- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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Major League Baseball players expect to discuss changes to the disciplinary portion of the game's drug-testing program when the union holds its annual executive board meetings in New York this week.
But any proposed changes from the players' association's side are likely to focus more on ensuring that offenders get caught than increasing the penalties for failed tests, baseball sources said.
Two prominent player representatives, Kansas City pitcher Jeremy Guthrie and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chris Capuano, told ESPN.com that they think MLB's joint drug prevention and treatment program is having the desired effect as a deterrent to performance-enhancing drug use. Under the terms of the agreement, a first-time offender receives a 50-game suspension without pay. The penalty increases to 100 games for a second failed test, and a third positive test carries a lifetime ban.
San Francisco outfielder Melky Cabrera, Oakland pitcher Bartolo Colon and San Diego Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal all have tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone and received 50-game suspensions since August. All three players publicly apologized, but Cabrera compounded his sin by trying to deceive MLB with a fake website intended to cover his tracks. After missing the final 45 regular-season games and the entire postseason, Cabrera signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays last week.
"There's always something to be gained by using steroids or performance-enhancing drugs, and some players are going to feel like it's in their best interests to take that risk," said Guthrie, who serves as one of two MLBPA-wide reps along with Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees. "But I still think 50 games without pay is significant, not only in lost wages but in lost potential wages for a player.
"Melky Cabrera is a player who would have gotten a much longer contract if not for his positive drug test, so I think the penalties (for PED use) are significant. As such, the game is much cleaner, and MLB and the union are making the progress they hoped the testing would provide."
Under the rules of MLB's testing program, representatives from the players' association and the commissioner's office meet annually with program administrators, medical authorities and representatives from the company that collects player samples to discuss potential changes and improvements, which must then be collectively bargained. The process includes input from Christiane Ayotte, director of the Montreal-based anti-doping laboratory that oversees player tests.
Last year, for the first time, big leaguers agreed to blood testing for human growth hormone during spring training, with additional testing for "reasonable cause" throughout the regular season and random, unannounced testing in the offseason. Players have expressed concerns in the past over the impact that giving blood before or after games might have on performance, and sources said those health and safety issues must be addressed before players would consider agreeing to more in-season HGH testing.
Michael Weiner, executive director of the MLB Players Association, and Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of economics and league affairs, both declined to comment to ESPN.com.
Some players and union officials have privately expressed concerns that no distinction is drawn between players who knowingly cheat to beat the system -- as Cabrera did -- and others who test positive because of a mistake or a tainted supplement. Philadelphia Phillies infielder Freddy Galvis, who said he had no idea how a trace element of a banned substance appeared in a urine sample last summer, falls in the latter category. But Guthrie thinks it would be a challenge for the program to draw a distinction between cheaters and unwitting victims.
"Overall in the grand scheme of things, it's probably a little unfair to penalize them the same," Guthrie said. "But I don't know if there's any process by which you can go into that player's head and decide whether or not he intentionally cheated for gain or made an honest mistake."
Since the positive tests for Cabrera, Colon and Grandal became public, some observers have argued for stiffer penalties for violators. MLB Network analyst and former big league closer Mitch Williams recently said players who test positive for PED use should be suspended a year.
"As long as a player knows he can cheat and only lose 50 games' salary, and then get a raise the following year, I believe we will always have guys trying to beat the system," Williams wrote.
Capuano, a pension representative for the union, said he doesn't see widespread sentiment among players for longer suspensions -- in part because the stigma of getting caught has already prompted players to be much more careful than they've been in the past.
"When we see a person test positive, like Melky Cabrera, all of us as players are like, 'How does that happen? How do you think you're going to get away with something now?'" Capuano said. "We all get tested randomly. I won't even take fish oil or a multivitamin from a supermarket unless it's certified for the sport. We ask our trainers and strength coaches about anything we take. Just the notion that there's a small group of players who still think they can stay ahead of the curve and get away with stuff comes as a surprise to me -- and to the majority of the players."