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A Modest Proposal: Fixing Service Time Manipulation in the new CBA

Three years ago, as Jays fandom was clamoring for the promotion of phenom prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. in the waning days of the 2018 season, the subtext of that conversation was the assumption that not only would the Blue Jays not start his service time clock with a late-season promotion but they might well delay his 2019 debut in order to buy an extra year of control

The campaign for promotion was understandable, Guerrero had hit .402 in 61 games at AA (as a 19 year old) and had a .978 OPS after being promoted to Buffalo, but the hesitancy was also understandable as any front office would be negligent to not try and maximize the value of the roster not just in one season (even less a piece of a season) but over the long term. As it turned out, their expressed concerns had merit as Guerrero still had some growing to do in terms of doing the work of conditioning to maximize his natural abilities.

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This conundrum, the competing instinct to promote a player you deem ready with the legitimate motivation to maximize your control of a top-tier talent, sets up an impasse that player and owner reps really should completely rethink this winter. Not that those high stakes lawyers are looking to your humble blogger for advice or suggestions, but they are not going to fix this issue with adjustments to the current system – the best plan is to completely replace it with something new, and I would humbly suggest that I proposed, three years ago (when I originally wrote about this), an idea that not only fixes the negative incentives teams now have but actually reverses the incentives in a way that is a win for teams AND players AND fans. Much of what follows is a revision of that original column, which may be found at All Heels on Deck here, but with a revised and more current set of example players illustrating how the system would work.

So here’s the problem at hand: 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 right with Evan Longoria. The aforementioned conversation related to Blue Jays then top prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. in 2018, but there are other similarly situated players, both among more recent rookies, and players who’ll be manipulated next spring barring a solution in the upcoming new CBA.

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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. They thereby trade those two weeks for an entire seventh season. The harsh reality is that under the current terms, teams are heavily incentivized to do this. They can’t be blamed for seizing the opportunity even though it is manifestly unfair to the player, notwithstanding that it’s part of the contract that they, collectively, consented to. 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, that not only flips the incentives, but also provides a base upon which they could build in reforms to the minor league pay structure (another 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 afterward, 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.

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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). We’ll call this cohort Group A; 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. Keep in mind that the number of years specified here is not really crucial to the proposed structure. As you’ll see in the provided examples, 10 and 9 may be too long for the Union’s tastes because it will push back the free agency date of some players. Maybe 9/8 is better. The years are not the point, the proposed system works regardless of the number of years they agree to. Also, there are a series of caveats that will hopefully address all the obvious objections, as follows(for the purpose of simplicity these are aligned with the 10/9 proposal):

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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 seven seasons in the minors could theoretically remain intact, but, for simplicity and consistency it would be better to base it on the same basic formula described above, counted only on full-season teams as described above rather than by the current formula. and reduced to six years 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 (in the minors) 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. This will serve as another layer of incentive to get the best players to the majors.

The heart of this proposal should be obvious: if you have – apart from signing contract extensions – control of a player for a fixed number of years from the original signing, regardless of major league service time then your best interest is served by having as many of those career games as possible played in the majors, not the minors. Likewise, in the arbitration situation mentioned above, who wants to let a guy linger in the minors for 5 years if he hits arbitration after six?

Let me illustrate

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 current Blue Jays teammates Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio. Both players were drafted in 2016, but Bo was drafted out of high school at age 18, thus Group A, while Cavan came out of Notre Dame at 21 and therefore Group B. Bo didn’t play for a full season team until 2017, but Cavan got nine games at Lansing in 2016. It’s reasonable to assume that the organization wouldn’t have promoted him under this new system, but I’ll postulate both scenarios. As described above, the Jays would control Bo through the 2026 season (one year longer than in the current “real world” situation) and his arbitration would begin after the 2023 season (one year later than now) and he’d have three goes at it per the system. In his case, the team wins relative to how they are doing things now.

