Schafer Can Bounce Back From Suspension
CHICAGO—The biggest question surrounding Jordan Schafer had been how long it would take him to take over in center field for the Braves. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox intimated that had his club not traded for Mark Kotsay, Schafer would have challenged for the job in spring training despite never having played above Class A.
Now uncertainty swirls around Schafer after Major League Baseball handed him a 50-game suspension on April 8 for using human growth hormone, making him easily the best prospect ever caught using performance-enhancing drugs. We still don't have answers to these questions:
How did he get caught, and what are the repercussions?
MLB doesn't screen for HGH, and Schafer didn't fail a drug test. ESPN.com has reported that MLB's department of investigations, created in January in the wake of the Mitchell Report, acted on a tip from a player who had previously been caught by MLB drug testing.
That player's identity and his motives remain unknown. MLB spent a good deal of time investigating the allegations, and it's unknown whether the information uncovered could lead to additional suspensions.
Schafer has apologized to the organization and his teammates, and he won't pursue an appeal. Whether a major leaguer or the MLB Players Association would accept a suspension without a positive drug test remains to be seen. Schafer isn't a member of the union because he has yet to play in the majors or crack Atlanta's 40-man roster.
How much did HGH fuel his breakout season?
He struggled in his first two years as a pro, but Schafer rocketed to No. 25 on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list after hitting .313/.374/.513 and leading the minors with 176 hits in 2007. He had a noticeable jump in power, amassing 74 extra-base hits after totaling just 30 the previous season.
The knee-jerk reaction is to say Schafer's performance certainly looks enhanced by something. But we still don't know when he started taking HGH and for how long he used it.
There's also some dispute about how much HGH improves performance. Unlike steroids, HGH promotes muscle definition more than muscle strength. No evidence exists that HGH has a pronounced effect on cardiovascular fitness or an athlete's capacity for working out.
Schafer also has plenty of natural ability. BA named him the nation's top 13-year-old player in 2000
, when he starred as a pitcher, and the Braves made him a third-round pick in 2005. He's not some anonymous player who went from suspect to prospect just by taking HGH.
Even when he wasn't producing at the plate, his instincts, range and arm made him a standout defender. As easy as it might be in retrospect to ascribe his 2007 season to HGH, he also earned praise for improving his pitch recognition and understanding how opponents were trying to attack him.
It's quite possible that HGH had very little to do with Schafer's ascension to a top prospect.
Ultimately, what will the HGH bust mean to Schafer's career?
The suspension doesn't change the fact that Schafer is Atlanta's best long-term option in center field. He'll sit out two months, return to Double-A and get the chance to win a starting job with the Braves next spring.
If Schafer doesn't become a successful big leaguer, he'll be seen as someone who had to cheat to succeed. But if he makes it and never fails a drug test, his suspension will be forgotten.
For all MLB says and does about performance-enhancing drugs, it's happy to maintain plausible deniability while getting superior production from its athletes. How Schafer fares after he returns will dictate his legacy.
Can Cali Preps Buck Trend?
Royals shortstop Mike Moustakas went 11-for-54 (.204) in his first 14 games in the low Class A Midwest League this year. The Cubs didn't deem third baseman Josh Vitters ready for the MWL, choosing to keep him in extended spring training after he went 6-for-51 (.118) in his pro debut last summer. He since has joined Peoria.
Moustakas and Vitters were clearly the top two high school hitters in the 2007 draft. There's no reason for panic yet, especially considering the sample size. But their lack of performance set reader Mike Marinaro to questioning the recent track record of the top prep bats from California.
California annually produces more draftees than any other state, including the Nos. 2 (Moustakas) and 3 (Vitters) overall picks and 253 choices overall in 2007. But very few of its top high school position players have panned out in the last decade.
From 1997-2006, 22 California prep position players went in the first or sandwich rounds of the draft. The best year was 2003, which produced Delmon Young, Daric Barton and Adam Jones, all of whom have become major league regulars and shown all-star potential, and Ian Stewart, who still has the chance to do the same. But other than that foursome and Adrian Gonzalez, the No. 1 overall choice in 2000, the rest of the Golden Staters have been disappointing.
From 1997-2002, the only other non-busts were Gonzalez and Scott Moore, and Moore won't justify getting drafted seventh overall in 2002. Most of the more recent first-rounders have stalled as well, none more than Matt Bush, the 2004 No. 1 overall pick who hit .221 in three seasons before moving to the mound.
There's no obvious explanation, as California high schoolers face tougher competition and get more exposure than their counterparts in other states. But they're definitely not living up to expectations once they turn pro.