MLB must re-think punishment policy

What if Major League Baseball handed out a 50-game suspension … and no one really felt it?

Edinson Volquez will lose $121,584.70, give or take, along with some luster from his reputation.

The Cincinnati Reds won’t sustain any damages at all, save for some negative publicity for a day or two. In fact, they will save the same $121,584.70 that Volquez would have earned.

There is only one big loser here, and that is the steroid policy agreed upon by MLB and the players union. Five years after Alex Sanchez, you could drive a backhoe through the loopholes.

Technically, Volquez has been “punished” after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. But has he really?

Even with the lost service time, the 26-year-old right-hander is a virtual lock to qualify for salary arbitration after this season. That means a big pay raise, perhaps up to $1 million or more. Sure, he’s missing the money now, but his payday is coming.

Meanwhile, there will be no impact on the Reds’ 25-man roster. Absolutely none. Volquez is on the disabled list while he recovering from Tommy John surgery. There is no requirement that he return to health before serving the suspension.

Really. There isn’t. Because that would make too much sense.

Volquez will be eligible to return from the suspension on June 15. But he won’t be pitching then. Reds general manager Walt Jocketty estimated on Tuesday that Volquez could return in late July.

“When he’s ready to pitch in games, his suspension should be up,” Jocketty said.

Volquez wasn’t even at Great American Ball Park on Tuesday, as the Reds began a three-game series against the Dodgers. His locker in the home clubhouse was virtually empty, save for some unworn Reds garb and a 24-pack of Vitaminwater that was definitely not  the source of his positive test.

He’s in Goodyear, Ariz., rehabilitating at the Reds’ spring complex. Jocketty was asked what Volquez would be permitted to do after the suspension takes effect on Wednesday.

“Everything he’s been doing,” the GM replied.

This is discipline?

Jocketty said he believed the punishment was appropriate, and, really, what else could he say? The penalty is mandated by the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association. And those are the parties who must address its flaws, sooner rather than later.

The current CBA expires after next season. Hopefully, the agreement for 2012 and beyond will include a reliable test for human growth hormone. But we know that won’t be easy.

The Volquez Loophole, on the other hand, should be an easy one to fix. Simply mandate that players can’t serve PED suspensions while on the disabled list. If a player is on the DL when the discipline is announced, he can’t begin paying his debt to baseball until after three physicians certify him as being healthy.

Failure to amend the agreement could have disastrous consequences — and cheapen what has been an admirable effort by many to clean up the game’s drug problem.

Volquez said he tested positive because fertility medication prescribed by a Dominican doctor included a banned substance. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that’s not important here. The lists of banned substances are readily available to players. While we may feel sympathy for Volquez because of his condition, he still broke the rules.

“I know we’ve done a lot for players, as far as coaching and speaking to them, but there’s still stuff they need to pay attention to themselves,” said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, himself quite familiar with MLB drug policy, thanks to one Manuel Aristides Ramirez. “They’re told every spring.”

But let’s consider the case of a player in Volquez’s position who took steroids for, you know, the usual steroid reasons. For years, players used PEDs to recover from injures. (See McGwire, Mark.)

What would have stopped Volquez from taking steroids during the offseason, knowing full well that he would test positive upon reporting to spring training?

For the trifling cost of $121,584.70 in lost earnings, he would have enjoyed the benefit of a quicker recovery. So what if he was suspended? He could come back better and stronger than before. And if he pitched well enough upon his return, his numbers would warrant a big raise through salary arbitration. He could earn the money back — with interest. What a deal.

That line of thinking — as flawed as it is — sounds scary. And that’s because it’s not hard to envision a super-competitive player following that logic toward the dark, self-destructive decision to use steroids.

And if MLB and the MLBPA truly want their drug policy to have teeth, they need to eliminate backdoor enticements such as that. During a week in which it took only 24 hours to repeal the ban on Joe Maddon’s hoodie, there’s no reason to delay work on a much more meaningful cause.

When it comes to baseball and steroids, there are plenty of nuanced areas. This isn’t one of them. If you break the rules, you are supposed to pay dearly.

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