The sword of Damocles that hung over Cesar Puello's 2013 season was finally cut loose from its horse hair this morning, as major league baseball officially announced a 50-game suspension for the B-Mets right fielder. The suspension will cover the final 26 games of the B-Mets season, and, as a member of the 40-man roster, Puello will also get credit for the first 24 Mets games after rosters expand September 1st.
AP has reported that suspended players in minors on 40-man roster get credited for Sept. major league games as if they had been call-ups.— Adam Rubin (@AdamRubinESPN) August 5, 2013
So the Biogenesis suspension functionally ends Puello's 2013 breakout campaign, but it will not affect him going into 2014. For the season, Puello sits at .328/.405/.550 with 16 home runs and 24 steals in 375 plate appearances for Binghamton. Always his bete noir, he had even begun to make strides with his plate discipline, posting a 26:13 K:BB rate in July. That may not seem amazing, but 2:1 plays when you consider the other tools Puello brings to the table, and the 13 walks in July are almost twice as many as Puello drew in all of 2012. Rob Castellano ranked Puello fifth on our mideason Top 25 prospect list, and I graded him out as a potential everyday player in right field. Should the suspension and/or the PED cloud over him affect our rankings and projections?
The first issue to unpack is may be the most obvious. Puello is losing 25+ games of development time in the minors. For a player that was starting to show signs of an improving approach, it is unfortunate he won't get another month to consolidate those gains. And really approach is the only thing holding him back on offense, though it's certainly no small thing. Puello also likely would have gotten a cup of coffee in the majors after Binghamton's season ended. He is already on the 40-man roster, and his season is the type that usually earns a September call up as a reward. Getting a taste of major league pitching would have been a good learning experience for Puello, who is on course to help the 2014 team. However, this is not the end of the world. It's only 25 games, and Puello would still be eligible to play winter ball this offseason. The Carribean Winter Leagues honor all MLB suspensions, but Puello's would expire a few games before the end of the 2013 season. He will be able to start Opening Day 2014 and should have a normal Spring Training. If he pulled a hamstring this past weekend, it would have the same practical effect as the suspension.
But it's not the same thing, is it? The underlying question you probably have is whether or not the PED Puello was taking—MLB has not announced which drugs each suspended player supposedly 'possesed'—could theoretically be responsible for his breakout 2013 season. First off, not knowing what Puello was supposedly taking, I can't really speak to any potential link to performance. With Danny Muno, for example, you could at least point to his suspension for an anabolic steroid as grounds for doubting his 2012 slugging numbers, even if the science doesn't really support you. With Puello we simply don't know what he was taking or what it's supposed performance benefit was with regard to his 2013 season.
Furthermore, we really have no evidence that Puello was taking anything in 2013. The Biogenesis story broke this past offseason, and the clinic was shut down shortly afterwards. I imagine Puello faced slightly more than usual scrutiny from the piss man this year, and he apparently has passed every drug test.
Finally, Puello's 2013 breakout is exactly the kind of breakout you would expect him to have based on his tools/previous projection. This isn't Wilfredo Tovar adding 20 pounds of muscle and mashing 15 home runs. Scouts hung plus power potential on Puello going back to rookie ball, and after the 2009 season, Baseball America noted his "natural power to the opposite field." For Puello, it has always been about cleaning up his swing mechanics and refining his approach. Those have been the biggest differences for him in 2013. His hands are higher, and he gets the bat into the swing path sooner now. From there, his bat speed and natural uppercut take over. I think that is more reponsible for his 2013 breakout than any theoretical gain from PEDs. Also worth noting that strength does not necessarily equal bat speed. Allan Dykstra is much physically stronger than Puello and can't touch his bat speed. For me, Puello's 2013 breakout is akin to Flores's in 2012. Flores did exactly what you would expect a guy with his tools to do once he 'put it all together.' Puello has done the same this year.
Now this is not a PED apologia. Puello violated the Joint Drug Agreement, and under the CBA will have to serve his time. However, I do think it is dangerous to try and correlate his success in 2013 with any alleged PED use. Based on the available data, both the performance and the scouting, I don't see a particuarly good reason to knock his prospect ranking or future projection. He should still be on track to help the 2014 Mets outfield, and I'd bet if he doesn't, it has more to do with his approach issues than a sudden lack of access to drugs. The suspension should have a negligible impact on Puello's development past October 1st, and I'd expect him to kick off the 2014 season in the Las Vegas outfield with a very real opportunity to play himself onto the major league roster by the Summer.