Melky Cabrera is the perfect example of why Major League Baseball—despite increased drug testing and harsh penalties for offenders—will continue to struggle with its players using steroids and other banned substances.
Before the 2011 season, Melky Cabrera never hit above .280, never hit more than 73 RBI and never topped 13 home runs in his career. But in a breakout season for the Kansas City Royals, Cabrera hit .305 last season with 87 RBI and 18 home runs.
That prompted the San Francisco Giants—hoping to add some pop into the lineup—to trade pitcher Jonathan Sanchez to Kansas City for Cabrera. With Cabrera in a contract year, surely he would be motivated to put up big numbers in San Francisco, right?
And motivated he turned out to be.
Cabrera was putting forward an MVP-worthy season, hitting .346 with 11 home runs and 60 RBI. He led the National League in hits and was second in batting average. And he was a huge part of the Giants' playoff aspirations.
But as we now know, his performance was aided by testosterone, and surely, his reasoning for using the banned substance had a lot to do with the fact that he was in a contract year and knew he could lock up the last big contract of his life.
I hate steroids as much as the next guy, but I would be lying if said I didn't at least understand his motivations. If you could add millions upon millions of additional dollars in a contract by aiding your performance with steroids, you may not do it, but it would probably at least cross your mind.
Now, let's get one thing clear—I'm not one of those people who thinks taking steroids magically turns Juan Pierre into Prince Fielder. It's way, way more subtle than that. It aids in muscle recovery and lessens fatigue. It helps you gain strength and burst.
Used correctly, it can help a good player put up great numbers and a great player turn into Barry Bonds late in his career.
Cabrera was always a decent player, but it was obvious he had some talent. So when he had a breakthrough in 2011, it was a little surprising but hardly shocking. Finally, I thought, he put it all together.
Even Giants manager Bruce Bochy thought Cabrera had finally found his groove when the trade was done (via ESPN in November):
"He's 27 years old and it looks like he's coming into his own," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's a guy who can hit at the top of the order, whether its first or second. He can steal a base, he's athletic and can play anywhere in the outfield."
This is why baseball is going to struggle to eradicate steroids from the game. Players like Cabrera are always going to look for that little extra edge, to take the next step in ability and earn that big payday. It's inevitable.
Baseball can make their penalties even more stringent, but at the end of the day, money talks. I don't like cheaters, but we aren't exactly talking about a pickup game of baseball here, either—these are careers, and generally short ones at that. Players want to make their money while they can.
Results breed raises. That's life. Cabrera knew it, and he took the risk. He got burned in the end, but he won't be the last decent player to try and raise his value in a contract year.
Hit me up on Twitter—my tweets are gold like the Team USA women.