Why the MLB still has a steroid problem

Mark McGwire has been passed over for the Hall of Fame for likely the sixth time. Rafael Palmeiro the second. It seems that the Baseball Writers of America Hall of Fame voters don’t want to vote alleged steroid users into the Hall of Fame. Can I blame them? Not really. However, what I will blame them for is keeping someone out of the Hall of Fame based purely on suspicion alone.

Now I am doing some reading tonight and I run across the NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk website where they have an article by Craig Calcaterra entitled “Three more Hall voters accuse Jeff Bagwell of being juicer.” What?

Inside the article, we go on to learn that at least three writers, Philip Hersh and Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune and Scot Gregor of Chicago’s Daily Herald, apparently believe that Jeff Bagwell used steroids.

Bagwell, now 43, is the holder of a career .297 batting average, a career on base percentage of .408, and a career slugging percentage of .540. He hit 449 home runs in his career, got 2314 hits and 1529 RBI. He was the 1991 NL Rookie of the Year and the 1994 NL Most Valuable Player. He played his entire 15 year career for the Houston Astros before announcing his retirement in 2005. His name has never been publicly linked to steroids.

So the question has to be asked where did these writers get these doubts? Do they have information, like Calcaterra suggests, that isn’t up to the snuff of ethical journalism to publish but is enough to make them question? And if they have it, why don’t the other writers, considering that none of the three covered Bagwell on the beat in Houston? Are they looking at the numbers and questioning his slugging ability? What is it that makes them believe that Jeff Bagwell may have used steroids? And why three Chicago sportswriters?

Well, part of the problem is that the BBWAA has taken it upon themselves to be the protectors of the sanctity of the game. No cheaters here! Well, except Gaylord Perry and guys who used amphetamines to gain that extra boost before a game since the 1940s.

Gaylord Perry is renowned for his spitball, which was illegal. He will readily admit that he threw it in games. Nobody is suggesting we remove him from the Hall of Fame.

Also, in the 1940s as “greenies” or amphetamines became common use as players tried to keep up with the demanding travel schedules as baseball became a more national game. They were used until they were banned within the last decade. It’s estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of players have used amphetamines. Odds are most in the Hall of Fame have too. In fact, considering the reputation that players like Mickey Mantle had for partying hard, it’s pretty safe to assume that he used them as well. Where are the calls to remove him from the Hall based on speculation?

Many have tried to argue with me that amphetamines aren’t “performance enhancing” because they don’t make you a better ball player. But they do enhance your performance because they make you as good as you are, longer. Your numbers are going to be inflated because you’ll be better in successive games as the season wore on than you otherwise would have been without them.

As baseball fans, we are romantic about the game and about the past. It’s hard not to be! However, we are naive to think that our era of baseball, the steroid era, is the only one tarnished with cheaters who used their illegal advantage to put up high level numbers and gain Hall of Fame consideration. The other eras of baseball are not pure and never were. People have been using whatever means necessary to gain an advantage as long as the game of baseball has been around.

And here’s the problem with keeping players out based on speculation, media members have been known to sit on stories for players that are well-liked or that are good to them. How do we know that a guy like Ken Griffey Jr or Cal Ripken Jr didn’t use in their careers? They are both very well liked by fans and media and you could see a reporter to two turning a blind eye, not wanting to ruin their careers.

While speculation surrounds nearly ever other power hitter (apparently, including Bagwell) of the steroid era, many hold Ken Griffey Jr up as the gold standard of a steroid-free power hitter. So why is Ken Griffey Jr, the holder of 630 career home runs, played 22 seasons in the big leagues, not questioned about steroid use? His final seasons were slowed by a succession of knee injuries, potentially a guy putting on too much upper-body strength? We can even question his development too. How does a guy go from averaging 22 home runs a year for the first four years of his career to averaging 44 a year over the next eight? That even includes 17 in a part-season bringing the average down.

