Image credit: Kris Bryant (Photo by Stephen Lew/Getty Images)
September baseball should mean major league opportunities for the game’s top prospects, a chance for young players to get major league reps and fans to get excited about their team’s future. This year, though, brings more controversy than cheering. The Blue Jays passed on promoting Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who chased a .400 average in the minors this year, to Toronto for a cup of coffee. Eloy Jimenez, who crushed Triple-A, was contemplating a grievance against the White Sox over his own absence from the majors.
The reasons for this are well known by now. By keeping Guerrero and Jimenez in the minors this year—and the early days of 2019—the Jays and White Sox ensure that those players cannot reach free agency for an additional season. We saw the Braves hold down Ronald Acuna Jr. at the start of the 2018 for the same reason. In 2015, the Cubs left Kris Bryant in the minors for two weeks with an eye toward delaying his free agency by a year. Even players with experience can be trapped this way; the Twins didn’t recall Byron Buxton, demoted during an injury-plagued season, so as to extend their control of him into the 2022 season.
In the cases of Guerrero and Jimenez, the difference is one of degree, rather than kind. It’s been one thing to hold back an Acuna or a Bryant for a couple of weeks at the start of a season. It’s another to keep a player tearing up the minors down because you want to keep him down again in the following campaign. The Jays’ refusal to put their best players on the field in 2018 because they want leverage in 2025 is a cynical ploy that deserves to be called out.
The blatant manipulation of these players has invigorated calls for change. Solutions, however, do not come easy. The simplest idea would be to tie free agent eligibility to professional service time, rather than major league service time, but that comes with challenges. Back in June, the Blue Jays drafted 18-year-old Texas high school shortstop Jordan Groshans. Four weeks later, they signed 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Orelvis Martinez. Martinez won’t even play in the U.S. until next year. The first pick in the draft, righty Casey Mize, was 21 years old on draft day. The third pick, Alec Bohn, turned 22 in August. How do you design a system that puts a 16-year-old first-year pro and a 22-year-old first-year pro on the same scale without being unfair to one or the other?
The NHL allows players to become free agents at 27 years old. What would an age-based system in baseball do to the value of college players in the draft? How would it change player development, player acquisition, even the concept of being a “prospect”? The current system is flawed, but like democracy, it may be better than all the other systems.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t try. The problem of manipulation of service time, however, is just one of dozens that Major League Baseball has right now. The rules governing how players get to certain milestones are a Goldberg contraption dating to the 1970s. “Six years” wasn’t handed down on stone tablets, but rather, it was the end product of a negotiation after the arbitration decision that created free agency. We talk blithely about Super Twos, but the concept of a handful of players short of three years of experience being eligible for arbitration dates to a two-day strike in 1985. We bemoan “tanking,” but it’s largely a function of the minimum MLB salary not keeping up with the game’s revenues and the evolution of how teams evaluate players.
MLB needs a constitutional convention to address the problems that four decades of patching its rules have created. The world we live in is not the answer to the question, “What should baseball look like?” But rather the end result of treaties at the end of labor wars, and half-measures designed to please no one. Free agency is based on service time because in the 1970s, it was seen as a reward for players good enough to accumulate six years of service. It dates to an era when teams valued experience far more than they do today. Not since the players’ union was calculating career lengths in 1976 has anyone asked, “When should a player be able to test the free market?” Not since ’85 have we revisited, “When should a player have the ability to ask an arbitrator to determine his salary?”
There are on-field and game-play questions to be answered as well. How long should a baseball game take? How long should the season—and postseason—be? What’s the right mix of balls in play and Three True Outcomes? How many pitchers should be allowed to pitch in a game or a series? What pressures should be brought to bear, if any, on teams that fall back on shared revenues to subsidize long periods of losing?
We’ve relied on Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, twice a decade or so, to address these questions, but those negotiations have proven inadequate to the task. The fact is, these questions exceed the scope of a CBA negotiation. Answering them needs to be a collaborative process, not a confrontational one. Representatives from the league and the teams and the players should be involved, but so should vested interests from all over baseball.
Historians like John Thorn bring perspective about how the game on the field has evolved. Analysts like MLB.com’s Mike Petriello have a grasp on how technology is changing player evaluation and strategy. Controversies over player behavior have alienated fans; giving visible, insightful women like Fangraphs’ Meg Rowley and Baseball Prospectus’ Rachael McDaniel a seat at the table would send a message that baseball wants everyone to feel welcome.
The rules that govern baseball have changed every few years, in small ways, for more than two generations. This patchwork has held up, but the leaks are beginning to show, whether in a free agent market gone dry, or a season with more strikeouts than hits, or, yes, a budding superstar left to show off his talents in Buffalo rather than Toronto.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. deserves better than this. We all do.