Harper's success in the face of so much pressure is an impressive accomplishment, but it is also part of a broader trend where top draft picks are now more likely than ever, injury notwithstanding, to make become impact players. Harper's teammate Stephen Strasburg, the first pick in the country the year before Harper, has been one of the Nationals' best pitchers over the last few years. Similar recent very high draft picks like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rendon and George Springer are already becoming impact players. Moreover, many of the best American players, foreign players are not eligible for the draft, such as Mike Trout, Buster Posey, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner and Sonny Gray were first round picks.
While Rodriguez exploits with the bat have been impressive, his success in winning back the affection of Yankee fans, and even some fans who hate that team, has been even more impressive. Rodriguez has learned that clashing with, and showing up, the Steinbrenner brothers is something that many baseball fans appreciate. For Yankee haters in particular, Rodriguez's success this year, and the embarrassment that success has caused the Yankee management, is probably very dissonant.
Bonds had a nine year peak where he hit .305/.438/.600 for an OPS+ of 181. He finished in the top ten in MVP voting eight of those years while winning eight gold gloves and stealing 300 bases. Those are extraordinary numbers, but they are even more impressive because those years 1990-98, were not only a time when Bonds was not taking steroids, but, at least for the last few years of that period, a time when many others were. During those years, Bonds accumulated 76.2 WAR, the most in a nine year period since Willie Mays in his prime. Lost in the noise about Bonds and PEDs is that a clean Barry Bonds dominated the early steroid era in a way not seen in a generation. During those years, Bonds was also a remarkable player to watch. He was a complete player who could run, hit for power, steal bases and exhibit an extraordinary batting eye.
Jeter is one of the most intriguing of baseball players because for most of his career he has simultaneously been overrated, he is clearly not the greatest player or even the greatest Yankee in history, and underrated. He is not strong on defense, but has not been as bad as many think. Moreover, Jeter's extremely cautious style with the media has led most of the media to cover him as some sort of baseball saint, always ready with a good team oriented quote, respectful of the game and its history and almost never willing to criticize a teammate, or opponent. A minority of fans, however, see this is as a highly choreographed image by Jeter, which of course it is, and decry him for not being genuine.
Berkman's Hall of Fame fate is a measure of how the Hall of Fame voters punish both steroid users, for their steroid use, as well as clean players for not being quite as good as their steroid using opponents. The result of this will be a Hall of Fame with the excellent sluggers from previous generations, but only the very best, more accurately only some of the very best, from the last twenty years or so.
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.
Peralta's signing also indicates that the Cardinals believe that Peralta not only has served his time, so to speak, but that he is capable of performing at a high level even without the steroids. After all, Peralta will face a 100 game suspension if he tests positive again. If Peralta can perform as he has in his better years, this will be a good signing for the Cardinals, but if he cannot do that without PEDs, it will not. The Cardinals must know this and believe that Peralta does not need PEDs to post an OPS+ in the 110-120 range. The Cardinals almost certainly would not have singed Peralta if they thought his production was dependent on PEDs. If the Cardinals, a team reputed to be one of the smartest run franchises in the game thinks that a proven steroid user, who is generally speaking good but not great, can play well without steroids, perhaps steroids are not the magic slugging pills they have been portrayed to be for well over a decade
The Yankees now have a distinct combinations of comparative strengths and weaknesses. On the down side, they have few prospects who are close to being ready to contribute at a major league level, few good young players under team control and several older and less productive, but still well paid players. The Yankees, as is well known, have one enormous structural advantage, their deep financial resources. Opportunities to use this resource are changing, and in some senses, shrinking. There are fewer top level free agents available; and teams seeking to rid themselves of salary during the season are demanding prospects of the kind the Yankees do not have in exchange. Moreover, the latest round of playoff expansion means fewer teams view themselves as out of contention halfway through the season.
This will, and probably should, be enough to get Ortiz into the Hall of Fame. On the surface it seems wrong that a player who is, on the numbers, a strong, but not overwhelming Hall of Fame candidate and who has some connection to steroids will get into Cooperstown before some of the greatest players of his generation who have their own strange and unclear relationship with steroids. There is, of course, an inconsistency here. Had Ortiz not been so good with the media, and such a likable player, the Hall of Fame discussion, and the discussion of his recent World Series performance would be very different right now. It is possible that if Ortiz is elected, the rancor towards other players with connections to steroid use will slowly recede because the questions around Ortiz will linger. If not, the Hall of Fame will look even more absurd with Ortiz on the inside and Bagwell, not to mention Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rodriguez on the outside.
The point here is not that steroids do nothing or that PED use should be legalized, but that the discussion itself may be approaching, or already reached, a tipping point where many fans simply do not care so much anymore. Steroids may be moving towards becoming an issue like gambling, against which baseball also has rules, but is not something fans spend a lot of time debating. The question of whether or not Jhonny Peralta should, in some abstract moral sense, be allowed to play in the ALCS may simply not very interesting to most fans. Perhaps fans would rather discuss the resurgence of Justin Verlander, or the question of Miguel Cabrera's health. These are more interesting questions for the millions of Americans for whom baseball is a hobby or passion but not a question of morality or good and evil.
Ryan Braun's recent statement regarding his use of PEDs likely convinced nobody of anything. Those who were predisposed to like Braun and want to move beyond the PED issue were probably satisfied with his statement. Those who either don't like Braun, or are absolutists regarding PED use were equally likely to be displeased and dissatisfied with Braun's statement. Ryan Braun, it seems, is just another rich man caught breaking the rules who exacerbated his problem by denials and obfuscation before finally offering an unconvincing apology. Perhaps if baseball does not work out for him, he could run for mayor of New York.