I can raise suspicion around many players in baseball. I can throw stats at you that would raise eyebrows. Does that mean we should keep them out of the Hall of Fame too? Are players from the steroid era in danger of being “too good” that we can’t consider that they didn’t use? Steroid users that have talked to the media about what they’ve seen say that it was prevalent throughout baseball in the 1990s. Both pitchers and hitters have been caught.

Questions like this is why I think the Baseball Writers Association of America needs some sort of hard criteria generated for voting people into the Hall of Fame and their eligibility. Until we do, every year until steroid era players are removed from the ballots, the steroid debate will reignite and everyone will be reminded of it. There will be no getting past it for a decade or more.

My proposal: If you have tested positive for steroids during your playing career, you are no longer eligible for the Hall of Fame. Maybe twice to give you the benefit of the doubt of taking a product that has an unlisted illegal ingredient. It happens more than we would like to believe.

Of course, there are follow up questions to this proposal to deal with special circumstances. Let’s tackle those.

What about Barry Bonds and the players who didn’t test positive during their playing career because it wasn’t tested for? Unfortunately, there is no way to prove for sure that they used steroids. All we have is speculation. They get in.

What about Mark McGwire and guys like them who admitted having used steroids, but never tested positive? They get in too.

Whoa, Jon, they admitted it! You gotta keep them out!

Well, the first problem there is that they self identified as users. I think that deserves some credit. Beyond that PR people know that the quickest way to get over a story is to admit it, move on, and hope something else big comes along soon after. Think about the interview Mark McGwire gave after he was hired to be the hitting coach of the Cardinals, an interview he is widely believed to have been required to give as a condition of the job.

Everyone suspected McGwire had used. Most forget that he had already admitted using steroids over a decade ago, I remember reading that as a kid after the home run race of 1998. To get over the story, you follow the path of least resistance. If McGwire had sat in front of Bob Costas that night and maintained that he’d never used steroids would anyone on Earth have believed him? We all know the answer is no. That right there is enough reason to question the admission.

Guys like Rafael Palmeiro who tested positive during his playing days for using steroids, to me, his entire career is now in doubt. Did he start following the Congressional hearings where he pointed his finger to the cameras and said he never did steroids? Or did he lie to protect his reputation? We have proof that he used. He gets kept out.

America’s justice system was built on the foundation of “Innocent until proven guilty.” As a result, no simple speculation should be enough to destroy someone’s Hall of Fame chances. Baseball is touted as the American Pasttime. They should institute that same “Innocent until proven guilty” mantra and let guys who never were proven steroid users into the Hall of Fame.

Until baseball chooses to address this issue, they’ll continue to get run through the mud every year for their failures during the steroid era. It would be in their best interests to sort this out as quickly as possible without screwing players who may have never actually used. Punish the proven users, not the suspected users because suspicions can easily be wrong.

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UCB Project: Top Stories of 2011

This month’s United Cardinal Bloggers project is to break down what we thought the top-5 Cardinals Stories of 2011 were. Albert Pujols‘ departure and the Cardinals winning the World Series will be two very big stories that my fellow bloggers will likely be hitting on today. But those are easy. That’s the low hanging fruit. What really contributed to the Cardinals being there in October and getting their chance to come through and why? That’s what I’m going for.

#5. Adam Wainwright out for the season after Tommy John

Those dreaded words crossed my Twitter feed in February, just three months after I embarked on my Cardinals’ blogging mission. The names “Tommy John” and “Adam Wainwright” were mentioned in the same tweet. And to top everything off, Cardinals’ GM John Mozeliak was not feeling optimistic when he talked about Wainwright’s injury. And so we waited with baited breaths wondering how Wainwright’s doctor’s appointment in St. Louis would turn out. Would we lose our ace?

Many looked back to 2007 and 2008. Those were two seasons where we lost Chris Carpenter, then our clear #1 pitcher, for the majority of the season. He made 1 start in 2007 and 4 starts in 2008. The Cardinals finished 3rd in 2007 and 4th in 2008 in the NL Central. Was our season over before it began?

