Tuesday’s announcement that Melky Cabrera, MVP of the 2012 All-Star Game and starting LF for the San Francisco Giants, had been suspended 50 games for violating the league’s PED policy has far reaching short and long term implications for both the Giants and Melky Cabrera.
By missing the last 45 games of the regular season without pay due to suspension, Melky Cabrera will forfeit the approximately $1.6 million he was due to make over the remainder of his contract. Most people can’t imagine losing $1.6 million in salary but that’s not even the worst part for Melky. Cabrera is set to be an unrestricted free agent after this season and recently turned down a three year $27 million extension, probably because he believed his strong 2012 season, coming off a breakout 2011 season for the Kansas City Royals, would make him a hot commodity on the market and earn him a lot more money. Many speculated that he would be offered something in the neighborhood of five years and $60-$70 million either by the Giants or someone else. Coming off a 50 game suspension with a career turnaround that is suddenly questionable there’s no way Melky will be offered anything close to that, and even the 3 year $27 million contract he turned down is certainly off the table. His best bet is probably to take a one year “prove it” deal so he can prove the turnaround was real and not a result of PED usage, hope that he performs just as well as he did in 2011 and 2012, and that someone offers him something close to what he was in line to earn after this season.
Melky’s not the only one losing money as a result of this suspension though. There’s no question that losing Melky’s services in LF will hurt the Giants on the field, and if that results in the team falling out of contention and missing the playoffs the team stands to lose a lot more than the $1.6 million they save by not having to pay Melky for the rest of 2012. Add in all the Melky merchandise that will now go unsold and this suspension may prove very costly to the Giants.
THE 2012 TEAM
When the Giants traded for Hunter Pence conventional wisdom was that the big loss for the Giants was Tommy Joseph, and that Nate Schierholtz was basically thrown in because he wasn’t going to get any playing time with Pence in town and the Giants needed a roster spot for Pence anyway. Now that the Giants four natural OF on the current roster, and one of them is the ice cold Gregor Blanco, the Giants could sure use a guy like Schierholtz instead of the recently recalled Justin Christian.
It’s possible that whoever ends up with the bulk of the playing time gets hot over the last 6 weeks of the season and carries the team in the playoffs the way Cody Ross did upon replacing Jose Guillen in 2010, it’s just not all that likely. The team may be forced to play someone out of position in LF, with Brandon Belt, Brett Pill, and Marco Scutaro being the prime candidates, in order to avoid a black hole of offense somewhere in the lineup. There’s no way to replace a player that was leading the league in hits, runs, and multi-hit games while sporting a .346/.390/.516/.906 slash line, but had this suspension been announced even two or three weeks earlier there’s a good chance Brian Sabean could have found someone to play LF either at the trade deadline or through a waiver trade. If the suspension had been announced a month ago Melky might have been able to serve the suspension, get his timing back before the minor league season ended, and rejoin the team just before the playoffs. Now? There’s almost no chance of the Giants finding a suitable replacement or or Melky rejoin the team in 2012.
When Pablo Sandoval returned from injury Tuesday night the GIants finally had what fans assumed would be the every day lineup for the rest of the year. With a middle of the order that featured Melky Cabrera, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence, and the suddenly red-hot Brandon Belt, the Giants had their best lineup in recent years and put up 6 runs against the NL’s best pitching staff.
Despite an anemic offense the last few years the Giants were able to stay competitive and even win the World Series in 2010 behind one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. That’s not the case in 2012. Barry Zito, while better in 2012 than in 2011, is still at best a serviceable 5th starter. Someone has clearly kidnapped the real Tim Lincecum and replaced him with a body double that can’t get out of the slightest bit of trouble. The bullpen, which did a fantastic job of keeping things together after Brian Wilson underwent Tommy John surgery, has fallen apart over the last few weeks turning one of the team’s biggest strengths into a liability. Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong are still going to give the Giants a great chance to win 3 out of every 5 days, but the Giants needed to be able to score some runs to have a chance to overcome Lincecum, Zito, and a shaky bullpen. With Melky in the lineup it looked like there was a good chance they could do that, but with a fringe major leaguer like Blanco or Christian getting regular playing time in LF the job gets a lot tougher.
There’s really no way to sugarcoat the situation. The Dodgers have gotten healthy since the All-Star break and have added some major talent via trades. The Diamondbacks don’t look like they are going to go away either. With Melky Cabrera gone for the rest of the season the Giants odds of making the playoffs took a hit. A big, big hit.
