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April 2, 2014

BP Unfiltered

Do the Rays Have a Drug Problem?

by Ben Lindbergh


Last week, when I posted a link to our Tampa Bay Rays preview podcast in the Effectively Wild Facebook group, listener Allen Sarvinas left a comment with a couple questions:

Any thoughts on Rays having 4 of top 10 prospects serving or have served 50 gm suspensions? If it were the Yankees or Dodgers would it be such a non-story?

Allen’s inquiry was prompted by the recent 50-game suspension for Tampa Bay’s no. 3 prospect, Alex Colome, who was busted for abusing Bolderone, an anabolic steroid. Colome became the first major leaguer to be suspended for a positive steroid test since Yasmani Grandal in November 2012. As Allen indicated, Colome isn’t the first Rays prospect who’s been hit with a suspension: no. 7 prospect Taylor Guerrieri twice tested positive for a "drug of abuse" and was suspended last October, and no. 9 prospect Ryan Brett tested positive for amphetamine use in August 2012, as did the team’s 2010 first-round pick, Josh Sale. Tim Beckham, Tampa’s 2008 first-rounder, tested positive for marijuana (which, for dubious reasons, also mandates a suspension for minor leaguers) in 2012.

That sounds like an abnormal streak of suspensions, but it’s tough to say without establishing some sort of baseline. According to a master list of drug suspensions obtained from MLB, teams other than the Rays have averaged 5.1 suspensions—slightly fewer than two per year—from 2012 to present. The Rays have had 14, which easily leads the second-place Mets. (The Rockies, with just one, have the fewest.)

Most Drug-Related Suspensions, 2012–14

Team

Suspensions

Rays

14

Mets

10

Giants

9

Phillies

8

Reds

8

The Rays’ 14 suspensions ranged from the majors to the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues. Nine of them were for performance-enhancing substances, four were for "drugs of abuse," and one (for outfielder Cody Rogers) was for a “violation,” the technical term for a refusal to take a drug test. Only three were for players of Latino descent, who for various reasons have historically been suspended at a disproportionate rate. (Five of 10 Mets and five of nine Giants were Dominican players.)

The leaderboard above lumps together suspensions for any substance. What if we limit the scope to PED instances only?

Most PED-Related Suspensions, 2012–14

Team

Suspensions

Violations

Rays

9

1

Giants

8

0

Cubs

5

0

White Sox

5

0

Phillies

5

2

Cardinals

5

1

Tampa Bay has also led the league in PED-only suspensions over this span, but by a much smaller margin. So, should the Rays be blamed for their players' rule-breaking behavior? In order to believe that, you’d need to subscribe to one of the following explanations, starting with crazy conspiracy theory and finishing with only slightly far-fetched:

  1. The Rays are actively encouraging their minor leaguers to take PEDs, hoping that enough of them will elude positive tests to improve their players’ performance (and potential trade value) overall.

  2. The Rays aren’t actively encouraging anything, but they’re looking the other way.

  3. The Rays are drafting and/or signing players who are at higher risk for positive tests (of either variety), perhaps because they’re hoping to take advantage of makeup concerns to acquire better talent.

  4. The Rays are as anti-drug as any team and are trying to educate their players about substances prohibited by the Joint Drug Agreement, but they’re not doing a good job.

No. 4 (a lack of oversight) is the only one of those that strikes me as anything other than extremely unlikely. When asked to comment about whether the organization has stepped up its efforts to increase awareness in light of all the suspensions, the Rays responded with the following statement:

We fully support Major League Baseball's policy and its efforts to eliminate performance-enhancing substances from our game. Per the protocol outlined in the Joint Drug Program, the organization will not comment further on this matter.

The Rays’ suspension lead isn’t statistically significant, and it would take much more evidence to convince me that we’re seeing something alarming. Four members of the 2012 Bowling Green Hot Rods, the Rays’ Midwest League affiliate—Sale, Brett, Charlie Cononie, and Justin Woodall, presumably acting in concert—were suspended for Adderall at the same time in 2012. Take those away, and the Rays’ total wouldn't attract much attention. And by focusing only on the last two-plus years, we’re guilty of setting a selective starting point. If we study a sample one year longer, or even the whole PED testing period from 2005 on, the team doesn’t stand out to the same extent: The Rays had no suspensions in 2011, three in 2010, three in 2009, four in 2008, two in 2007, and one apiece in 2006 and 2005.

So, do the Rays’ drug suspensions deserve to be a story? Well, I think they deserve to be a blog post like this one, and if I were the Rays, I’d do some self-evaluation to make sure that there’s no way in which the team was at fault. (In all likelihood, they already have.) But unless the trend continues, I’d chalk it up to chance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Tampa Bay Rays,  Rays,  Steroids,  PEDs,  Suspensions,  Alex Colome,  JDA

12 comments have been left for this article.

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