Tainting MLB: Will PED use ever be stopped?

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Tainting MLB: Will PED use ever be stopped?

Since 1965, there has never been a Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony without a living inductee.

Ever since Vietnam and The Beatles were front-page news, there’s always been someone for fans to pat on the back, a highlight reel of plays to relish and a fresh debate over who is and isn't standing on stage at Cooperstown -- every year for nearly 50 years, except this past weekend.

The “Steroid Era” has turned America’s pastime into a sport passed its prime. The true turning point was some years ago when so many players and executives with an inkling of suspicion could have done something, but looked the other way.

And now, we have reached a crescendo.

The likelihood of guys named Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa getting “the call” is about the same as Pedro Cerrano taking a curveball the opposite way -- not likely. With almost 600 votes cast by members of the Baseball Writers Association this year, not one player garnered the requisite 75 percent. Clemens (214 votes, 37.6 percent) and Bonds (206 votes, 36.2 percent) led the group of alleged users.

It's rather funny -- in an I-can’t-believe-you-fell-for-that sort of way -- as I look back on the time when my naivety left me. I can still recall the fondness of the summer of 1998 and how much I enjoyed picking up a newspaper every day to follow the home run chase between Sosa and Mark McGwire.

As much as it pains me to say, from then until now, it seems performance-enhancing drugs have become part of the game. PEDs are about as synonymous with baseball as they are with cycling, which is saying a lot. No player is safe from conjecture and as a spectator it is nearly impossible to suspend disbelief with any player -- experience is a keen teacher.

I want to avoid a proverbial witch hunt as much as the next guy, but please tell me your unbridled thoughts on the Orioles' Chris Davis hitting nearly 40 home runs before the All-Star break. Whether he’s clean or not -- I truly want to believe he is -- I’ve been jilted and jaded by so many Ryan Brauns and Alex Rodriguezs that I’m reaching critical mass.

Are some of the alleged cheaters still HOF worthy? Absolutely. If you’ve ever read the ground-breaking bestseller "Game of Shadows," it documents that Bonds started using PEDs following the 1998 season after watching McGwire break Roger Maris’ home run record. Prior to that, Bonds won three MVP awards, eight Gold Gloves, seven Silver Sluggers and made eight All-Star appearances. Was Clemens using performance enhancers when he fanned 20 batters in a start en route to the 1986 MVP as a 25-year-old? My better judgment says no, but no one knows for sure.

You could argue that the biggest problem is not baseball’s inability to find the perpetrators and what they’re using. I'm starting to seriously believe that PEDs cannot be stopped. Science continues to evolve and the "good guys" are seemingly one step behind. There will always be another BALCOs or Biogenesis as long as there are players who will utilize their seedy services.

The problem is Major League Baseball's drug policy. The risk of being caught is not greater than the reward of a multi-million dollar contract. Lengthen the suspensions and incorporate a hard and fast monetary penalty. Can there be too stiff a penalty? Pete Rose was banned from the game for life for the most egregious of infractions, but which is worse?

It’s at the point where you’re numb to the list of names, places and timelines of who did what and when. We owe it to ourselves, better yet, baseball owes its consumers a continued push to evolve beyond “we’re doing our best” and eradicate the dregs that have left America’s game so sullied.

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

Nola, bench, the kids and more: A half-dozen issues to watch as Phillies get set to play games

CLEARWATER, Fla. — For the first time since Oct. 2 when Ryan Howard tipped his cap and Hector Neris retired Kevin Plawecki on a ground ball to third base to give them a 5-2 win over the New York Mets, the Phillies will play a game on Thursday afternoon.

They will host the University of Tampa for the third straight year in an exhibition game at Spectrum Field. The Spartans are 7-2 and ranked No. 2 in NCAA Division II.

Manager Pete Mackanin will take the opportunity to look at a number of minor-league prospects in his starting lineup on Thursday. Minor-league right-hander Mark Leiter Jr. will start for the Phillies.

The Phillies will play a number of their projected regular players in Friday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Yankees in Tampa.

As the games get going, the evaluations and decision-making process ramps up for Mackanin, the coaching staff and the front office.

Let’s take a look at the six biggest storylines that will unfold over the course of the Grapefruit League season:

Aaron Nola
So far, so good for the right-hander who missed the last two months of the 2016 season with an elbow injury. He says he is completely healthy and his early-camp bullpen sessions have gone smoothly.

But game action will bring a rise in intensity and a truer gauge of Nola’s health. He is expected to make his first start sometime next week.

“I'm real anxious to see Nola pitch,” manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday. “We all know what he's capable of doing when he's healthy. Right now, he appears to be and says he is 100 percent. My only concern for him is as we go along into the season, if it's going to come back to haunt him. Right now, I'm real pleased at the way he's throwing and the way he looks. He feels very confident.”

