While you weren’t looking, PED related suspensions in the minors have spiked dramatically over the last two years. From 29 in 2007, to 66 last season, and on-pace to break that figure this season (currently at 34), the rise has been substantial.
Late Thursday and Friday, a total of 11 players were suspended.
On Saturday morning, I ran a story outlining that at the current pace, baseball would see more suspensions this year than at any point since putting drug testing policies in place at the major and minor league levels.
Admittedly, the story was cold, while the original title screamed of controversy (Baseball on Pace to Have Most PED Suspensions in History). Once I posted the story to Twitter, it immediately caught Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus’ attention, saying, “I know this is Twitter but damn, that's just a misleading headline.”
Well, it was true and it wasn’t. The numbers do support that baseball is on pace to have the most PED suspensions in history, but I only touched on the “why” in passing. From the article:
With the sharp increase in drug suspensions at the minor league level are due to suspensions in the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues. Results from those leagues started becoming regularly reported as of July 25 of last season. From that date to Dec 22 of 2008, was 59. If using last year’s rate as a measuring stick, minor league suspensions this year would total 93.
Over the course of the weekend, Carroll, myself, former BALCO head Victor Conte and player agent Joe Kehoskie, who has worked with players in the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues, discussed the culture surrounding these two development leagues.
Looking at the number of players suspended as of this publication, Carroll noted the differences in cultures:
“Still, it's very different. Is it a problem in the Dominican Republic? Yes. Problem in MiLB? Not so much. What's the US-based yr/o/yr numbers?”
Based on the data, here’s the answer:
“On the number of DSL/VSL players to US MiLB players… Of the 34 positives this year that resulted in suspension, the two leagues account for 44% of the total (10-DSL 5-VSL)”
Carroll responded that he thought it would be closer to 50 percent when all was said and done, and that’s probably conservative. Based upon last year’s figures, I reported in March (see Prepare for an Onslaught of Minor League PED Suspensions):
From the end of the All-Star break to the end of 2008, 49 minor league suspensions from the DSL and VSL were announced, a staggering 74 percent of the total. The lion’s share came from the DSL where there were 43 suspensions compared to only 6 suspensions from the VSL. From the All-Star break to the end of 2008, only 10 suspensions for players stateside in the minors were announced.
As a social commentary, the reasons for the increased PED suspensions from these leagues could involve communications between MLB and the DSL and VSL. Another possibility may be one of economics.
The average annual income in the Dominican Republic is $2,370 (US). With the MLB minimum salary being $400,000 in 2009, a player could very well weigh the risks of being suspended for PED use against the gains that could be made as part of an MLB farm system, or in MLB, itself.
It’s here that the true difference between suspensions at the US MiLB level, and the players, many of which are teens in the Dominican and Venezuela, differ.
There are buscones in the leagues, telling the teens which direction to go. And, there are questions as to whether you hold players at 16 to the same standards as older players entering the league.
As Joe Keoskie said over multiple tweets, “Seems like some issues getting conflated. Most D.R. PED positives are among low-dollar, non-prospects, not big-dollar guys who used PEDs to raise their value (as in years past). Most have been filler guys who probably used PEDs to get signed and then got caught by first test.”
Keoskie then asked me, “You questioning MLB's drug testing system, or the overall player procurement system in place down there?”
“I question using minor league drug testing in DSL and VSL. Will said what I have often thought: test them at signing,” I said.
The issue to me is one of drug culture (in the Dominican, much of the substances banned in the US are legal and available at the pharmacy).
The two substances tested positive for almost exclusively out of the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues are Boldenone and Stanozolol. If, as suggested, a player were to be tested at signing, then how would a player that has been using either of these substances fare when tested at signing.
Victor Conte, who was involved in assisting star athletes in their use of PEDs said,
Injectable Stanozolol remains detectable in urine for about 6 weeks after use. Oral Stanozolol clearance is about three weeks,” adding, “Plus or minus based upon the amount of adipose tissue of the player.”
There is also a question of how “clean” nutritional supplements are. This isn’t an issue exclusive to the DSL and VSL, as witnessed by J.C. Romero and Sergio Mitre’s suspensions at the beginning of this year at the major league level. With Romero, it was ruled via arbitration that he was negligent for using a nutritional supplement, purchased over the counter (6-OXO-Extreme), which was found to be tainted with androstendione.
As Conte said, “JC Romero's lawsuit makes no sense. The six OXO bottle labels contain a warning that the product may cause a positive drug test for athletes.”
My suggestion for both the majors and minors is that supplements be controlled through league. You then remove the J.C. Romero issue. All of the supplements would be then NSF certified.
Finally, although one should not discount the severity of the PED culture in the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues, the players that are testing positive do not appear to be the players that are making their way to the majors, as pointed out by Keoskie.
“I Might be wrong, but I can't recall any big-dollar Latin signings testing positive in recent years.”
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network (select his name in the dropdown provided).
Don't forget to register and log in on The Biz of Baseball site to get updates via your in-box, and see information only logged in members can see.
Follow Maury Brown and the Business of Sports Network on Twitter