With Cavan Biggio, as a group B player, if we assume he wouldn’t have played for a full season team until 2017, his free agency would fall after his 2025 season, as it does now, and his arbitration eligibility doesn’t change. Compared to the current system it’s basically a wash. (albeit without super two rules he’d have somewhat more MLB time before arbitration). So how is it that there’s an appeal here to the players to agree to this? Let’s consider Vladdy.

He also began playing full-season ball in 2017, and would be Group A (although in future years without short-season teams, a player of his caliber would have done so in his first year from signing rather than second, but few are of his caliber). This would make his earliest free agency after 2026 like Bo, But here’s what’s different: at the end of 2018 when he seemed very major league ready, at least offensively, the Blue Jays’ incentive would have been not to delay but to promote. Because the clock ticks regardless and if a player is ready that time would be desirably spent helping the major league club. The whole incentive to manipulate, or even appearance of such gamesmanship, disappears. Plus Vladdy gets to the majors faster, which any player wants, but he has three turns at arb instead of four because there’s no Super Two.

Now, let me stop here and repeat that the number of years in the basic agreement does not matter. It’s rational to suggest that if this were part of an actual CBA negotiation, the sides would have their bean-counters working hard to determine what proportion of players, historically, would have had their free agency delayed, unchanged, or advanced. It’s entirely possible that the players would conclude that the 10/9/7 schedule was too long and argue for 9/8/6 — since the number of years doesn’t matter to the structure of the plan. If they need to be different to maintain a similar timeline to the current one or at least be proposed as a lever to get ownership to give up something else desirable, I’d be out of my depth to quibble that. The point here isn’t the number of years of team control, but A.) streamlining a lot of unnecessarily complex mechanics that exist now, B.) changing the incentive from “hold them back and buy another year” to “get them up here as soon as they are ready.” So if your first impression was “why would players agree to terms that would tend to have younger (when drafted) players get to free agency a year later?” then just mentally adjust the figures I proposed. And keep in mind that for the purpose of free agency, “full season” would be years played on a full-season team, so if your young start spent April and May in AAA and the rest of the year in the majors, that’s a full season.

Okay, so remember #3 above? I promised an illustration – which brings me to (now former) Jays’ pitching prospect Patrick Murphy. He was drafted in 2013 out of high school so he’s Group A. He didn’t pitch for a full-season team until the latter part of 2016 due to injury. He also missed a significant portion of 2019 but I don’t need to research how many days he spent on the IL in ’16 and ’19 for the purpose of this exercise. In the real world, he’s controllable by his team, now, through 2026, fully 13 years after he was drafted. But under my proposal, starting the count in that moves up a year and he’d be free after 2025. This is a marginal benefit in the player’s favor when injuries are an issue.

Finally, let’s circle back to Donaldson. What of his oh-so-late arriving MLB debut and 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, but not on a full-season team until 2008, starting his clock. Thus his nine-year free agency would have landed him on the market after his 2016 season, going into his age 31 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 in 2017, 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. For example, Julian Merryweather

Drafted as a Group B player in 2014, his clock starts in 2015 and the nine years runs out after the 2023 season and he’d be hitting arbitration this winter. However, he didn’t arrive in majors until 2020 and his recent years are littered with injuries. He missed all of 2018, so that doesn’t count, and almost all of 2019 so that too. 2020 was weird so everyone has to pretend everyone got the whole year that year. So his free agency moves back to after 2025 (laying aside the time spent on the 60 day IL which matters under the current system but I’ve chosen not to address it here). and his arb also moves back two years. But here we can also test the “no less than five” provision and that aligns with his free agency after 2025, which is still a year sooner than in the real world. But imagine if he hadn’t missed, say, 2019 due to injury but he just stunk while he was recuperating from the previous missed season. Based on counting years he’d be free after 2024, but the no-less provision means you still have him for at least 5 major league seasons.

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 player’s 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 they reach six-year minor league free agent status), teams can clearly budget for the payroll costs for every team and be ethical employers (should they so choose)  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?