A few weeks ago a former MVP who, is still one of the best and highest profile players in the game, was suspended for the duration of the 2013 season. However, nobody is talking about Ryan Braun anymore because this story has been completely eclipsed by the possible lifetime ban now facing New York Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez. The issues around this possible suspension are complicated because while most people recognize Rodriguez has been a user of PEDs, he has not failed a drug test since 2003. Rather he has been linked to Biogenesis, the medical lab which distributed PEDs to many players. More significantly, the discussion of Rodriguez's possible punishment appears to be somewhat capricious rather than grounded in policies or specific rules.
The toughest question facing the Yankees may be what they will do if Rodriguez comes back and plays well. While Rodriguez is a shadow of the player he was from 1996-2007, and is older, injury prone and overpaid, he is still a valuable player when he is on the field. Last year he managed to post an OPS+ of 113 while having a WAR of 2.3, batting .272 with 18 home runs in only 122 games. These are not great numbers, but they are useful, particularly for a team this is desperate both for a third baseman and a right-handed power hitter.
The 2009-11 Yankee infield stands out because of its balance. They had no star comparable to Lou Gehrig in his prime, which lasted from the mid-1920s, until he got sick in 1939, but all four players in every season were good to great. Teixeira, Cano, Jeter and Rodriguez all contributed to the Yankee offense in a way that cannot be said of Dent, Crosseti, Koenig or Dugan. With some luck, Rodriguez and Jeter will be back some time this year, and this foursome may take the field again. They may even play together a bit next year, but there best years together are clearly behind them. Those years, however, are by many measures the very best the Yankees ever got from their infield.
The Rodriguez storyline is that one of baseball's greatest players ever is now a shell of himself racked by injuries and the hangover from steroid abuse. While the full story of Rodriguez's steroid abuse remains unknown, and he has lost a lot of time in recent years to injury, this storyline obscures a major point. To a great extent, Rodriguez is simply guilty of getting old and declining accordingly. The decline that Rodriguez will experience in the next few years is inevitable and largely due to aging. Since 1900 there have only been 26 seasons where second baseman, shortstop or third baseman over the age of 36 has managed an OPS+ of 110 or better. Given that, when he was healthy last year, Rodriguez was quite good for his age. There have only been 14 seasons where a player in that category posted an OPS+ of 120, suggesting that for infielders over 37 staying healthy and being an impact offensive player is very unusual.
In keeping Posey and Cain the Giants are taking a risk, but losing one or both of these potential Hall of Famers just as they may be reaching their best years would also hurt the team. The Giants have won two of the last three World Series after a period of 54 years in which they won exactly six World Series games, and no championships. They have brought a level of excitement about baseball to San Francisco that has never been seen before and are on the cusp of becoming a national, and even international brand, like the Yankees or Red Sox only cooler. Losing Cain would have jeopardized that. Posey, for his part, is one of the very best players on the planet and the face of the franchise. Keeping him is a good baseball move and sends a message to baseball and to Giants fans that the Giants are committed to continuing to field championship calibre teams.
The most intriguing question facing the Yankees is not which of their veterans can come back or who they can acquire to help their chances this year, but what the next decade will look like for the Yankees. Only Cano, Gardner and perhaps Sabathia, are both young and good enough to be around and contributing in five years. The prospects who are expected to arrive in the next few years are solid but unspectacular. Accordingly, the Yankees need to build a team based on some good prospects, a contingent of aging and, due to contracts, largely unmovable veterans, and, of course, the ability to outspend everybody. This last point alone will not be enough to build a winner.
Are we in the post PED era yet? The steroid era is frequently referred to in the past tense, but that may be a triumph of hope over reality. The Biogenesis PED story has linked big stars like Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun to PED use. Nothing has yet been proven, but this is not the first time Rodriguez or Braun have been linked to PED use. Rodriguez is an aging star who, despite an enormous contract, is unlikely to be an important on-the-field presence again. In this respect, Rodriguez's association with Biogenesis is the least damaging for the MLB. More troubling are reports that Nationals pitcher Gio Gonzalez, a 27-year-old rising star, and Mariners catcher-DH, Jesus Montero, a player who many see as having a bright future in the game, also had ties to Biogenesis. This suggests that a new generation of players are dabbling in PEDs and that the problem is not going away soon.
The combinations of expansion, prioritizing power and patience and, yes steroids, creates problems for how sluggers are compared across eras and, of course, for the Hall of Fame as well, but this problems is exacerbated by a voting system that is unwieldy and flawed. This year no players were elected to the Hall of Fame. The merits of that decision can be debated, but the impact it will have on future elections will be clear. In short, by 2014, there will be so many deserving players on the ballot that it is likely that a player with numbers that were good enough for the Hall of Fame a generation ago, and perhaps no demonstrated link to steroids, will be dropped from the ballot after one or two appearances after next year. Next year there will be five 8000/140 players on the ballot as well as a number of other standouts like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Tim Raines.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Rodriguez is not the only aging slugger on the roster who no longer hits like he once did, but to whom they owe a lot of money. Mark Teixeira is owed $90 million over the next four seasons. Teixeira's contract is not quite as big as Rodriguez's, but it is almost as substantial. During this same three year period, Teixeira came to bat 1,641 times with an OPS+ of 121, ten points below his career OPS+. Over these three years, Teixeira had 10.5 WAR, almost two more than Rodriguez. While these numbers suggest that Teixeira has been better than Rodriguez over the last three years, they also indicate that the first baseman is in decline and that he is no longer a star player either. In fairness, Teixeira is four years younger than Rodriguez, but was never as good as Rodriguez.