It might be time for the Giants to really think about all the player themed gear they’ve pushed in recent years. There’s no question all the Panda hats, Giraffe hats, and Melky merchandise have made the team a lot of money, but at what cost? In 2010, after the Giants really started with the Panda gear, Pable Sandoval struggled all year. There were certainly other factors in his struggles beyond the pressure of being the marketing face of the team but it can’t have helped. Then this year that same Panda was arrested, though not charged, with sexual assault in Santa Cruz while he was out of the lineup with an injury. What if Sandoval had been charged or found guilty? The Giants would be left with boxes of gear celebrating a rapist and a pretty significant PR problem.
Last year the team started selling giraffe hats to capitalize on Brandon Belt’s nickname, Baby Giraffe, despite the fact that Belt wasn’t given much of an opportunity to actually play for the team and establish himself as a major leaguer. Since the start of 2011 Bruce Bochy has faced a lot of questions about Belt’s playing time and his place in the order, a pressure generated largely by fans. The team was capitalizing on a player who couldn’t get in the lineup, selling the fans on him, and creating a lot of unnecessary tension for both player and manager.
This year the Giants have been selling a lot of Milk/Melk gear and are now left with boxes and boxes of “got melk?” shirts and an upcoming Melky Cabrera giveaway day, both of which are now useless. Not only do the Giants have a lot of merchandise that’s likely to be heading to a third world African country along with all the New England Patriots Super Bowl Champions gear, they have some egg on their faces for celebrating a “too good to be true” story and player that both turned out to be exactly that.
Professional athletes are blessed with physical talents that most of us can only dream of, but at the end of the day they’re still people, and they’re still subject to the same mistakes and errors in judgement as the rest of us. Unlike the rest of us, the fame and money that goes with being a professional athlete makes them targets, just like actors, musicians, politicians, and Kardashians. When we elevate players and turn them into symbols and icons beyond what they do on the field we risk being disappointed by them. It was controversial at the time but Charles Barkley was right: athletes are not role models. You’d think the franchise that lived through the Barry Bonds and BALCO saga would be especially sensitive to attaching itself to any player in such a public way.
Good players cost money. Despite all the time and energy teams in every sport dedicate to finding inexpensive talent there’s really no getting around that fact. When it comes to professional sports the only good players that aren’t expensive are the ones that haven’t reached arbitration or free agency, and even with those players it’s just a matter of time until they cost money.
There’s a lot of parity in Major League Baseball and any team is capable of contending for a spot in the World Series. For most teams contention is cyclical because they can’t afford to spend the money to go all-in every year. That means a couple of years of being mediocre to poor, gathering high draft picks, trading veterans for prospects, and hoping those picks and prospects turn into good players and open a window in which the team can win before the players become too expensive to keep. Contending for a championship year in and year out costs a lot of money and is a realm reserved for the teams that are able and willing to spend up to the luxury tax ceiling and possibly through it if the need arrises. Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Angels, Rangers, and with new ownership probably the Dodgers, are willing to outspend the rest of the league when it comes to signing players.
Where do the Giants fit into the hierarchy? Well, to be honest, they really don’t fit into either of those camps. They want to contend every year, which is admirable, but even with a payroll around $130 million for 2012 they aren’t spending to the level of the big boys. Likewise, they don’t seem willing to accept the down periods necessary to collect the type of talent needed to form the core of a contending team at a far lower price and ended up giving a small fortune to Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand in a failed attempt to stop themselves from falling.
It’s not that the Giants don’t spend any money. The aforementioned contracts given to Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito, along with the extension Matt Cain signed prior to 2012, prove that the Giants aren’t the A’s when it comes to payroll. The problem is they stop short of putting together a full team of MLB talent and try to fill out the lineup on the cheap with veterans long past their prime, AAAA players, and players with spotty career histories. It’s a calculated risk in the sense that by collecting enough of these players at least a couple of them will put it together, and they’ve had some success with guys like Andres Torres, Aubrey Huff, and Ryan Vogelsong. They’ve also missed with guys like Miguel Tejada and Orlando Cabrera.
Until this week it looked like the Giants had found another diamond in the rough, a guy who had a breakout year at age 26 and was capable of being a key offensive cog, but as Biggie Smalls said “it was all a dream.” Really though, it was just a matter of time until one of the attempts to find cheap production ended with a 50 or 100 game suspension, and it had actually already happened to the 2012 Giants when Guillermo Mota was suspended 100 games for his second failed drug test. Career minor leaguers might be open to anything that would give them the edge they need to reach the show. Aging veterans, like Mota, might be open to anything that would give them the edge they need to collect a few more big league paychecks before they retire. Players with spotty career histories filled with ups and downs, like Melky, might be open to anything that might give them the edge they need to sign that one big contract that would set them up for life.
