As you’ve all no doubt already heard/read/seen, Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera has been handed a 50-game suspension after testing positive for testosterone. Cabrera has hit .346/.390/.516 for the year, and he’s been one of the most valuable assets for a San Francisco team in the thick of a playoff race. This is obviously big news in several ways, and it’s certainly one of the most interesting PED cases we’ve seen so far in Major League Baseball.
Starting with the first question that likely hit everyone’s mind, has Cabrera’s increased ability at the plate been the result of testosterone use? It’s a very heavy question, as there really has not been another player who has tested positive for PEDs who was in Cabrera’s current position. People point to sluggers like Mark McGwire (admitted user) and Barry Bonds (suspected user) when discussing how steroids and other substances can improve performance, but that’s always been foolish. McGwire slammed 49 home runs as a rail-thin rookie and Bonds already had a Hall of Fame career before anyone even mentioned performance enhancers in the same breath as either of them. Both were aging stars before taking/theoretically taking anything. Other proven substance users like Alex Sanchez, Jay Gibbons, and Neifi Perez didn’t exactly blossom thanks to their new habit. In the brief history of PED testing/finger pointing, it’s not really possible to find another player who went from fringe Major Leaguer to All-Star game MVP.
I won’t deny that I’ve been as big a Cabrera detractor as you’re likely to find, but it’s hard to pin his improvement solely on taking a substance banned by Major League Baseball. We still have zero in the way of scientific proof that steroids and other banned substances make any significant difference in a baseball player’s performance. Baseball isn’t a sport based largely on brute strength, and substances aren’t going to cause any jumps in hand-eye coordination or help a player to square up on the ball better. As far as we know, not a single baseball player has been made into a premier player by testosterone or any other substance. I’m inclined to believe that Cabrera’s ascent can’t be slapped with a “JUICER! CHEATER!” tag either.
Aside from his natural increase in ability with age and experience, so much of Cabrera’s uptick in performance should really be attributed to good fortune. Before 2011, Cabrera never once posted a BABIP higher than .309, and his career rate was actually under .300 in over 2,500 plate appearances. Cabrera’s BABIP rose to .332 a year ago and sits at .379 this season; numbers that high aren’t sustainable, and they are borne of extremely good luck. Should Cabrera’s BABIP slink back to around league average, you simply won’t see him making any more All-Star games. The guy that hit .264/.336/.416 for the Yankees in 2009 is most likely the real Melky Cabrera. Let’s not insist on saying his superior work these past two seasons is vindication for the Joseph McCarthys of the baseball world, though; Cabrera’s numbers look a lot more like the work of the rarely seen and often annoying BABIP genie.
Another intriguing factor in Cabrera-gate is the outfielder’s pending free agency; Cabrera looked like he had picked the best possible time to increase his value, but his character and the nature of his performance are now in question. He’ll have trouble making much money this winter with every team and fan remembering this black mark on his resume. Cabrera would have entered free agency in his prime as a 28-year-old. Now he’ll have to take a recovery deal and hope he plays well enough to justify something more substantial (as if any MLB contract isn’t susbtantial).
Cabrera has also put a big dent in his team’s playoff odds, as he’s been the best non-Buster Posey contributor on the roster for a while now. The Giants made a big pre-deadline deal to pick up Hunter Pence and give the often-flaccid lineup a nice boost, but losing Cabrera does quite a bit in the way of cancelling out the new addition. After dealing an interesting prospect in Tommy Joseph to get Pence, the Giants have to be extremely disappointed in this news. San Francisco is by no means out of the NL west/wild card race, but they’re looking a lot worse for the wear now. Despite the damage dealt to his team, Cabrera’s cash flow is going to suffer ten times worse, and plenty of people will doubt his improvement is for real even if their beliefs are steeped in conjecture.