Nola has no limits, but ...

“We will have to keep a close eye on him,” Mackanin said. “All the pitchers, actually. Especially him. I know how good he can be. I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch. Hopefully, every outing he has, he won't show any signs of it. That's the only thing I'm concerned about, that thing coming back.”

The bullpen
Mackanin opened camp by saying that Jeanmar Gomez was his closer — “at this point.”

Like all pitchers, Gomez will need some time and innings to get into a spring rhythm. Serious evaluation of him probably won’t happen until later in the spring. If he pitches well, he will most likely seize the closer job that he lost last September. If he struggles, he could end up forfeiting the closer gig to Hector Neris or Joaquin Benoit and move into a setup role, where he had success in 2015 and could be an asset because of his ability to pitch multiple innings. For the record, Gomez says he will be happy in whatever role Mackanin asks him to fill.

Other roles are open in the bullpen. In particular, Mackanin is looking for at least one lefty and ideally two. Joely Rodriguez probably has the inside track for one lefty spot because he’s on the 40-man roster. Adam Morgan will get starter’s innings in camp, but he could end up in the bullpen. Veterans Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett, both in camp on minor-league contracts, will each get a serious look to make the club.

Hitting approach
The Phillies were last in the majors in runs (610) and second-to-last in batting average (.240) and on-base percentage (.301) in 2016.

New hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to improve the team’s on-base skills by stressing a gap-to-gap approach and not giving away at-bats. In other words, have a plan before the at-bat, key on a particular zone early in the count and don’t expand until there are two strikes.

Turning these hitters into a group that works counts, grinds out at-bats and gets on base won’t happen overnight, but Mackanin would like to see some progress in exhibition play.

“It takes a while for all of it to settle in,” Mackanin said. “When you hit a certain way your whole life or your thought process is a certain way your whole life, it's hard to make changes because you're out of your comfort zone. The important thing is for the players to buy into what Matt Stairs is selling. If they do that, I think we're going to improve.”

The bench
Barring injury, the starting eight position jobs are settled, but there is intrigue on the bench. Outfielder Aaron Altherr and infielder Andres Blanco appear to be locks and it’s difficult to imagine infielder/outfielder Chris Coghlan not making the club. There are others in the mix, including veteran Daniel Nava.

The most intriguing bench question is who will be the backup catcher? Prospect Andrew Knapp will get a long look both behind the plate and at first base as he bids to win a reserve role at both positions. Big-league veterans Bryan Holaday and Ryan Hanigan are also vying for the role of backup catcher.

A roster sleeper?
Last year, little known outfielder Cedric Hunter hit his way onto the opening day roster.

Will there be a repeat this spring?

Keep an eye on Brock Stassi and Andrew Pullin. Both are in camp as non-roster players. Both swing from the left side, have strong minor-league hitting resumes and could be very much in play if the Phils want to add a bat off the bench.

Pullin is a corner outfielder with a short, quick stroke that will remind you of Jim Eisenreich. Stassi has a good bat and could bring some versatility with his ability to play first base and outfield.

The kids
It’s always fun to look at the next wave of potential Phillies early in the Grapefruit League season. Outfielder Roman Quinn was one of the most exciting players in camp last year and he’s primed for another good showing before heading off to Triple A finishing school.

Top prospect J.P. Crawford will get a lot of looks at shortstop before heading to minor-league camp, and it will be fun to watch the power bats of Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens; they combined for 78 homers at Double A last season.

Catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams, both heading into important seasons at Triple A, will get playing time, commencing with starting assignments on Thursday.

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

Phillies prospect Victor Arano out at least a month with elbow injury

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies received some good and bad news on pitcher Victor Arano.

He was diagnosed with a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Surgery was not prescribed, which is good news.

The bad news, he’s been shut down for at least a month.

Arano’s injury was treated with a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection.

The 22-year-old from Mexico said he first started feeling some tenderness in the elbow during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He experienced some swelling in the elbow after reporting to camp earlier this month.

Arano is an intriguing prospect. He was acquired from the Dodgers as part of the package for starter Roberto Hernandez in August 2014. He impressed team officials in spring training 2015 and really took a big step forward after moving to the bullpen last season. He pitched 79⅔ innings in 46 games at Single A Clearwater and Double A Reading and recorded a 2.26 ERA while striking out 95 and walking just 19.

Arano’s stuff has been compared to that of Edubray Ramos, who jumped from Double A to Triple A to the majors last season.

The injury means Arano will have to start the season on the disabled list.

In other health news, pitcher Jake Thompson graduated to a bullpen mound on Wednesday. He had been slowed by a sore wrist but is fine now. Thompson proved that by winning the longest drive at Tuesday’s annual team golf outing.

Thompson lines up to open the season at Triple A.