David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Although Robinson Cano is ready to return from an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, his comeback is doomed to be short-lived. Even if the Seattle Mariners qualify for the postseason, Cano will be ineligible to participate.
Meanwhile, in Houston, Roberto Osuna is fresh off a 75-game ban for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy. And he’s ready, willing and permitted to help the Astros win a second straight World Series championship.
Something seems wrong, no?
If the question is how much cynicism MLB is willing to tolerate, there is.
For their part, Cano and the Mariners would undoubtedly love to be together if the team does indeed make its first postseason since 2001. He betrayed everyone’s trust when he got popped for using a banned masking agent, but he’s still a $240 million megastar who had been going strong (see his .825 OPS) even at the age of 35.
However, this isn’t about what’s best for Cano and the Mariners.
Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
Along with harsher regular-season penalties, postseason bans became an official part of MLB’s and the MLB Players Association’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program in 2014. That promised an additional blow to violators’ wallets. It would also bar them from redemption on baseball’s biggest stage.
“Our hope here is that the adjustments that we’ve made do inevitably get [the number of violators] to zero,” said MLBPA chief Tony Clark, per the Associated Press (via the New York Times). He added: “I am hopeful that players make the right decisions that are best for them, for their careers and for the integrity of the game.”
Clark may be getting his wish. Per Baseball-Almanac.com, there were 21 PED suspensions in 2012 and 2013 alone. There have been only 22 since 2014. Not surprisingly, none of the players involved was traded to a contender later in a given season.
Which brings us back to Osuna and a cringe-worthy situation that might be avoided in the future.
Since the details of his case are being kept under wraps, only so much is known about how, exactly, the former Toronto Blue Jays right-hander has found himself in hot water. But there is a clear timeline:
- May 8: Osuna is arrested and charged with assault of a female victim
- May 17: According to Vjosa Isai and Wendy Gillis of the Toronto Star, Osuna is ordered to stay away from a specific Toronto building, not communicate with his alleged victim and not consume alcohol or possess weapons
- June 18: Osuna’s attorney, Domenic Basile, confirms to Betsy Powell of Star that the charge revolves around an “alleged domestic abuse” for which Osuna will plead not guilty
- June 22: MLB concludes its investigation, and Commissioner Rob Manfred hands Osuna the third-longest suspension under its domestic violence policy, which went into effect August 2015
- July 30: Following supposed “unprecedented” due diligence, the Astros acquire Osuna from the Blue Jays
- August 6: Osuna returns to the mound
While Osuna’s suspension is over, his criminal case is not.
According to Matt Young of the Houston Chronicle, the All-Star closer has a court date in Toronto on Sept. 5. Basile plans to seek a postponement and a “peace bond,” which would result in the charges being dropped in exchange for Osuna’s promise that he will stay on good behavior.
If that doesn’t pan out, things will proceed and possibly result in Osuna being convicted and/or barred entry from the United States.
In the meantime, the Astros have a public relations nightmare on their hands.
There’s no taking issue with the actual content of the trade. Houston only sent three spare assets (right-handers Ken Giles, David Paulino and Hector Perez) to Toronto in exchange for Osuna, who’s still only 23 and under team control through 2020.
Still, general manager Jeff Luhnow sought to get out ahead of the inevitable backlash. Thus came a statement that expressed confidence that “Osuna is remorseful” and that he’ll “fully comply with our zero tolerance policy related to abuse of any kind.”
Luhnow’s bit on “zero tolerance” was rightfully panned as being blatantly disingenuous, however. The bit about Osuna being remorseful earned a pointed clarification from Basile. Via ESPN’s Buster Olney:
Buster Olney @Buster_ESPN
Roberto Osuna’s lawyer speaking about the word “remorseful” that was used by the Astros in reference to their new reliever: “My client is not remorseful of being guilty of any criminal activity,” Basile said Wednesday. “He’s obviously remorseful of the circumstances.”
Luhnow may have been hoping that his team and its fans would graciously accept Osuna, but there’s been some hesitance for both. Ace pitcher Justin Verlander referred to the trade as a “tough situation.” When one female fan expressed her frustration on social media, the reaction was swift and severe.
“Astros fans have always stuck together,” the fan told Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle. “It was crazy to see how this trade tore them apart a little. Everyone took a side.”
But then, it’s doubtful that Luhnow and the rest of Houston’s decision-makers ever thought everything would be hunky-dory after they went ahead with the trade. Or even cared, for that matter. They’re poker-faced pragmatists whose chief concern is winning another World Series.
Since there’s no guarantee that Osuna’s legal situation will keep him on the field beyond 2018, that was almost certainly the Astros’ primary motivation in trading for him now rather than waiting until after he had cleared his suspension and/or his name. If it ends with Osuna getting the last out in the World Series, they’re not going to be quick to regret it.
This isn’t the first situation of its kind that MLB has encountered in the years since it implemented its domestic policy. That distinction belongs to Aroldis Chapman, who still bears a scarlet letter after his girlfriend told police he choked her during an argument in October 2015.
But even with him, there’s no comparison to Osuna.
Chapman hadn’t been charged when the New Yankees first acquired him from the Cincinnati Reds in December 2015, and he ultimately never was. And while the Chicago Cubs eventually traded for him in July and he helped them win their first World Series in 108 years, that was after the flame-throwing lefty had already served a 30-game suspension.
Granted, Major League Baseball may never be able to implement a perfect domestic violence policy—FanGraphs’ Sheryl Ring wrote an excellent rundown of the complications on that front. But for the sake of its reputation with the legions of baseball fans with actual zero tolerance policies for such matters, the unparalleled cynical nature of the Osuna trade should have the league scrambling to try to do better.
Given the latest circumstances, the most apparent way to do that is by copying the postseason ban portion of the Joint Drug Agreement and pasting it onto the domestic violence policy. If it must only come in tandem with a specific regular-season suspension threshold—say, 50 games—then so be it.
If nothing else, it would add another layer of deterrence for players. It could also help prevent trades like one that sent Osuna to Houston, in which the acquiring team elevates baseball matters above basic human decency.
Understand, this isn’t about drawing a moral equivalence between the transgressions of Cano and Osuna. Assuming his excuse of trying to treat a medical condition is as bunk as it sounds, Cano was only trying to improve his ability to entertain. He just didn’t do so in a way that MLB has deemed appropriate. Relative to that, an alleged act of violence against another human being is more severe.
Ultimately, this is about what MLB must do to be both a lucrative institution and one that its fans can be proud of. To this end, more compassion and a little consistency would be a good start.