By Tammy Rainey
The attention of the baseball world is focused on post-season play. But a certain big debate a month ago will surely return. Next spring, writers will file their various articles describing the effects of the problem, or proposing solutions (as Jayson Stark recently did).
The Problem? Service time manipulation to “steal” an extra year of control over high-wattage young stars. It’s not new, of course. Everyone cites Kris Bryant being “seasoned” for two weeks by the Cubs in 2015, but I’m old enough to remember 2008, when Tampa Bay exercised that rught with Evan Longoria. The current conversation is of course related primarily to Toronto Blue Jays top prospect Vlad Guerrero, Jr.; but there are other similarly situated players, both among the 2018 rookies, and players who’ll be manipulated next spring. For those not paying attention, the problem is simply that per the labor agreement, players become a major league free agent after six full years of service, so teams hold a potential star down for two weeks or so at the beginning of the season so that they don’t QUITE have that sixth full year. Thet thereby trade those two weeks for an entire seventh season. The harsh reality is that under the current terms, teams are heavily incentivised to do this. They can’t be blamed for seizing the opportunity.
So how do the players and the league agree on a better system? So far all the suggestions I've seen are adjustments to the current assumptions, which won’t actually solve the problem, just move the loophole elsewhere.
I offer a proposal that completely junks the current model, completely flips the incentives (in such a way that benefits both player and team), while providing a base upon which they could build in reforms to the minor league pay structure, an issue I’ve written about previously. This proposal is not without some difficulties (almost entirely arising from the impact of serious injuries in the minors such as the need for “Tommy John” surgery) which will need to be addressed. I have a suggestion included but this workaround is not essential to the overall proposal and perhaps there’s a more straightforward adjustment than the one I propose.
This proposal, I submit, is a vastly simpler and more direct service-time calculator which has fewer, possibly no, such obvious loopholes to manipulate. Before I begin, let me describe in more detail what the current arrangement is for those who may not know, and afterwards I’ll offer some examples using players from the Toronto system (since it is the one I am most familiar with). Under the current system, player service is counted by DAYS of major league service time, with a certain number of days (172) constituting a full year (even though an actual season can last 180 days or more). This counting of days controls not only free agency, but arbitration eligibility as well and there’s a whole other manipulation debate around that subject (which can likewise be addressed in this proposal). The problem with that arrangement is both that it counts days instead of years, and that it starts the clock once the player reaches the majors. We’ll call this cohort Group A.
So here is my proposal:
Players who are drafted/signed at age 19 or below will become major league free agents in the 10th winter after the play their first professional game other than complex league games (that is, Dominican Summer League, Gulf Coast League and Arizona League); and
Players drafted/signed at age 20 or more will become major league free agents in the ninth winter after first playing a non-complex professional game. This cohort is Group B.
That’s basically it. There are a series of caveats which will hopefully address all the obvious objections, as follows:
1. Notwithstanding other provisions, a player is bound to his team for nothing less than his first five full major league seasons, nor more than his first seven (unless they have agreed to a long term contract) full seasons. This is to say that if by some quirk of circumstance (I’ll illustrate with one of my examples) a player arrives late, say as Josh Donaldson did with the A’s, that player will not be able to skate into free agency after only three (for example) seasons. These seasons would likewise be counted in years from his first game.
2. Minor league free agency after six seasons in the minors remains intact, though counted in the same manner as the above rather than by the current formula. If a player hasn’t reached the majors in that time he’s clearly not a priority for that team.
3. Based on a 150 day minor league season, any injury which sidelines a player as much as 30 days stops the clock until the player returns and each increment of 150 days accumulated “buys” the team another year of control. Again, I have an illustration for this.
4. Arbitration begins after the player in Group A has played seven seasons as calculated above, regardless of how short his major league career to that point has been. After six seasons for those in Group B. No “days”, no “Super Twos” or any of that mess.
While I have tried to state this in a very simple and easy to apply manner, I’m going to supply a series of illustrations as to how this would apply if MLB had already had this system for over a decade. Let’s start with the two veteran starting pitchers who project to front the Blue Jays young rotation next year. Both Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman are currently under team control through the 2020 season. How would that change, if at all?
Sanchez would be a Group A player, having been drafted out of high school, his 18th birthday less than a month after he was drafted. He made two appearances in his draft year for a non-complex affiliate but we can safely assume that would not have happened under this system so in the alternate universe of this timeline, we’ll start his clock when he takes the field for Bluefield in 2011. So, the 10th winter after that point would be...exactly the same winter as he goes to free agency in reality, after 2020. He would have the same years of arbitration, nothing changes at all.
For Stroman, a college draftee in 2012 who was 21 on draft day (thus Group B), things are somewhat different. Stroman like many college players was advanced enough to be assigned to the most advanced short-season team in the system at Vancouver in his draft year. However he also pitched at AA that season and given this i don’t think it’s fair to assume a team would hold such an advanced player off the field in his draft year (as they would do with virtually every Group A draftee). So his clock started with the winter of 2012. Nine winters later is...2020. Just like it is in real life. He would lose the “Super Two” advantage since that’s not a thing anymore but otherwise he ends up with basically the same outcome. In theory, if he didn’t play in his draft year the Jays would have one year of control beyond what they have now and teams will have to decide how they prioritize those choices.
