Clubs at mercy of circumstances beyond their control

The Major League Baseball free-agent season entails a boatload of reconnaissance work. If you're a general manager thinking of investing $50 million in a player, you want insight into more than just his range factor, OPS and ability to advance from first to third on a single.

Does he have a strong work ethic and leadership ability? Can he play through injuries? And is he motivated enough to give you the same effort in the first season as the final season of a long-term contract?

Amid the prevailing climate of suspicion, you also want to know if his statistics are a product of talent and hard work or if he received a little "help" from his neighborhood or online pharmacist.

This winter, you're not the only one in sleuthing mode.

Baseball's offseason swap meet and shopping period -- otherwise known as the hot stove season -- is taking place against an intriguing backdrop this year. Teams are trolling for talent and making offers just as former U.S. Senator George Mitchell moves closer to completion of his investigation into steroid use in the game.

Mitchell's report is expected to be complete by the end of the year. During a conference call in October, the 30 clubs were told they will probably not receive copies before the investigation is made public.

At the recent general managers' meetings in Florida, one GM asked Dan Halem, a top MLB labor lawyer, if the commissioner's office could offer any guidance on how clubs should proceed in making personnel moves this winter.

Halem's response: Sorry, but we don't know any more than you at the moment.

"To protect the clubs, you'd like to think the investigation or any repercussions would come out before the free-agency period," said an American League executive who requested anonymity. "That's the direction we were looking for. If allegations come out, can any players be disciplined after the fact?"

In the absence of a road map, baseball appears to be making up the rules as it goes along.

In March 2006, after the release of the book "Game of Shadows," commissioner Bud Selig entrusted Mitchell with leading an investigation to bring closure to a controversial era in the game. But he also set the stage for a head-swimming array of potential issues.

No one knows for sure how heavily the Mitchell report will delve into specific names, or if it will take a broader viewpoint in an effort to put a go-go, performance-enhancing era in its proper historical perspective.

Either way, Selig could be in for more than he bargained for. If the Mitchell report makes huge headlines and Selig doesn't levy any punishments -- or gives blanket amnesty to the players mentioned -- the investigation could look like a face-saving, Congress-appeasing exercise in self preservation.

Conversely, if Selig attempts to suspend players en masse or passes the responsibility along to the clubs, he's almost certain to face resistance from the players' association.

"There are three questions here," said Howard Wasserman, a visiting associate professor at St. Louis University School of Law. "What is the commissioner's power to suspend players based on the information in the report? What is the power of each team to do something, such as voiding a contract? And what does the collective bargaining agreement have to say about any of this?"

Baseball's drug policy allows teams to discipline players for failing a test. But what happens if a player was found to have used steroids through eyewitness accounts or the testimony of someone like Kirk Radomski, the former Mets clubhouse attendant whose plea agreement compelled him to cooperate with the Mitchell investigation?

We have to run business as usual and maybe buyer beware. I don't know if there are 20 guys on [the Mitchell] list or 200 guys on the list. I think you have to take the chance.

--Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi

Further complicating matters, the transgression might have occurred before baseball's current drug-testing program went into effect in 2005. While Selig might try to rely on his "best interest of baseball" powers to punish steroid offenders, Wasserman said he believes the effort to do so would inevitably fall in the lap of an arbitrator.

"The best-interests-of-baseball power is a very squishy, amorphous power for the commissioner to exercise, and if the result of the exercise of power is taking away somebody's ability to make a living, that's a little troubling to a lot of people," Wasserman said. "Can the commissioner say, 'You broke this law in society even though there was no baseball rule against it, so I'm going to suspend you?' That's a little troubling."

A club that unknowingly signs a steroid offender could find recourse in Section 7 of Article 3 of the uniform player contract, which decrees that a team can terminate a player's contract if he should "fail, refuse or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or to keep himself in first-class physical condition or to obey the club's training rules."

In 2004, the Colorado Rockies cited the rule when they tried to void the two years and $19 million left on pitcher Denny Neagle's contract after he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. Neagle filed a grievance, and the two sides ultimately reached a settlement.

Many observers thought the Rockies' attempt to void Neagle's contract was more a reflection of his 19-23 record and 5.57 ERA in Colorado than a moral breakdown or lapse in judgment on his part. Which leads to another question: What's to prevent a team from using a mention in the Mitchell report as a rationale for trying to wriggle out of a deal with an underperforming player?

For all the attention focused on Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, the reality is that far more blue-collar players and middle relievers have been nabbed by baseball's drug policy than stars. The list includes more Juan Rincons, Ryan Franklins, Michael Morses and Felix Heredias than Rafael Palmeiros.

Even when teams are aware of a positive steroid test, it doesn't necessarily dissuade them from taking the plunge. The New York Mets signed reliever Guillermo Mota to a two-year, $5 million deal after he served a 50-game steroid-related suspension. And Cleveland recently exercised pitcher Paul Byrd's $7.5 million option after he was found to have taken human growth hormone for an undisclosed medical condition.

Teams have always relied on the judgment of scouts and listened to the buzz on the grapevine when trying to pinpoint the reason for a loss of bat speed by a hitter or a drop in velocity from a pitcher. It's no different this year, even if the repercussions are potentially greater because of the Mitchell report.

"We have to run business as usual and maybe buyer beware," Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi told Bloomberg News. "I don't know if there are 20 guys on that list or 200 guys on the list. I think you have to take the chance."

A potential public relations minefield awaits every general manager who touches the topic. After the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Jose Guillen bought $19,000 worth of performance-enhancing drugs from the Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center between 2003 and 2005, Kansas City GM Dayton Moore was asked if the Royals might rethink their interest in the free-agent outfielder.

No, Moore replied -- sort of. And he was only comfortable addressing the topic in general terms.

"Unfortunately, there was a period of time in baseball that we all know now that circumstances like this were occurring," Moore told the Kansas City Star. "I think you have to put it into perspective to that particular period of time even if it is a negative mark on the game."

San Diego GM Kevin Towers, in contrast, is up-front about his desire to re-sign outfielder Mike Cameron, who will serve a 25-game suspension to begin the 2008 season for amphetamine use. In an odd twist, Cameron's transgression might actually enhance his chances of returning to San Diego, because there could be a less active market for his services. The team that signs Cameron also won't be responsible to pay him for the time he misses.

"We're still open-minded about bringing him back," Towers said. "He made a mistake, and it's something he's going to have to live with the rest of his life. But we're not going to walk away from Mike because of what happened."

Mike Nicotera, Cameron's agent, said the suspension hasn't been a major issue in the outfielder's market value this winter. Cameron has a good reputation in baseball circles, and he and his agent have been forthright in sharing the details behind his suspension.

"At Mike's behest, we've been very up-front and forward about answering any questions the clubs may have," Nicotera said. "We're telling them exactly how things happened and what happened. We've been very specific."

But in many cases this winter, clubs are at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. Are you running the risk of a public relations backlash by spending big money today on a player who might be labeled a "cheat" in January? It's the baseball equivalent of telling Howie Mandel which briefcase you prefer.

"You hate to pursue somebody, and then find something out," said Phillies general manager Pat Gillick. "But I don't know what the Mitchell report is going to do. I don't have a clue."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.