Many fans packed it in and it would have been easy for the Cardinals to dwell on the loss of Wainwright. But they moved on without the ace of their pitching staff determined to compete without him. That determination would come in handy throughout the season. Little did we know it would set the tone for the season. Whether it was Matt Holliday‘s appendix, a moth looking for a new home, Allen Craig‘s knee cap, or Albert Pujols’ wrist, the team was determined to give everything when it would have been very easy to mail it in without their key players. It would have been a good excuse that everyone would have bought. The Cardinals were a team ravaged by injuries all year.

The determination to get over the injury of Wainwright and move forward served the team well. From day one they were being prepared for a difficult season.

#4. The Search for a Closer

For a few years the Cardinals had been relying on Ryan Franklin to be the team’s closer. And I’ve been saying for just as long that Ryan Franklin isn’t a very good closer and we needed some insurance for him because it was simply a matter of time. However, I think the Cardinals were attempting to ride it out at least one more year with Franklin taking the ball in the 9th inning.

But when the season started and Ryan Franklin was ineffective, it threw the entire Cardinals’ bullpen into chaos. First it was Mitchell Boggs who got the 9th inning opportunities. Then he blew one and Eduardo Sanchez got a chance. Then Sanchez struggled to throw his slider for strikes when batters realized they could just take the pitch and Fernando Salas finally got the opportunity.

Salas, the only pitcher near ready to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals who had closing experience. Going into 2011 he was a perfect 44-for-44 in save opportunities between Springfield in 2008 and Memphis is 2010. Why he didn’t get the first opportunity is quite a bit of conjecture, but when the Cardinals needed a stabilizing influence in the 9th inning, they found it in Salas. He got his first save opportunity on April 28th. It was a little exciting with a hit and a walk, but he got the job done. He would save 10 games before blowing his first on June 1st. Over the summer he became a little homer happy, opening the door for Jason Motte who was having a dominant summer.

Jason Motte went from June 26th to September 6th, a span of 34 appearances and 26 1/3 innings, without allowing an earned run. It was enough to get Tony LaRussa to say he wanted to get Motte some time in the 9th inning role, but stopping short of naming Motte the team’s closer. On August 28th he got his first save as the team’s 9th inning man and racked up a total of 9 as the season went on.

#3. Wheeling and Dealing at the Deadline

Colby Rasmus was the future of the franchise. Or so we all thought going into 2011. He had a really good start to the season as well, with many, including myself, thinking that he had finally turned the corner and unlocked that potential. However, it wasn’t long before Rasmus was mired once again in a huge slump at the plate and was making big mistakes in center field. By July, most Cardinals fans were debating the merits of making Jon Jay the team’s starting center fielder. Apparently, so was Tony LaRussa as Jay started getting more and more playing time in center field.

John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ GM, had apparently been working on an extension with Rasmus that would have bought out his arbitration years. The team still viewed him as a major part of their future. They denied wanting to trade him, but everyone recognized that Rasmus would be the organization’s largest trading piece.

Despite the rumors of teams like Tampa Bay offering a very good starting pitcher for Rasmus, Mozeliak decided to take an offer that was viewed as lesser of the deals, but it did two very important things for the Cardinals. It filled holes in the rotation and the bullpen, something the other deals didn’t. Mozeliak knew Rasmus was his biggest (and likely only) bullet, he needed to it fix as many problems as possible. It also brought the Cardinals back draft picks for Edwin Jackson and Octavio Dotel who left for free agency. They also got to keep Marc Rzepczynski, a talented left handed pitcher, something the Cardinals have been unable to produce on their own in recent years.

He wasn’t done. The Cardinals needed to improve the defense at short stop. Their plan to forego offense for defense during the offseason had come around to bite them when Ryan Theriot struggled to field his position as he had in the past. Mozeliak found a partner in the Dodgers who were willing to send them Rafael Furcal. All the Dodgers wanted was Alex Castellanos, and considering the Cardinals were facing a little bit of an outfielder squeeze at the top of their minor league depth charts, he was expendable.

