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Let’s pump the brakes on the “PED use got Jhonny Peralta his big deal” talk

Nov 25, 2013, 7:43 AM EDT

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With a respectful nod to Ken Rosenthal, our own Bill Baer and the players who have taken to Twitter in the past couple of days to talk about Jhonny Peralta, may I ask why everyone seems to think that Peralta’s new contract represents some sort of problem with the drug penalty system in baseball and the incentives that flow therefrom? Because from where I’m sitting, it’s way more complicated than that.

I get the superficial appeal of the argument that goes “Peralta got busted for PEDs and then he gets a four-year, $52 million deal. What’s up with that?!” But that argument totally ignores the nature of the current free agent market to begin with.

Here’s a shocking idea: Jhonny Peralta got a big crazy free agent contract, not because he used PEDs, thereby messing up the incentive system, but because everyone in free agency is getting a big crazy free agent contract these days.

Those shaking their heads at Peralta say things like “clearly the current drug penalties are not hurting players’ market value.” But if you swap in phrases like “being hurt,” “being average” or “severely underperforming expectations” for “the current drug penalties” it explains current reality too. Dan Haren is coming off two injury-plagued and often ineffective years and he got $10 million. Jason Vargas got four-years, $32 million as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Tim Hudson has been pretty bad and got two-years, $23 million. Carlos Ruiz got three-years, $26 million. Why isn’t anyone talking about how their deals are confounding the incentive system that’s supposed to be in place?

Probably because they’re not. They’re getting what the market — currently flush with billions of dollars in new broadcast dollars and vanishingly small ways for teams to spend money on amateur and international signings — allows. Look around at the crop of shortstop talent in Major League Baseball at the moment and tell me that talent isn’t hard to come by. Then tell me that Peralta’s deal has more to do with him being a PED user than him simply being a good shortstop in a weak shortstop market who happened to hit free agency at the right time.

The fact that a team — a smart team, by the way — is spending serious money on Jhonny Peralta right now is because he’s in the market. Increase the ban to 100 games? Sure, maybe that would work for a guy whose ban coincided with his free agency, but it doesn’t always, or even often, work that way. Say a guy gets a ban in the second year of his three year deal, comes back in year three and plays well prior to becoming a free agent. Say a player tests positive in the spring of his walk year, serves his 100 games and then comes back in late July and lights it up just before free agency. You think those guys are not going to get paid the following offseason? Of course they are. Because they’ll be active players with marketable skills and teams like to give those guys lots of money.

The only way totally eliminate the idea of guys who take PEDs from later getting paid is to give permanent bans for first offenses. But of course that’s crazy. It’d be an ultra-extreme response to a problem that no one has demonstrated calls for such a solution and which would likely end the careers of some players based on false positives or inadvertent ingestion of PEDs. And no one who grouses about Jhonny Peralta allegedly screwing with the incentive system would ever seriously make that argument, would they? I seriously doubt it.

Peralta got paid because he’s a good player at a position with scant available talent in a market that is paying through the nose for even ordinary talent. If that’s troublesome to you, you have a lot of things to worry about besides whether 50-game suspensions are sufficient to deter PED use.

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