The St. Louis Cardinals, after winning the NL pennant, have been reasonably active in the post-season. Perhaps their highest profile move was signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta, formerly of the Detroit Tigers, to a four year $52 million dollar contract. This was a reasonable move for the Cardinals who have had a weakness at shortstop over the last two years. Peralta is a solid to good hitter and an underrated defensive player.
Peralta will be 32 next year so, the Cardinals will likely not get four strong years out of Peralta, but the money is not too much and it is not hard to see how Peralta is a big upgrade from Pete Kozma at short. That could make a big difference for a Cardinal team that has played deep into the playoffs, but ultimately just come up short in each of the last two years.
Peralta is not an ordinary free agent signing because he is also coming off a 50 game PED related suspension that forced him to sit out much of the second half of the 2013 season. Peralta tested positive and served his suspension so he is free to come back and earn whatever the market is able to pay. Nonetheless, the Peralta signing raises some interesting points about how MLB has handled the steroid issue in recent years.
Peralta has tested positive once and was suspended, but that is one more time than Alex Rodriguez has tested positive since the new policy came into being. Rodriguez is facing a ban that would force him to miss all of 2014 and most of 2015. Unlike Rodriguez, Peralta, while a good player is not a superstar who has a relatively low media profile. Thus, he is not the lightning rod that Rodriguez is, but the inconsistency is nonetheless evident.
The Cardinals play an interesting role in this too. In recent years the Cardinals have developed a reputation as baseball's best run organization. That image is of great help to them on the matter of the Peralta signing. Journalists and others are likely to be less critical of the Cardinals because, well they're the Cardinals. If the Yankees or Dodgers, for example, had been the team signing Peralta, the reaction from the media would almost certainly have been very different.
Peralta's signing also indicates that the Cardinals believe that Peralta not only has served his time, so to speak, but that he is capable of performing at a high level even without the steroids. After all, Peralta will face a 100 game suspension if he tests positive again. If Peralta can perform as he has in his better years, this will be a good signing for the Cardinals, but if he cannot do that without PEDs, it will not. The Cardinals must know this and believe that Peralta does not need PEDs to post an OPS+ in the 110-120 range. The Cardinals almost certainly would not have singed Peralta if they thought his production was dependent on PEDs. If the Cardinals, a team reputed to be one of the smartest run franchises in the game thinks that a proven steroid user, who is generally speaking good but not great, can play well without steroids, perhaps steroids are not the magic slugging pills they have been portrayed to be for well over a decade.
Peralta's signing has led to some criticism of the Cardinals as well as to the suggestion that cheating pays in baseball. However, Peralta served his suspension and, barring future infractions, should be allowed to play. The Cardinals are taking a risk in assuming that the steroid-free Peralta will be a valuable player, but most free agent signings involve risk. Peralta's signing is thus a very interesting case for baseball. If he gives the Cardinals four good years, many around baseball, including many baseball fans, will have to rethink many of the things they think they know about PED. On the other hand, if Peralta stumbles, doesn't hit or tests positive again, the PED controversy will be stoked to new and different heights.
The context in which this signing occurred also underscores the extremely capricious, even personal, attitude baseball has taken towards PED use. Peralta, less than three months after coming back from a suspension, signed a contract not much different than what he would have gotten had he never been linked to steroids while MLB continues to try to destroy Rodriguez's career and while the BBWAA will almost certainly once again keep some of the game's greatest players ever, like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens out of the Hall of Fame. Alternating between being forgiving towards players like Peralta and vengeful and petty towards others continues to be baseball's way of addressing the PED problem. It is an approach that has not worked. Perhaps a clean and productive Peralta could help change this and force MLB to address PED use more carefully.