The latest Alex Rodriguez suspension is one of those events that at first glance appears to be poisonous, making everybody associated with it, Rodgriguez, MLB and the New York Yankees, look bad. That may be an accurate first take, but there are also clear winners and losers here. MLB, at least in the short run, is a clear winner as they have demonstrated that they can still go after steroid uses and hand down punishment capriciously and based, to some extent, on personal issues. The Yankees also are immediate beneficiaries of the suspension as they save millions of dollars in payroll and are now in a stronger position to court, for example, Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. The biggest loser from this suspension is Alex Rodriguez who is not only going to lose millions in salary but will have his career further disrupted, and be portrayed as this era's face of PED abuse.
For Rodriguez, however, the situation will only get worse. When he returns to the Yankees in spring training of 2015 he will be 39 years old and will have only played 44 big league games in the previous two years. It will be very difficult for Rodriguez to overcome both those obstacles and once again become a valuable player. He is nonetheless owed $61 million between 2015 and 2017. This means that the Yankees have a strong incentive to create further problems for Rodriguez so as to either increase his suspension or find a way to at least partially void his contract. Given that the nature and extent of MLB's campaign against Rodriguez has been based on informal decision making and personal animus, it is not hard to imagine that MLB and the Yankees could find a way to do this, effectively turning a one year band into a lifetime ban.
Rodriguez and the Yankees may be the most polarizing, or hated, player and team in baseball, but the precedent this sets still cannot be ignored. The confluence of interests between the Yankees and MLB around Rodriguez' suspension may have been a happy coincidence for the sport and its wealthiest team, but it may have been something else. Given the degree of vitriol used against Rodriguez it certainly cannot be ruled out that MLB and the Yankees, in one way or another, cooperated in ensuring the suspension. If this is the case, it gives every other big leaguer, particularly those who are controversial, overpaid, or not fan favorites, a reason to be very concerned.
Long term contracts are a fiscal albatross for many teams, but these contracts are also the only way to secure the services of top free agents. Rodriguez's contract extension may have been the worst contract in baseball, but compared to those of Albert Pujols, or Rodriguez's teammate Mark Teixeira, this is a difference of degree not of kind. Many teams may be looking at the Rodriguez events and see an opening for themselves should they need to get out of a long contract. This is particularly troubling considering both the nature of the evidence used against Rodriguez and the reality that despite what MLB has claimed for the last several years, PEDs have not gone away, and are unlikely to anytime soon.
In the most perverse manifestation of this precedent, incentives now exist for teams to facilitate or even encourage use of PEDs. If, for example, an aging star with several years left on his contract turns to steroids to boost his production, or recover more quickly from an injury, the team has little reason to stop him. If he starts playing better the team will benefit, but if it ever begins to create problems for the team, the precedent is now that MLB will protect the interests of the team and gang up on the player. This precedent could also expand beyond steroid use to things like failure to follow petty team policies or even public relations mishaps. Rodriguez is very unpopular among his fellow players, but those players, whether PED users or not, do themselves a disservice by ignoring what his suspension could mean for all players.
As usual, this major decision by MLB does not bring any more clarity to the PED issue except to concretize baseball's policy that if you can be a truly great player, you can take steroids, and you can be not nice, but you can't be all three. Rodriguez is clearly the unfortunate player who is most directly impacted by this as he, like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, clearly fits all three categories, but this suspension is bigger Rodriguez. It demonstrates again that the players are powerless against the league and the teams and that MLB continues to look for simple and high profile solutions to the PED problem rather than a thoughtful and more comprehensive approach.