On Tuesday, MLB suspended Mariners second baseman Robinson Canó for 80 games after the eight-time All-Star tested positive for furosemide. Furosemide is not itself a PED—it’s a diuretic normally used to treat high blood pressure but sometimes adopted by athletes as a masking agent. Canó released a statement that said he didn’t realize furosemide was banned and that he never used PEDs. The league’s joint drug agreement requires that the league prove that a player who tests positive for a diuretic used that substance to mask PED use, and apparently MLB met the burden of proof the JDA requires. Canó accepted the suspension and will miss the next 80 games plus the playoffs if Seattle makes it that far.
The short- and medium-term implications of the suspension are pretty clear: This sucks for the Mariners, who have largely kept pace with the heavily favored Astros and Angels in the AL West but will struggle to do so without their no. 3 hitter. Canó, who was hitting .287/.385/.441, was already set to miss a month or more with a broken bone in his hand—his first extended injury absence since 2006. Tacking another two months onto that absence is only going to make it harder for Seattle to stay in the race.
But what about the long-term implications of this suspension? Specifically, what does this suspension mean for his Hall of Fame chances?
At age 35, Canó is already past many of the standard statistical markers for enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. We usually start the Hall of Fame conversation at around 60 bWAR, and Canó’s up to 67.5. JAWS, a Hall of Fame value estimator that balances a player’s career bWAR against his seven-year peak bWAR, rates Canó’s career as already better than that of the average Hall of Fame second baseman. Plus, Canó, who’s still a very good hitter at this stage in his career, has five more seasons left on his current contract in which he can pad his counting stats. He has 2,417 career hits and 305 career home runs. Five years ought to be plenty of time for him to get to 3,000 hits, and he has a decent shot at passing Jeff Kent’s career total of 377 home runs, the most ever for a player who spent 50 percent or more of his time at second base. Four hundred isn’t out of the question, either.
Canó will have the numbers to make it into Cooperstown, if he doesn’t already, so the only thing standing in his way is the PED question. As it stands, nobody who’s been given a PED-related suspension has ever made the Hall of Fame, but by the time Canó hits the ballot, the Hall of Fame electorate and the public’s view might change enough for him to break that trend.
There isn’t a universally accepted standard for what to do when players with a history of PED-related use show up on a Hall of Fame ballot. This is in contrast to gambling, a sin for which MLB bans players for life. But players who test positive for steroids or other PED-related substances are reinstated, and five years after they retire, they are presented to the BBWAA for consideration like any other player. Some writers refuse to vote for players who admitted to using PEDs or have strong circumstantial evidence against them. Others refuse to vote for anyone who had big forearms or hit for power in the 1990s, which kept Jeff Bagwell out until his seventh ballot. Still, others try to figure out which players wouldn’t have had Hall of Fame–quality careers without PEDs, which is its own imprecise art. This confusion has led to a backlog in which as many as 16 or 17 candidates with worthy statistical records appear on a ballot that allows voters to pick a maximum of 10 players, further exacerbating the problem.
But by the time Canó appears on the ballot, the age of innuendo will be over. PED testing will have been the norm for decades, and anyone caught cheating will have been sanctioned by the league. That means a separate class of voters will determine Canó’s worthiness: Those who view a PED-related suspension as the bright line, regardless of whether a player is eligible. That bright line kept Rafael Palmeiro out of the Hall and will almost certainly do the same to Manny Ramírez, despite both being worthy based on numbers alone.
However, two factors work in Canó’s favor. The first is time. If Canó plays out his current contract, he’ll be an active player until at least 2023. A five-year waiting period, plus a 10-year run on the ballot means that he’d be eligible until 2038. If Canó takes a couple of one-year contracts to DH part time after his deal with the Mariners ends, the BBWAA could have until 2040 to sort out its feelings on PEDs. That’s 22 years in the future! The PED panic as we know it feels like it’s been going on forever, but 22 years ago, Roger Maris still held the single-season home run record.
We have no idea how much the electorate, or the voting process, or the Hall of Fame itself will change in 22 years. Hell, if I had to bet on whether civil society as we know it would last until 2040, I’d have to think about it for a minute. The first wave of BBWAA members from analytically inclined outlets like FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus aren’t even eligible to vote yet, and even so, in the past decade, the electorate’s gone from staunchly anti-PED to electing Iván Rodríguez, who was accused of using steroids in Jose Canseco’s Juiced, and coming within 100 votes of electing Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Maybe something unexpected reverses that trend, but right now, it looks like Canó will face a more forgiving electorate than Ramírez has so far.
The other important distinction is that people like Canó. He embodied the predictable excellence of the Yankees without embodying their stuffiness. He’s a graceful, ebullient, generally positive figure. If you don’t think that matters when litigating individual PED cases, you must not remember that it took three years to go from secular sainthood for Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa when they broke the home run record to a national condemnation of Bonds when he did the same. All of baseball’s greatest PED villains were villains before we knew they were taking drugs. Bonds and Clemens were surly and angry, A-Rod was an untrustworthy weirdo, and Manny, while fun, was viewed as something of an airhead. Meanwhile, Iván Rodríguez, who oozed intangibles, sailed into Cooperstown on his first ballot.
The Hall of Fame hasn’t had to consider a legitimate case of a drug cheat whom everyone liked, and even today’s popular players with PED-related suspensions in their past—Dee Gordon, Nelson Cruz, Bartolo Colon—either don’t or won’t have the numbers to warrant a serious conversation. But we should pay attention to what happens to Andy Pettitte, who was named in the Mitchell Report and admitted to using HGH, when he appears on the ballot this year. His case isn’t any more impressive than Gary Sheffield’s, and while Sheffield peaked at 13.3 percent in 2017, I’m confident that Pettitte, with his Baseball Man reputation and clutch postseason record, will blow that number out of the water. Far more confident than I am that we’ll live to see the end of Canó’s stint on the Hall of Fame ballot.
In the end, the part of this suspension that hurts Canó most might not be the damage to his reputation, but to his career numbers. Where he once had the better part of six seasons to pile up another 583 hits, now he’s got 80 fewer games in which to chase those key milestones. That’s an appropriate punishment for testing positive for a banned substance, and if the baseball world becomes more just in the next 20 years, it’ll be the only punishment Canó faces.