By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - Major League Baseball teams and fans are bracing themselves for the verdicts in the long doping investigation that threatens to expose some of the game's biggest names as cheats.
The fate of around a dozen top players, including New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, could be decided within the next few days, amid media reports that the game's highest-paid player faces the prospect of a lengthy ban.
Although Major League Baseball (MLB) officials have not commented on or confirmed any of the reports, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has vowed to come down hard on any players proven to have used performance-enhancing drugs, regardless of their status.
The National League's 2011 MVP Ryan Braun has already accepted a 65-game suspension that ended his season, and more star players are expected to be banned when the punishments are announced, possibly this week.
Media reports said all the players, except Rodriguez, faced 50-game suspensions, roughly two months in MLB.
The New York Daily News and ESPN both said Rodriguez faced a longer ban because he had allegedly tried to disrupt the investigation. Citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the investigation, they said Rodriguez's lawyers were negotiating a reduced penalty, up to 200 games, to avoid a life ban.
Rodriguez has denied any wrongdoing and his lawyers have publicly stated he would appeal any penalty.
Players linked to MLB's probe into the now-shut, Florida anti-aging clinic Biogenesis alleged to have distributed performance enhancing drugs, could be found in violation of baseball's Drug and Treatment program even without having tested positive for banned substances depending on evidence compiled.
Baseball might also choose to punish players for obstructing their investigation under aspects of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), or Selig could choose to invoke his special commissioner's powers to act in the "best interests of baseball" in his campaign to rid the game of doping.
The timing of any announcement on sanctions is difficult to pin down as, with Braun, MLB is trying to reach agreement with players on punishment to avoid a lengthy appeal or grievance, but U.S. media have speculated it could happen any day now.
BASEBALL'S BEST INTERESTS
More than a dozen players have been implicated in the probe of Biogenesis, whose former chief Anthony Bosch has been cooperating with MLB investigators, though the number actually punished could form a shorter list.
Players who don't accept a punishment could challenge the ruling, leading to hearings before arbitrator Fredric Horowitz.
The lawyer for 38-year-old Rodriguez, David Cornwell, has questioned the credibility of Bosch.
Rodriguez, the Yankees third baseman who has yet to play this season during his recovery from hip surgery and a recently strained quadriceps, has nearly $100 million left on a record $275 million deal that runs through 2017.
Players do not collect salaries during a suspension, and widespread reports have speculated that a punishment of the fading slugger could prove costly with a possible range from 50 games up through the entire 162-game 2014 season, or even to a lifetime ban, depending on baseball's case against him.
Then-major league commissioner Bart Giamatti invoked the "best interests of baseball" clause in 1989 in banning Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose from baseball for life for betting on baseball games.
Decisions could have a striking impact on this season's pennant races as several players who have already been publicly linked to Biogenesis are on contending teams.
Reigning American League champions the Detroit Tigers, who currently lead the AL Central, on Tuesday traded for promising Boston Red Sox infielder Jose Iglesias, who could step in for shortstop Jhonny Peralta, one of the players implicated in the scandal.
After the closed door meetings have finally run their course, Selig is expected to read off a list of suspensions in what could be viewed as one of baseball's darkest days, or as a positive step in the game's quest to rid the sport of doping.
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Julian Linden, Peter Rutherford and Lisa Shumaker)