When all was said and done, for the price of Colby Rasmus and Double-A outfielder Alex Castellanos, John Mozeliak filled every hole on the 2011 Cardinals. It was a move that earned him Executive of the Year awards, but the Cardinals still needed help to get to the playoffs.

#2. September and the Hunt for a Cardinal Red October

Despite the additions, the team went just 15-13 in August and fell from half a game back of Milwaukee when the trades were made to 8.5 games back when August drew to a close. But that was mainly because Milwaukee was really good in August, going 21-7. It’s hard to keep up with a team who is that hot.

But the Cardinals would put together an 18-8 September, finishing as one of the hottest teams in baseball as they slipped into the playoffs on the final day of the season, courtesy of the Philadelphia Phillies beating the Atlanta Braves. Many would say that the Braves choked up the playoff spot, but when you look at the fact they lost their #1 pitcher for the final two months of the season and their #2 pitcher for the final month, I have a hard time saying that. Where would the Cardinals have been this year if they’d lost Chris Carpenter as well? Nowhere pretty.

It was just what the Cardinals needed to get into the playoffs. As Daniel of C70 at the Bat said Wednesday night on the UCB Radio Hour, if the Braves win two more games anywhere in the season, they go to the playoffs and we don’t have this discussion and the trade of Rasmus seems like a huge mistake. What a kill joy.

#1. The Emergence of David Freese and Allen Craig

My top story of the season has nothing to do with the big names Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman (though Berkman did have an excellent 2011 season, way better than I expected). I attribute a lot of the Cardinals winning this World Series to the unsung heroes of this team. The Cardinals run into the playoffs and to the World Series Championship was a total team effort. There was no singular player’s performance, at least from a player you could expect.

Allen Craig, the subject of my largest sports man-crush right now, only had about 220 plate appearances for the Cardinals this season, but they were MVP quality appearances. His 2.9 WAR over those plate appearances projects out to 8.6 if he gets 650 plate appearances at the same rate. That’s better than some guy named Ryan Braun, who walked home with the National League MVP trophy. He also had RBI in 5 of the 7 games in the World Series. He had the game-winning RBI in game 1. He had a go-ahead RBI in game 2. His first inning home run in game 3 set the tone for the Cardinals. His 8th inning home run in game 6 was crucial to set up David Freese‘s opportunity. And in Game 7, his third inning home run put the Cardinals on top for good. He was definitely a worthy candidate as World Series MVP in my opinion. Well, were it not for this next guy.

It was a situation that all kids dream about. You play with the bat in the backyard and you call out the situation to yourself, “Bottom of the 9th. Game on the Line. Two out. Down to your last strike. You lose the World Series if you don’t get this hit. In comes the pitch…” It’s a triple off the wall to tie up the game! Even more incredible when you come up to bat 2 innings later and hit your first home run of the World Series to win the game in walk-off style to send it to Game 7. Then he goes and gets the game tying runs in the bottom of the 1st just two nights later in Game 7. Yeah, that’s David Freese.

It was the emergence David Freese and Allen Craig that really propelled this team. Your superstars can only do so much. Teams attempt to minimize the impact your superstars have on the game. Having players behind them who will make them pay too, that just makes things sweeter. And that’s what makes a team a winner.

Those are my top-5 stories. What are yours?

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Cardinals add Carlos Beltran

Is it Christmas come early for Cardinals fans? John Mozeliak delivered a two-year, $26 million contract for outfielder Carlos Beltran on Thursday night. The deal was announced by the team as pending a physical. The deal also includes a full no trade clause, likely a concessions for a two year deal instead of a three year contract like Michael Cuddyer and Josh Willingham both received.

Beltran has been in high demand since the Winter Meetings in Dallas. He reportedly received offers from the Cardinals, Blue Jays, Indians, Red Sox, and the Rockies kicked the tires before signing Cuddyer. According to a few baseball writers, the Cardinals kicked their negotiations into high gear on Wednesday.

