On Thursday, April 6 the Carolina Mudcats will take the field for the first time as the High-A affiliate of the Brewers. Phil Bickford, who the Brewers acquired in the Will Smith trade last summer, will not be making that historic first start for the Milwaukee-affiliated Mudcats–instead, he will be serving out game number one of a fifty-game suspension, handed down this December. Bickford’s suspension was levied because he reportedly tested positive a second time for a “drug of abuse.”
Now, if this is true, the irony of the situation is that Bickford’s suspension came down just a month after voters in California–Bickford’s home state, as well as the state he played in from June through July of the 2016 season, for the Giants’ High-A affiliate in San Jose–legalized the recreational use of marijuana, one of the Joint Drug Agreement’s “drugs of abuse.” Bickford’s suspension is yet another from a bi-level drug testing program that makes absolutely zero sense..
When Major League Baseball first adopted the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program in 2006, only ten of the fifty United States had even taken the step of legalizing marijuana as a prescribed medicine for qualified patients, and the concept of recreational legalization was, if you’ll forgive the pun, a pipe dream. And even then, the players’ union was able to negotiate to prevent active Major League players from being randomly tested for the so-called “drugs of abuse.” The system in place seems more or less designed to cater to the players who wish to toke in their free time, without actually acknowledging as much. As long as they show up to their meetings and pay their (comparatively meager) fines, they will never even be threatened with suspension. Minor league players who are not on their team’s 40-man roster, however, are not represented by the union–and so, like the federal government, Minor League Baseball remains woefully behind the times when it comes to cannabis. Players are tested at random, and if they fail they are hit with the exact same suspensions as the juicers–50-game, 100-game, and lifetime bans for the first through third failed test.
Because minor league players are nonunion employees, they have no leverage to change this anachronistic policy. Over the past eleven years, public opinion on casual marijuana use has evolved, and that’s before mentioning the shift in legal policy. Over half of the country now has a medical marijuana policy on the books, and eight states plus Washington D.C. have legalized recreational usage, and now treat cannabis more like alcohol or caffeine. And while this all might feel strange and new to the middle-aged Midwestern baseball fan, a hypothetical 18-year-old prep prospect from Colorado or Washington who is draft-eligible this coming summer was in middle school when their state voted to legalize. You’re going to tell such a player, with a straight face, that he will be randomly tested for this legal substance, but only for a couple of years until he has union protection. You’re expecting him to take you seriously? Would you have taken that seriously, at that age?
Fortunately, for those worrying about Phil Bickford’s long-term future, you needn’t. Does he still look more like an impact reliever than a starter at times? Yeah, he does. Is his changeup best left on the scrap heap? It probably is. But does a suspension for alleged “drug of abuse” doom his career? Probably not.
Tampa Bay reserve infielder Tim Beckham tested positive and was suspended for a “drug of abuse” in the minor leagues, and is now free and clear of random testing as a unionized big-leaguer. Tim Lincecum, of course, just finished a great career that speaks for itself even if he looked like a shell of what he once in Anaheim this summer. Lincecum might be just shy of Hall of Fame-worthy, but he’ll still go down as one of the all-time fan-favorite Giants. When he was arrested for possession in 2009, fans sported “Let Timmy Smoke” T-shirts in protest. Just a year ago, the Cardinals’ Alex Reyes was suspended after allegedly testing positive for a “drug of abuse,” and today, he’s a consensus top-5 prospect.
Even less than a year after his departure via trade, Milwaukee fans have fond memories of relief pitcher Jeremy Jeffress. It’s easy to forget that Jeffress was traded to Kansas City in the Zack Greinke deal, flamed out as a prospect, and then was claimed off of waivers by the Brewers, and it’s even easier to forget that the Brewers added Jeffress to the 40-man roster prematurely in 2010 in order to prevent triggering a career-ending third positive test by getting him into the Players’ Union five months early.
It’s a fate that could very well be in Bickford’s future, too. Once he’s cleared High-A and is pitching at the AA level it would make sense to get Bickford on the 40-man roster as quickly as possible. If he gets hit with a second suspension it will be necessary to prevent him from being lost forever, naturally, as with Jeffress. But even if he’s only got the one suspension, doesn’t it make sense to try and avoid a second one? Why would you want one of your young pitchers to miss almost a full season of development when you could prevent that with a simple procedural move at the administrative level?
Of course, saving Bickford from another suspension won’t come cheaply. According to figures three years old, nonunion AA players were paid approximately $1,500 a month–compared to north of $8,000 a month for minor league players on the 40-man roster. That sounds huge, and from the player’s point of view it absolutely is, but it still comes out to a difference of less than $100k a year for the team.
There are serious implications to this. First of all, if a team has a top prospect at risk of testing positive and he is not yet on the 40-man roster, that player is at risk of losing 50-100 games, or the rest of his career, to suspension. You’re probably wondering, would a team ever slot a player onto the 40-man roster just to protect him from suspension? The Brewers did it with Jeffress years ago, and the Cardinals did it with Reyes this past season, as soon as he returned from his 50-game suspension. The better the prospect, the more sense it makes. For a team like the current iteration of the Brewers, who are using their 40th roster spot more or less as a permanent waiver claim, even protecting a low-impact prospect with that last roster spot might make sense.
The next logical domino to fall after this is a really interesting one. Suppose you’re a minor-league player, and you know that you’re regarded as a blue-chip prospect. Suppose you make your off-season home in California, or Colorado, or Washington, or somewhere else that smoking a joint while watching football on Sunday is no more illegal than drinking a beer. Does it not make sense to drown your system in cannabinoids, inhaling like Wiz Khalifa and cooking every meal in cannabutter? Sure, you might have to suffer through a suspension, maybe even two, but if you are the type of player making top prospect lists no big-league organization is going to risk losing you over a silly non-factor like weed. Smoke yourself an extra hundred grand a year, broke minor leaguers–it really works!
(Disclaimer: nothing in the above paragraph actually constitutes legal or career advice. If you’re a minor league player reading this, and you decide to try and smoke yourself onto the 40-man roster, you assume all liabilities yourself. And, please, stop taking advice from underpaid strangers on the Internet!)
Of course, this thought exercise highlights the real elephant in the room–that, in the past decade since baseball started drug testing their players, society has moved on from the Reefer Madness approach which treats cannabis as if it shares anything in common with heroin, cocaine, or PCP. The teams themselves clearly don’t see it as a major character issue, given how willing they are to protect their players using the unorthodox means currently at their disposal. How long must we wait–and how many Bickfords, Reyeses, and Beckhams must see their development stunted for a non-crime–before baseball realizes that their drug policies make absolutely no sense?