Melky Cabrera's pending free agency has been an unusual fascination of mine this year, even after you account for the Giants fanboyism. What would a team pay a 27-year-old with a spotty performance history, yet who seemed to be getting better and better? It had the potential to be the Jayson Werth contract of the offseason -- the nine-figure deal that would make other GMs shoot milk out of their nose.
Things are, uh, just a wee bit different now.
Instead of cashing in on a huge contract, Cabrera has become a buzzword. He's the most prominent player to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs since Ryan Braun, and he's the most prominent to get suspended since Manny Ramirez. Cabrera is something of a cautionary tale -- The Player Who Let His Team Down. You'd think the shame and ignominy would be enough to deter the next player from taking PEDs. Remember Melky. Remember how he turned himself into a pariah. Remember the tens of millions of dollars he lost when he was caught.
That's not the lesson here, though. Instead, take a trip down the Baseball Reference page for the 2010 Braves.
In the 2010 NLDS, he might have been the worst starting position player on either team. More than that, he looked like the worst starting position player on any team. He looked like he was swinging a 89-ounce bat that was velcroed to his shoulder, and he was out of shape. The Braves didn't want to pay him what he'd win in arbitration, and neither did any of the other 29 teams. He was cut adrift years before he was supposed to be a free agent.
Fewer than two years later, Melky Cabrera was in line to get a long-term deal worth at least $50 million, and probably closer to $75 million. Maybe even nine figures, depending on how the offseason feeding frenzy went.
That's two years from "untradeable" to "set up for generations." He was so close. He would have gotten away with it if it weren't for that meddling urine.
The lesson from the Melky debacle isn't that PEDs can bring down a career, or turn an All-Star season into something shameful. It's that PEDs can make a player really, really rich. No one really remembers the Gary Matthews, Jr. contract these days, so the Melky situation takes over as the informercial for testosterone, HGH, and performance-enhancing drugs. If Melky didn't get caught, he would have been one of the richest baseball players in the game. And if you believe Victor Conte, it's easy to avoid getting caught.
Was synthetic testosterone really responsible for Melky's resurgence, in which he gained 91 points of batting average in two seasons? Surely some of it was, but it doesn't matter if it was 10 percent or 90 percent of the resurgence. All that matters are the before and after pictures in the infomercial. Before the drugs, Melky was the 90-pound weakling from the back pages of the comic book. After the drugs, Melky was the All-Star MVP and nearly a very, very rich man.
Well, he was a bit more than 90 pounds, but work with me here.
Young players right now aren't thinking about the shame of Melky Cabrera. They're thinking about the miracles of chemistry. If you think that each bust, each positive test is going to make the next guy think twice, don't. A little extra testosterone can turn a guy into the All-Star MVP and make him tens, if not hundreds, of millions. All you're risking is a career and a reputation that you might not have had without the drugs in the first place.
Melky's reputation is hosed, and he'll probably get a one-year deal in the offseason. But he might not have had that reputation without the testosterone. Whenever a good player gets popped, it's an infomercial for performance-enhancing drugs. That probably wasn't what Major League Baseball had in mind when they started their testing program.