Beltran, 34, has great potential to be an asset to the Cardinals. In 142 games last year between the Mets and the Giants, Beltran hit .300 with a .385 OBP, and a .525 SLG. On top of that, he added 22 home runs and 39 doubles. If you look at his 152 OPS+, which factors in park and league factors, it was the best season of his career.

However, he did spend a short time on the 15 day DL last season and has missed significant time in 2009 and 2010. That leads to my biggest concern, his durability. The Cardinals have gambled $19 million ($13 for Beltran, $7 for Rafael Furcal) in each of the next two seasons on these guys being healthy, but both have been injury prone. Add on to that, that Beltran is coming off of arguably his best season at the age of 34, the odds of him repeating or getting close to those numbers again are very slim.

How exactly Beltran figures to be used by the Cardinals is the big question. Will he get most of his playing time in right field, displacing or Allen Craig? Or will he get an opportunity to prove himself in center field and displace Jon Jay? With Craig’s recent knee surgery, he will be missing time this season, so the opening day outfield will likely be Holliday-Jay-Beltran.

Another question is where will he hit in the lineup. He could realistically end up anywhere between 2 and 5 in the Cardinals lineup depending on how new manager Mike Matheny puts his lineups together.

Additionally, I hate blocking Craig like they are. There is the potential that he can slide to first base (or left field with Holliday making the move to first) in 2013, but to me, Allen Craig’s 2011 season deserved a larger role this season and he won’t get it. I can’t see Beltran playing center field regularly enough for it and when Beltran is the second highest paid player on your baseball team, you can’t justify sitting him very often. An outfielder signing this season needed to be nothing more than a band-aid. You don’t wear a band-aid for two years, you only wear it as long as you need it.

If Beltran remains healthy, if Beltran remains productive, if Beltran can still occasionally play center field, then this is a good deal for the Cardinals. But it’s too many “if”s for me to feel comfortable with the move.

Now, let’s take odds on how long it takes for Adam Wainwright to come up behind Beltran and ask him if he’s swung yet.

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Cardinals sign two to minor league deals

The Cardinals added some minor league depth on Wednesday when they announced the addition of utility man Eugenio Velez and left handed pitcher R.J. Swindle.

Velez, 29, is potentially most noteworthy for his -77 OPS+ he posted last season thanks to going hitless in 40 plate appearances. A switch hitter, his best season came in 2009 for the San Francisco Giants where he put together a line of .267/.308/.400 in 84 games. He has played second base and all three outfield positions in his major league career between the Giants and the Dodgers.

Swindle, 28, last pitched in the major leagues in 2009 for the Milwaukee Brewers. In two seasons, he has thrown a total of 11 1/3 innings at the major league level and has compiled a 12.71 ERA. Last season with the Durham Bulls, Tampa’s Triple-A affiliate, he made 39 appearances and posted a 4.15 ERA. He does have a career 2.37 ERA in the minor leagues and could be considered as one of the Cardinals’ alternate options should J.C. Romero struggle in St. Louis this season. He is most notable for a 55 mph curveball he throws.

Both signings are simply minor league depth at this point.

Cardinals sign LHP Romero

In a move that will likely complete the projected bullpen for 2012, the Cardinals have signed LHP J.C. Romero to a one-year deal worth $750,000.

Romero, 35, pitched for the Colorado Rockies and Philadelphia Phillies last season. However, he spent time in the minor league systems of the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals between those major league stints. Between the two teams he made 36 appearances with a 4.01 ERA. He will likely split the left handed specialist role with Marc Rzepczynski, who the Cardinals acquired via trade last season.

Romero has solid numbers against left handed batters in the last year, holding them to a line of .231/.318/.231. That’s pretty good, not as good as Rzepczynski though, and the Cardinals do have right handed relievers with better numbers against left handed batters, namely Eduardo Sanchez.

He has a reputation of being good against left handed batters, but has a habit of losing his control at times. Needless to say it should be an adventure. However, he is likely the second option out of the bullpen against left handers and the high leverage situations will likely (and hopefully) fall to Rzepczynski.

I think the most missed piece about his acquisition is that it adds another switch hitter to the lineup.

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