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When It Comes To Free Agency, It's Time For A Change

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Eloy Jimenez (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

As the minor league season ends, the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3  prospects on Baseball America’s current Top 100 Prospects list all are spending September somewhere other than the big leagues.

In the case of Fernando Tatis Jr. (the current No. 2 prospect), it’s completely understandable. He’s out with a thumb injury that required surgery. He’ll have to wait until next year to join the Padres' big league club.

It’s equally obvious why No. 1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and No. 3 prospect Eloy Jimenez aren’t in the majors — the Blue Jays and White Sox benefit from keeping them in the minors and delaying the start of their service-time clocks.

It’s impossible to objectively argue that either doesn’t deserve a call-up based on performance. Guerrero was the best hitter in the minors this season. He led the minors in batting average and slugging percentage and was third in on-base percentage. He did all of that as a teenager playing in Double-A and Triple-A.

Similarly, Jimenez hit .337/.384/.577 between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. He’s one of the best hitters and best sluggers in the minors. Jimenez is even already on the 40-man roster, so promoting him to the majors would not require the White Sox to clear a roster spot.

They are just the latest in a long line of promising young players to be held back for what appears to be service-time reasons. George Springer, Kris Bryant and Ronald Acuna Jr. are just a few of the many players whose MLB arrivals happened just after they spent enough time in the minors to not accrue a full season of service time. Because of that, they will have to wait an extra year before they can become free agents.

There are no easy solutions to the current service-time manipulation teams use to gain an extra year of team control or delay arbitration. Teams can always come up with some semi-plausible reason why Mike Olt is playing instead of Bryant or Preston Tucker is blocking Acuna or Russell Martin needs the reps at third base that Guerrero could be taking.

Such decisions are bad for baseball as a whole. We are in an age where the arrival of a top prospect is no longer a novelty limited to a few select prospect nuts and Baseball America readers. Guerrero’s arrival would immediately become one of the biggest events of the Blue Jays’ 2018 season. Jimenez’s debut in Chicago would be greeted with a similar buzz to the one that heralded Michael Kopech’s arrival a few weeks ago (Kopech’s first game drew 7,000 fans above the White Sox’s average for a Tuesday game).

While either team could use a boost, some extra ticket sales and concessions do not come close to equalling the benefit of an additional year of team control before a player reaches free agency. The imbalance is even more glaring when you consider that teams are trading off a month or two of the player as a rookie for a year of at-bats/innings when the player is a six-year MLB veteran likely at the peak of their powers.

Finding a solution for the next collective bargaining agreement will not be easy. Many of the possible solutions (setting free agency by age or by time since signing an initial pro contract) carry possible drawbacks.

But it’s equally obvious that if Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association were starting from scratch on a brand-new CBA, the idea of basing free agency around service time would seem equally illogical.

Tenure of employment makes sense as a basis of measurement for most unions. If you’re an auto worker, your tenure begins on one’s date of hire. Similarly, in many other sports, players are either on the team’s roster or they are free to sign with any other team.

So if the National Football League bases free agency off of seasons on the 53-man roster, it is doing so in a system where being on the roster is entirely merit-based. If a team attempted to circumvent service time accrual by leaving a talented player off the roster for a few games, they would almost assuredly lose the player, because any other team would be free to simply sign him. With no minor league system where players can be “stashed,” the penalty of cutting a player ensures both parties have an equal stake in such decisions.

But it would make no sense if the NFL based free-agency eligibility off of a count of actual games played, because one of the two parties in the collective bargaining agreement—the owners—fully controls the decision of whether a player plays or not. If the NFL’s CBA required players to play a full 16 games to accrue a year of service time towards free agency, owners would have a massive incentive to figure out reasons to hold players out of at least one game if at all possible.

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2018 Minor League All-Star Team

Guerrero, Jimenez repeat as first-team honorees.

Unlike the NFL, MLB has a fully formed minor league system where MLB teams retain full control of a player’s contract. It makes little sense to use service time as the driver of arbitration and free agency in a sport with a defined minor league system (where players don’t gain service time), and where there's one side in the CBA that completely controls the decision-making process of when a player begins to play in the majors.

Baseball players do not play a part in the decision of whether they are on the active 25-man roster, and the potential benefit of a rebuilding team waiting to promote a player vastly outweigh the minor drawbacks of negative publicity and potentially angering a young star player.

Taken to its extremes, the Blue Jays could decide that they are going to be rebuilding through 2020. If that was the case, they could decide to keep Guerrero in the the minors for another full season even though he is clearly big league ready. It would seem ludicrous, but holding off promoting Guerrero until late April 2020 would ensure that the Blue Jays retained the rights to Guerrero through the 2026 season when he would be a 27-year-old likely at the peak of his career.

The Blue Jays won’t do that, but they could, and there would be little Guerrero could do about it other than complain and file a grievance.

Figuring out a better system will not be easy, but it’s time for baseball to realize that the current structure is bad enough to require a massive rework. Any new system will not be perfect, but the present system is so illogically imbalanced that almost anything else would make more sense.

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