Jhonny Peralta was amid an outstanding season, earning his second All-Star appearance in three years as he continues to establish himself as one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball. He could not have picked a better time either given that he would be a free agent following the season. However, Peralta’s name came up in connection to the Biogenesis scandal, and before we knew it, he was suspended for 50 games. Peralta entered free agency as a sought-after player, but we had to assume that the black spot on his resume from performance-enhancing drugs would limit what he could get on the open market. Instead, Peralta just signed a four-year, $53 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, leaving Brad Ziegler and plenty of others fuming. How could it be that a players could get a boost from these drugs, get suspended, and still receive a huge multi-year deal?
From a pure value standpoint, how should we view a player who had a breakout year but tested positive for a performance-enhancer? Their results have to be taken with a grain of salt, that can be agreed upon, but to what extent? When a player had been successful in the past, like Peralta, do we say that maybe the drugs could have been a costly placebo affect and convince ourselves that he can just fine without them? Do we sort thorugh the stats and say that maybe his power numbers will go down a touch but otherwise he will be fine? There certainly is a difference between a player like Peralta and Melky Cabrera, whose breakout between 2011 and 2012 literally came out of nowhere, but how do we evaluate which improvements were real or what were the product of the drugs?
When thinking about what contracts to offer these players, the same thought has to cross every suitor’s mind: other teams might be wary to sign PED-linked players, but what if he really can be just as good in coming years? How often do you get the chance to sign an established player coming off a great year to a discounted deal? In a sense, players who get suspended become undervalued–all of their abilities get thrown into question, and quite often that is an overreaction. But that initial state quickly changed when more teams enter the bidding thinking that they have a chance to sign those players, bringing their price right back up. We can’t know what Jhonny Peralta would have received as a free agent had he not been suspended. But the fact that his price came down enough for teams like the New York Yankees to get involved with the bidding certainly didn’t hurt his chances of getting his contract’s value back up towards where it would have been.
A large part of the Tampa Bay Rays’ success in recent years has been finding talented players who had seen their value take a dip from injuries or poor performance and revitalizing their careers. Why should players who test positive for performance-enhancing drugs be any different? Your knee-jerk reaction has to be the moral component, but even from a pure value standpoint, there is a critical difference. The Rays look for optimism in struggling players. When teams evaluate players coming off a positive test, the baseline is that they have broken out and then you look for Rays to pick them apart. The Rays risk little because they sign players expected to do nothing. In the current market for players coming off suspensions, you pay for a perceived improvement and have to hope it works out. Expect the Rays to continue to stay away from players linked to performance-enhancing drugs. The moral component is nice, but at the end of the day, it is simply a matter of risk, reward, and overall efficiency.