The way the Giants have embraced Barry Bonds, even in retirement, rather than ostracize him makes perfect sense. For one thing the fact that the drugs Bonds used weren’t against the rules of baseball at the time that he used them, and the absence of any form of testing, gave everyone in the game the cover of plausible deniability even if they all knew deep down what was going on. The Giants made their bed with Bonds a long time ago and the only thing worse than looking the other way all those years would be to pretend they are outraged now that we know what was going. At the same time though, Bonds wasn’t the only Giants player embroiled in the BALCO scandal and as far as I know the Giants are the only team that has had two players suspended for failing drug tests in one season. I’m not foolish enough to think that the only players using banned substances are the ones that get caught, but at the same time this is becoming a trend for a team that you’d expect to do whatever it could to distance itself from any kind of PED controversy in the drug testing era.
Rather than take a real stand against drug use however, the Giants are acting like they expect Mota to come back and rejoin the team when his suspension is over. Barry Bonds was arguably the greatest offensive force in the history of the game when he was allegedly using PED’s and as such was completely irreplaceable. Despite the recent struggles of the bullpen can the same be said of Guillermo Mota? Or any middle reliever? Is there a point where being so closely associated with PED’s will be unacceptable to the Giants, where the money saved or made through their use is not worth the damage to the franchise’s reputation?
Possibly the strangest and most interesting aspect of Melky Cabrera’s suspension is the way the media approached the story, specifically one member of the local media: CSN Bay Area’s Giants beat reporter Andrew Baggarly.
Before I explain I want to say that I have no personal or professional problem with Baggarly. I admired his work work for the San Jose Mercury News, especially during the Giants run through the playoffs to a World Series Championship in 2010, and as far as I can tell he’s continued his stellar work after transitioning to CSN Bay Area before the 2012 season. I’ve never heard anyone question his integrity as a journalist and I’ve never had reason to do so myself.
On July 28th, 2012 Baggarly confronted Melky Cabrera after hearing rumors of a failed drug test, rumors which Cabrera denied. Later that night Baggarly posted a lengthy apology on CSN Bay Area’s site explaining his reasons for asking Cabrera flat out if he had failed a drug test and why he regretted his actions.
As it turns out Cabrera almost certainly lied to Baggarly when he denied any knowledge of a failed drug test. But really, should an experienced reporter have expected anything different? Just think of all the players who refused to admit any wrongdoing even after hard evidence of the presence of a PED in their system was presented to them. It’s hard to imagine a player admitting to drug use absent any proof. Like any beat reporter, Baggarly has to maintain relationships with those he covers so that he has access to information. So why ask Melky the question and jeopardize that relationship without any proof, especially knowing Melky was unlikely to do anything but deny it anyway?
The Giants own a sizable portion of CSN Bay Area and the Giants broadcast rights are, by far, the network’s most valuable commodity. That means that the Giants own a piece of one of the media companies that covers them, which creates at least the possibility of a conflict of interest. What if Baggarly had solid sources indicating Melky had failed a drug test, was prepared to break the news, and he only asked Melky in order to get a comment from the player for the story? And what if the Giants forced him to sit on the story and issue the apology?
The team certainly had a lot to lose if a failed drug test were to become public. At the time the Giants were already deep into trade discussions and would acquire Pence from the Phillies three days later. Had Melky’s failed drug test become public knowledge prior to the trade deadline GM’s around the league would have known that Brian Sabean was desperate to add to his team’s offense and the dynamics of any trade talks, including those with Philadelphia for Hunter Pence, would have taken a dramatic turn. In addition, the Giants could spend another 2-3 weeks selling Melky merchandise if the story was kept under wraps until the suspension was officially announced.
I don’t think Larry Baer, Brian Sabean, Bruce Bochy, or anyone else with the Giants exerts any editorial control at CSN Bay Area but it’s naive to think they couldn’t if they wanted to. I don’t have any evidence of a coverup and if there was one it’s unlikely we’ll ever know about it. The broader point here is about the changing sports media landscape which has an increasingly large number of league and team owned media outlets. Each of the four major sports leagues owns their own network. Several teams, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Giants, own at least a large portion of the networks that carry the majority of their games. These relationships aren’t going away any time soon, especially not as newspapers, the main source of independent reporting, continue to struggle.
Andrew Baggarly built a solid reputation while working for the San Jose Mercury News by being a competent reporter, a talented writer, and by being an independent journalist with no financial ties to the subjects he was covering. Given the current state of the newspaper industry I don’t blame Baggarly at all for making the move to CSN Bay Area for more stability and, most likely, much higher compensation. Nothing in life is free, and for Baggarly the price of that stability and salary is the doubt his audience may have about the authenticity of his reporting based on the relationship between CSN Bay Area and the Giants.
Maybe the Giants don’t exert any influence on the way CSN Bay Area covers the team. Maybe none of the leagues or teams that have ownership stakes in the networks that cover them exercise any editorial control. Someday, with the amount of money that is at stake, they will and when that happens it won’t be a one-time only occurrence. Maybe it already has happened, if not in San Francisco than in another part of the country and by another team or league.
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