Cruz worth $7.5 million with a $9 million club option for 2015 before ownership stepped in and nixed the deal. Cruz would wind up signing with the Baltimore Orioles for one year and $8 million a few weeks later.

On Sunday afternoon, Jon Heyman of CBSSports reported that ownership’s intervention should have been no surprise as they had made it clear from the outset that the club would have nothing to do with free agents connected to performance enhancing drugs. Heyman suggests that general manager Jack Zduriencik and the front office were hoping to persuade ownership that signing Cruz was a worthwhile endeavour.

There were many who suggested that Cruz simply wanted no part of Seattle and passed on several attempts by the Mariners to lock down his services. Others suggested that the powers that be simply weren’t willing to put up the bucks, or felt like they had already spent enough. It turns out neither were true, and that should be taken as a positive. The question that should be asked though, is whether or not ownership was simply being risk averse or trying to hold something of a moral standard.

Keep in mind that it was just over a year ago, August 2013 to be exact, that Jesus Montero was suspended 50 games for his connection to the Biogenesis scandal — the same as Cruz. Obviously the M’s didn’t cut ties with the former top prospect then, and after a bizarre ice cream sandwich incident he’s still on the 40-man roster after finishing the season on the suspended list. If it were purely a moral issue, Montero would’ve been cut long ago, and the club would have reason beyond the PED’s anyways. But given the context of this situation, it doesn’t really serve as a real comparison to Cruz’s situation. Baseball has also been a sport of second chances with winning being the priority, so I find it hard to believe that ownership would squash the deal in an effort to ‘do the right thing’ in their opinion.

The Mariners have been fortunate to not have too many links to performance enhancing drugs in recent memory. Of course Alex Rodriguez was one of the big fish, but he has admitted the substance use started after signing his massive deal with the Texas Rangers. Whether or not he did use anything that’s now disallowed during his tenure with Seattle remains to be seen, but there’s no evidence to suggest that at the moment.

A case that many will remember — though nothing has been proven — was former Mariner second baseman Bret Boone, who signed with the club prior to the 2001 season. Boone was coming off a respectable year with the San Diego Padres in which he hit 19 home runs and 74 runs batted in. His 92 wRC+ that year suggested that he was a below average hitter, though. In 2001 the former Gold Glove winner exploded, literally, for 37 home runs and 141 runs batted in — his 149 wRC+ for the year was 25 points higher than his previous career best back in 1994. He also saw a huge spike in his defensive numbers that year which were inconsistent with his previous production.

Boone went from a 0.3 fWAR in 2000 to a 7.8 fWAR in 2001, his age-32 season. Obvious alarm bells would be going off today, but ten years ago, even testing positive for performance enhancing drugs didn’t result in a suspension or a negative reputation as it was kept from public consumption for the most part.

The second baseman would post a solid 2002 season before exploding again in 2003 for a season akin to his 2002 — 35 home runs, 117 runs batted in, 140 wRC+, and very good defensive ratings. The power numbers declined in 2004 but remained respectable, though his defensive ratings fell back to where they were prior to joining the Mariners. That would be the last of Boone’s major league success as he dragged into July of 2005 with a first-half wRC+ of 83 before being designated for assignment and eventually traded to the Minnesota Twins. Boone posted a 13 wRC+ in 58 plate appearances as a Twin before being released in August, and would retire in 2006 before giving things a second go in 2008 but failing to crack the New York Mets big league roster.

By no means am I trying to suggest that Boone did in fact use ‘roids during that period, and a quote in Jose Conseco’s book Juiced about a conversation that may or may not have happened isn’t enough for me to make any accusations. We do know that PED use was prevalent at the turn of the century and Boone went from an average player to MVP candidate to being out of baseball within a six-year span.

[pullquote]Prior to 2014 Cruz had five seasons of 20-plus home runs under his belt despite missing plenty of time with various injuries over the previous eight years, including the 50-game suspension he served in 2013 due to his connection with the Biogenesis scandal.[/pullquote]

The brain trust of the Mariners, including Howard Lincoln, Kevin Mather, and Chuck Armstrong who retired in January of this year, had a front row seat for Boone’s rise and fall, and no doubt, wanted to avoid another potential meltdown of those proportions. Each case is different as no two players are the same, but if ownership had strong suspicions that Boone was juicing and saw the results, they didn’t need a positive urine sample to form a bias. Their disinterest in acquiring a known steroid user is justifiable and let’s face it, the PED use was only one of many concerns that surrounded Cruz.

Seattle wasn’t the only team that was disinclined to commit big dollars to Cruz, but Baltimore was willing to give him a shot and were rewarded with a career-year included 40 home runs that nobody saw coming. We can all agree that Cruz wasn’t going to reach a home run total like that playing half his games at Safeco, but to suggest he could hit 20 wouldn’t be unreasonable and he would have still marked an upgrade over Seattle’s production at DH in 2014.

On the flip side, Jhonny Peralta was able to secure a four-year, $53 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals last winter despite being under the same Biogenesis baggage that cost Cruz several million dollars. The two cases vary greatly, however, as Peralta was not given a qualifying offer and didn’t require the draft pick compensation that Cruz did and he plays a premium position at shortstop. Peralta was also two years younger than Cruz, who teams knew would require regular designated hitter duties, and had pieced together a consistent, healthy career prior to the scandal.

The Cardinals, who are widely regarded as one of the best-run organizations in baseball, came under heavy scrutiny for essentially ignoring Peralta’s past and rewarded a known steroid user. The Orioles weren’t criticized in the same manner after they agreed to terms with Cruz, possibly due to the fact it was only a one-year deal with a relatively low base salary. There’s little doubt ownership was as interested in avoiding the potential negative public relations hit as they were the uncertain production capabilities. After all, the club had just committed $240 million to Robinson Cano and taken on a reclamation project of their own in Corey Hart.

As Cruz and Peralta play for their respective clubs in the American and National League Championship series, one can’t help but wonder how the addition of Cruz would’ve helped the Mariners. Especially since the club finished one game out while Cruz was worth just under four wins above replacement according to FanGraphs.

Should Seattle have been so worried about the uncertainty that would come with signing Cruz or any PED-linked player? It seems counterintuitive as the baseball operations people, the very same ones ownership selected to create the team, weighed the risks versus rewards and thought it would be worthwhile. But by that same token, if Jack Z and Co. were made aware of ownership’s stance from the get go, why did they bother pursuing Cruz and setting up a deal in the first place?

There’s already been plenty of chatter about whether or not the M’s will pursue Cruz once again this winter and the jokes about how much they’ll overpay him by fly freely. Obviously the slugger fits what the club needs — a right-handed hitting power bat — but he undoubtedly will be looking for a multi-year deal, and this bears the question: after what transpired this past winter, should the team even entertain the possibility of signing Cruz?

Look for an answer to that question to surface in the coming months, but it sure is nice to say that for once, it wasn’t the money or location that cost Seattle a free agent.

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Tyler Carmont

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