Imagine you finish at the top of your class at Harvard law or Johns Hopkins medical and you are told at graduation that you are will not be hired for six months — not because you are unqualified, but because it is a way for an institution to maintain control over your services for an extended period and limit your earnings, perhaps for your whole career.
Imagine the Jaguars take Trevor Lawrence with the first pick in the NFL draft and, for the same reasons as our hypothetical law school or medical school graduate, do not activate him for the first four games next season.
Yet, MLB has a collective-bargaining agreement that incentivizes teams to do just this with their best and brightest prospects, essentially seven years of major league control rather than six.
So in the next collective-bargaining agreement, those incentives must be eliminated. You know why? Because this is not just a player issue. This is a baseball issue.
Again, think of the Lawrence scenario. How would it be in the best interest of the NFL to keep a talented player from playing to manipulate his future control and earnings? It wouldn’t. If it were done in that league, there would be furor.
The same should be true for MLB. This should be a rare place that management and the union agree. For it takes incredible skill and fortitude to endure all the filters from tee-ball through the minors and earn the majors. That should not be denied when a player merits the call. That is just unfair. But it also is bad for MLB to keep those who should be playing it from playing it.
This matter became front and center again in the last week with the surfacing of now ex-Mariners CEO Kevin Mather’s chat with a rotary club. Among other distasteful items, he indicated because top prospect Jarred Kelenic did not accept a long-term contract that would have provided Seattle more than six years of control, Kelenic was not put on the roster to begin this season, but was going to come up in late April. Translation: He would be punished and have to play most of seven seasons to be a free agent.
The math is basically that a major league season is 187 days, but a player is counted as having earned a full year of service with 172 days on the roster or injured list. Thus, if a team holds a player down for 16 days or more and, therefore, limits him to 171 days or less, that player does not gain a full year of service. And it takes six full years to gain free agency, not five years and 171 days. That allows the team to keep the player for seven seasons before free agency.
This action is not taken all the time — the Mets, for example, had Pete Alonso up from the outset of the 2019 season. So if he never returns to the minors, Alonso will be a free agent after the 2024 campaign, six seasons.
When it occurs, the gaming of the system mainly involves the best prospects. They are so valuable that teams want to hold onto them longer before, among other things, having to decide whether to sign them long-term. Most famously, the 2015 Cubs demoted Kris Bryant — after he dominated spring training — exactly 16 days before instantly installing him as their third-place hitting third baseman. Yet, MLB still won the grievance filed by Bryant, who was trying to show the only reason he was sent down was service-time manipulation.
Since 1976, the system is supposed to work that players become free after six years of major league service, not seven masquerading as six. But in recent years, in particular, clubs recognized the value of holding special talents back to gain that seventh year.
Look, if I ran a team, I would probably do the same — you follow the incentives. So the incentive to keep a player down has to be removed in this round of bargaining.
During the Bryant furor a few years ago, then-Cardinals pitcher Carlos Villanueva, who was a member of the union’s executive board, said: “I’m a union guy. We signed that contract. That language in the contract — the team has the liberty to do what they want when it comes to that. We don’t have to like it. And if we don’t like it, next time we sit at the bargaining table, we have to do something about it.”
In the past week. Cubs union rep Ian Happ criticized the manipulation of service and added, “I hope that both sides can work together to improve that because the system allows for it.”
The bargaining won’t be easy, in part because nothing ever is between MLB and the union. But also because the issue is complex.
The NHL, for example, uses a system in which a player becomes free when he reaches age 27 or after seven years of service, whichever comes first. MLB teams, especially small-market clubs, will fight to avoid letting players leave in their prime, like 27 with less than six years of service.
MLB players roughly enter pro ball at 16 internationally, 18 through the draft as high schoolers and 21 through the draft as collegians. So perhaps a system in which teams control a player’s rights on a sliding scale depending on the age they enter — say 11 or 12 years for an international talent signed at 16, thus, motivating clubs to bring those players to the majors earlier, not later.
The union would probably argue talented players who reach the majors in the 19-21-year-old range, such as Bryce Harper and Juan Soto, would have to play longer in the majors to reach free agency. Perhaps there could be an achievement function — a player, for example, finishes in the top 10 in positional or pitching WAR two or three times, and he is credited for a service year or it turns a partial service year into a full one.
You also have to worry about the unintended consequence of teams not finishing off development well because they want to maximize the talent in the majors. Got it. Understand it. But we must fashion a system that eliminates the incentive to keep a player down for any reason other than: 1) he is legitimately blocked by a better player or a player without minor league options that the club does not want to lose, or 2) he needs further development.
Because it is in the best interest of both sides — not just the union — that players talented enough to play in the major leagues, play in the major leagues.