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Are tougher penalties MLB's answer?

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Stiffer penalties for steroids? Sure, why not?

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I can’t imagine anyone would object too strenuously if the owners and players agreed to go beyond the current penalties for steroid and other illegal drug use — 50 games for a first offense, 100 games for a second, a lifetime ban for a third.

I just wonder if harsher suspensions would be as much of a deterrent as some believe.

The current penalties seemed fairly robust when the sport implemented them in 2006, especially when compared with the previous suspensions — 10 days for a first offense, 30 days for a second, 60 for a third.

But now, in the wake of the sport’s latest eruption over performance-enhancing drugs, some contend that baseball’s discipline is not significant enough.

Who’s to say that we wouldn’t experience the same frustration with tougher penalties in a few years?

The enduring lesson of the steroid era is that no matter what kind of testing baseball adopts, no matter what kind of discipline it administers, certain players will continue to look for an illegal edge.

Cheaters gonna cheat, the kids might say.

Some members of the union’s leadership believe that the fear of getting caught is the most powerful deterrent and that the recent expansion of the testing program amounted to a major step forward in that regard. Players now will take in-season tests for human growth hormone and give baseline testosterone readings that will make for easier detection of synthetic testosterone.

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The union, though, is responsive to its membership; if enough players push for tougher penalties, the union will explore them. To this point, according to a source, the union has “heard from a few players, but not many, on this issue, and had no overtures from MLB.”

That could change in spring training when union officials meet with players at all 30 camps in Florida and Arizona. If the players push for stronger discipline, they then must decide what that discipline should be.

A one-year suspension for a first offense would seem an obvious next step. Some in the union might consider that too big a leap from 50 games and an accompanying loss of salary. But the sacrifice of a year’s pay would give potential users pause.

Or so the theory goes.

Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Melky Cabrera, the seeming poster child for “How to profit from PED use,” might have been desperate enough to cheat even at the risk of losing a year’s pay.

Cabrera’s career was at a crossroads when the Atlanta Braves released him after the 2010 season. He rebounded with the Kansas City Royals in ’11, then was on his way to a career year with the San Francisco Giants in ’12 when he tested positive for elevated testosterone levels and was suspended for 50 games.

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No one knows if Cabrera was using PEDs when he rebounded with the Royals. But even if a one-year suspension had been in effect, how much of a gamble would it have been for him to use banned substances? He might have been headed out of the game, anyway.

I’m not trying to be a contrarian; it’s disturbing that Cabrera emerged a winner, drawing a $6 million salary last season and signing a two-year, $16 million free-agent contract with the Blue Jays in November. He could have attained even greater riches — perhaps a five-year, $65 million free-agent deal — if he had not been caught.

Oakland Athletics right-hander Bartolo Colon, who was suspended 50 games for elevated testosterone last season, also recovered quite nicely, re-signing as a free agent with the A’s for one year, $3 million.

But again, would the threat of a one-year suspension have stopped either player? Did Cabrera and Colon use PEDs because they were confident of escaping detection or because they considered the potential penalties too light?

We might never know the answer, making it easy to say, “Enact tougher penalties. End the debate.” I’d be fine with that. It’s a reasonable thing to do. But no one should be under the illusion that harsher penalties would be a panacea.

There is no panacea.

Baseball already has the toughest testing program in professional sports, and the problem is not going away.

Tagged: Athletics, Blue Jays, Melky Cabrera

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