Now for comparison, lets toss out an international free agent signing. The best contemporary comparison to these guys is Roberto Osuna. He was signed at the age of 16 in 2011. He first appeared on a non-compex team in 2012, 10 winters after that would make him a free agent after 2021 - which he is! But only because of his domestic violence suspension, before that he was on track to be a free agent after 2020 as well. But here’s where the caveats come into play. First let’s note that he broke camp with the Jays in 2015 so he would fall under the “no more than seven” caveat in any case but since that aligns with his free agency that doesn’t matter. So why mention it? Because he accumulated at least 150 days on the sidelines (because of Tommy John surgery) which would have bought the Jays an extra year of control in most circumstances but the “no more than 7” provision applies. Keep in mind that it’s a fairly rare player that debuts at 20 and never goes back down. Both in reality, and under this proposal, he is (apart from the nature of his suspension) exceedingly well situated for free agency, arriving on the market at on the even of his 27th birthday.
Now, let’s apply these to a few players still on the farm. Let’s begin with the notorious case - Vlad Guerrero, Jr. Vladito was signed at 16 in the summer of 2015. As is typical of IFA signings he didn’t play at all that year, atypically he was assigned to Bluefield in 2016 thus starting his clock. Caveats that might potentially arise aside, that means his free agency arrives after the 2025 season like Osuna having just played his age 26 season. Let me pause and acknowledge that the likelihood that the Blue Jays have not, by then, thrown a Giancarlo Stanton deal into his lap is remarkably low, but that’s not relevant to my point. Under my proposal, rather than being incentivized to hold him back these past few weeks the incentive would be just the opposite, get him up and get all these “free” games you can before the seven year countdown begins next season (he would fall under the “not more than seven” provision). This is good for the fans, good for the team, and good for Vlad who starts making major league money that much faster.
Here’s a good place to mention that they would need to negotiate a way for teams to be prevented from gaming what constitutes a “full” season. Possibly a provision that if a player is on the roster more than half, or ⅔, of the season it counts. Something strong enough that no one would dare keep a player like Vladito or Bryant down for half a season to game it.
As for the “not less than five” provision, consider one Patrick Murphy. If you don’t follow the Jays’ farm teams pretty intensely you may not have heard his name before. He’ll go on the Jays 40 man roster this winter though because he was the system’s most improved pitcher (he’s quite good, though not a guy who’s going to be considered for the league-wide Top 100) and would be a prime target of rival teams in the Rule 5 draft. Why Murphy? Injuries. I’m going to have to fudge history a bit to make my point though. What actually happened was that Murphy (2013, Group A) made three appearances in complex league games in 2014 and re-injured himself. He would not pitch for a non-complex team until 2016. What this means is that his major league free agency would fall in the winter of 2025. But he only just spent 2018 in Dunedin because of the injuries. If you gave him a full season at AA and another at AAA then he would not be projected for a full season in the majors until 2021 and of course we know how such projections go (what if the rotation in Toronto is full and he has to go back to AAA, for example). In this case, if he did come up for good at the beginning of 2021 he’s five seasons from free agency - basically he’d be a rare case that got a better deal. But if his development or opportunity were any slower than that, then the “not less than five full seasons” provision kicks in and delays his free agency by one additional year. He’d be a free agent at 30 without that adjustment, 31 with it.
Finally, let’s circle back to Donaldson. What of his oh-so-late arriving free agency? Josh was drafted out of college, thus he’s Group B, in the 2007 draft. He played some in the Northwest League that year, starting his clock. Thus his nine year free agency would have landed him on the market after his 2015 MVP season, going into his age 30 season which is basically within the time frame that’s built into the design. The very best will be facing their age 27 season as a free agent, almost all of the rest will be 28-31 and very rarely a player might be 32. But with Donaldson, the No Less provision applies. He didn’t play his first full major league season until 2013, so his free agency would - under my proposal - have fallen last winter, going into his age 32 season. But again, Donaldson is a very rare case in terms of a player of that quality arriving so late. Much more typically a player arriving at free agency that late would be a role player or a reliever. Ryan Tepera, for example, is now 30 and is still two years from free agency, in both real life and in my model.
As I said, there will no doubt be loopholes others will notice I have not anticipated, but overall this arrives at much the same results in terms of service time, arbitration and free agent outcomes, and entirely wipes out the major incentives to manipulate call-up decisions. Feel free to plug any player you want into the system and see how his career to date, or projected, plays out and let me know what you discover.
One post-script. In the same sense that this fully structures the stages of a players career, when they hit certain benchmarks, moving from major league minimums to arbitration to free agency, it also provides a clear and obvious framework for structuring the pay scale of minor leaguers. If they get paid by years of service rather than the level at which they play, for the period of time they are in the minors (or until the reach six year minor league free agent status), teams can clearly budget for the payroll costs for every team and be ethical employers rather than exploiters. Assuming, of course, the union takes a stand for their potential future members in some meaningful way.
So, MLB? MLBPA? I’ve done the heavy lifting for you, saved you a big headache next time you visit the negotiating table. All I ask is that, if you use it, someone get me a VGJ autographed bat and we’ll call it even, m’kay?