MLB’s latest gambling suspensions feel like the tip of the iceberg

Here's what you need to know about MLB’s most recent gambling scandal

On Tuesday, Major League Baseball announced that it had sanctioned five players for violating the league’s gambling policy by wagering on MLB games, confirming a Wall Street Journal report from the day before.

Four of the players — Diamondbacks pitcher Andrew Saalfrank, Athletics pitcher Michael Kelly, Padres minor-league pitcher Jay Groome and Phillies minor-league infielder José Rodriguez — were given one-year suspensions because their betting took place while they were minor-league players. But San Diego Padres utilityman Tucupita Marcano — who was on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ injured list when he placed bets on MLB games during the latter half of last season — received the ultimate punishment: a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball.

Here’s what you need to know.

Marcano, who reportedly made 231 MLB-related bets totaling $87,319, was once a well-regarded Padres prospect, ranking 11th in San Diego’s system entering the 2021 season. That year, he was sent to Pittsburgh alongside outfielder Jack Suwinski for infielder Adam Frazier. With the Pirates, Marcano appeared in 149 games across three MLB campaigns in which he showcased excellent bat-to-ball skills and defensive versatility but had nowhere near enough power to be an impact player. The 24-year-old Venezuelan tore his ACL last July and was claimed off waivers by the Padres, his original team, this past offseason. Marcano’s gambling on MLB games, which included 25 games involving his own team, took place before and after his knee injury. According to Spotrac, Marcano made around $2.7 million in his pro career and was on the league-minimum $740,000 salary this season as he rehabbed.

Saalfrank — who, according to MLB, wagered $444.07 on MLB-related bets between September 2021 and March 2022 — was a sixth-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2019 out of the University of Indiana. He first appeared in the big leagues last September and became a crucial member of Arizona’s bullpen as the underdog D-backs stormed to a National League title. On the league-minimum salary this season, Saalfrank struggled mightily in the early going and was sent to Triple-A in April.

Kelly was a Padres first-round pick in 2011, and he spent a decade bouncing around organizations — with a stint in independent ball — before making his MLB debut with the Phillies as a 29-year-old in 2022. He threw 16 2/3 solid innings in the bigs for Cleveland in 2023, which led to his being claimed off waivers by Oakland this past offseason. His suspension is perhaps the most unfortunate, given that (1) he was solidifying himself as a legitimate big leaguer this season, with a 2.59 ERA in 31 1/3 relief innings, and (2) he wagered just $99.22 on MLB games in October 2021 during his time as a minor leaguer in Houston’s system.

Groome is the only punished player who has yet to appear in the big leagues, but he had far and away the best prospect pedigree. Ahead of the 2016 draft, the New Jersey-born lefty was a candidate to be drafted first overall, but he ended up falling to Boston at the 12th pick. He struggled almost immediately, as injuries and off-the-field issues stunted his rise. During the 2020 and 2021 seasons, he placed 32 MLB-related bets. Groome was sent to San Diego in 2022 as part of a bizarre package for Eric Hosmer. Now 25, Groome was thought to be in the mix for a Padres rotation spot this spring, given the club’s thin starting pitching, but in light of this suspension, it’s uncertain if he will reach the majors at all.

Rodriguez, 23, was signed by the White Sox as an amateur out of the Dominican Republic in 2017. The light-hitting infielder appeared in just one game with Chicago: a pinch-running appearance last June. He was dealt to the Phillies in April for cash considerations and had spent all of this season as a depth piece in Double-A Reading.

Tucupita Marcano has been suspended for life for gambling on MLB games that involved his own team. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Tucupita Marcano has been suspended for life for gambling on MLB games that involved his own team. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Marcano situation appears notably different from the rest, so let’s tackle that one first. In its statement, MLB alleged that the player committed around $150,000 in total across 387 different baseball-related wagers. That type of behavior resembles addiction, similar to the pattern of uncontrolled gambling that recently consumed the life and career of Shohei Ohtani’s former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, who pleaded guilty Tuesday and faces up to 33 years in prison.

The conduct of the other four players is arguably more baffling, given the relatively small sums wagered. It seems as if Saalfrank, Groome, Kelly and Rodriguez either did not care or did not fully understand MLB’s gambling policy. The latter excuse is flawed considering that the league has an enormous poster in every major- and minor-league clubhouse that explicitly tells players not to gamble on baseball.

However, gambling on sports other than baseball is an omnipresent part of professional baseball culture. Clubhouses are often full of banter related to wagers placed on football or basketball games. A large number of players have betting apps on their phones to make such wagers, and gambling on MLB games is just a few clicks away. While the rules about betting on MLB games are incredibly clear, the distance between what's permitted and what’s forbidden is, functionally, very small.

Still, why would these players risk so much for so little? There is perhaps a simple answer: In any large group, there will be individuals who make irrational, self-destructive decisions. Shortsighted people often make bad choices. That is, quite sadly, human nature. Ballplayers, even in the face of such massive consequences, are apparently no different.

To understand where this is headed, it’s important to understand how we got to this point. In 2018, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that restricted sports betting outside of Nevada. States were then able to legalize betting, and 38 of 50 states subsequently did, resulting in the avalanche of betting that has consumed the world of sports over the past few years. All of this came after years of lobbying and positioning from sportsbooks to get the law overturned. Leagues knew change was coming, and they planned accordingly.

Fast-forward to the current moment, and gambling culture has become, for better or worse, a pervasive and unavoidable part of sports culture as a whole. Ads for sportsbooks are everywhere. Betting is intertwined with the activity of watching sports. And because it earns leagues, media companies and sportsbooks a mountain of money, gambling isn’t going anywhere, even as scandals such as the one unearthed this week have become more and more commonplace.

And this is almost certainly not the final story of this ilk. All the transgressions reported by MLB, save for Marcano’s wagering in 2023, were at least two years old. One would think other players will be found out and punished as MLB continues to monitor betting activity with the help of major sportsbooks. It’s in the league’s best interest to keep separate church and state, to ensure that the influx of gambling does not threaten the integrity of the game on the field.

With these punishments, the league is making abundantly clear that it will not accept gambling malfeasance of any kind from its players. Active players betting on MLB games is a no-doubt no-fly zone. League officials will certainly hope that the severe nature of Marcano’s suspension will serve as a deterrent to those who might think to transgress in the future.

Beyond that, given the scale and scope of the league’s embrace of gambling, there isn’t much more it can reasonably do besides educate, warn and, when necessary, punish players. MLB could try to distance itself from sportsbooks, but that’s an unrealistic path forward.

The league has some responsibility to ensure that players don’t feel threatened, enticed or influenced by the omnipresence of gambling in the game, but at the same time, that seems almost impossible now. The cat is out of the bag. The parlay monster has emerged from beneath the bed and isn’t going back under anytime soon. All MLB can do is cross its fingers and gamble on a relatively smooth future.