Instituting a free agency age could solve the MLBPA's two biggest problems in the next CBA
Fixing free agency and eliminating service time manipulation figure to be the MLBPA's top priorities
Two major baseball transactions were completed within the last two weeks, and they have nothing to do with the postseason races on the field. On August 27, the MLB Players Association named sports litigation expert Bruce Meyer their new senior director of collective bargaining and legal. Then, on September 5, the union named sports lawyer Xavier James its new deputy chief operating officer.
The two new hires strengthen MLBPA's senior management and are yet another indication the union is preparing for a tough fight with MLB and the owners in the next round of collective bargaining agreement negotiations. The current CBA does not expire until December 2021, so a labor fight is not imminent, but it is brewing. The MLBPA is not happy about several things and there are already rumblings about a potential work stoppage.
Why is the MLBPA gearing up for negotiations that could end the league's unprecedented 26-year stretch of labor peace? There are a lot of reasons, but two big ones really stand out:
- Veteran free agents (i.e. age 30-plus) are not getting paid anymore.
- Teams are manipulating the service time of their young prospects.
Last offseason was brutal for mid-range free agents. Quality ballplayers like Lance Lynn, Neil Walker, Todd Frazier,and Mike Moustakas all settled for contracts much smaller than were expecting going into the offseason. The MLBPA was understandably upset -- the word "collusion" was thrown around -- and, understandably, there is concern this winter's free agent market will be frigid as well.
As for service time, teams have been gaming the system to gain an extra year of control for a while now. The Cubs did it with Kris Bryant a few years ago, most notably. Leaving a player in the minors roughly three weeks at the start of the season means you get him for seven years instead of six. It is not against the rules, and I wouldn't really call it a loophole. It's more of a flaw in the system.
The service time argument has been reignited in recent weeks because top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. did not receive September call-ups despite decimating the minors. Jimenez hit .337/.384/.577 between Double-A and Triple-A this summer while Vlad Jr. hit .381/.437/.636 at the same levels. And yet neither was called up in September.
Blue Jays on blast for leaving Vlad Jr. in the minors this month. "It's bad for the Blue Jays, it's bad for fans, it's bad for players and it's bad for the industry," . And they're right. The game's best and most talented players belong in the big leagues., and the MLBPA recently put the
Fixing free agency and eliminating service time manipulating are priorities 1 and 1A for the union in the next round of CBA talks. It won't be easy, especially after the MLBPA conceded so much in the last two CBAs, but that's why the union hired people like Meyer and James. They're getting ready for a hard fought battle. Getting MLB and the owners to cave won't be easy.
From the MLBPA's perspective, it seems to me the best way to fix the free agency and service time issues is to push for a free agency age. Players become a free agent following their age-28 season or after six years of service time, whichever comes first. That's the idea. And maybe age 28 isn't the right number. Maybe it's 27, or 29. That will have to be collectively bargained.
The idea is to ensure players become free agents when they are still in the prime of their careers, ensuring better paydays. By my unofficial count, 47 players will reach six years of service time this year and become free agents for the first time this offseason. Their average age: 30.6 years. Only six of those 47 free agents will spend the entire 2019 season under the age of 30 (Jeurys Familia, Freddy Galvis, Bryce Harper, Jose Iglesias, Kelvin Herrera, Manny Machado).
If a free agency age was set at 28, players like Didi Gregorius, Kyle Hendricks, Anthony Rendon, Travis Shaw, George Springer, and Zack Wheeler would hit the open market this offseason. Instead, they have to wait another year or two (or more) to become free agents, which takes a bite out of their earning potential. Teams will pay for peak years. Players over 30? Not so much.
As for the service time issue, if a team knows a player is going to become a free agent after his age-28 season, they're not going to worry so much about manipulating service time. By delaying his call-up in 2015, the Cubs now control Kris Bryant through his age-29 season. With a free agency age set at 28, he doesn't start 2015 in the minors. Heck, he might've been up in 2014!
The free agency age doesn't help players like Jimenez and Vlad Jr., however, because they're so young. Jimenez turns 22 in November, which means if he's on the 2019 Opening Day roster, the White Sox would get his age 22-27 seasons. They'd leave him in the minors for a few weeks to buy his age-28 season. Guerrero is only 19. He'd definitely start the year in the minors.
Jimenez and Vlad Jr. are outliers, however, because they're so young and so good. The MLBPA has to push for rights that benefit as many members as possible, and the vast majority of big-league players would benefit from a set free agency age, either by ensuring earlier call-ups or earlier free agency. The sooner they're up, the sooner they start making real money.
The potential downside to a set free agency age is that small market teams might lose their best players even earlier than expected. Matt Chapman, for example, is under team control through 2023, his age-30 season. Set the free agency age at 28 and the Athletics would lose their star third baseman after 2021, after only four years of team control. Bummer.
For the MLBPA, their focus is on Chapman, not the A's. They want to get players like Chapman to the big leagues as soon as possible, and get them into free agency as soon as possible so they make more money and help raise the salary bar for everyone else. A free agency age helps accomplish that. What is means for the A's viability as a contender is not really the union's concern.
The National Hockey League uses a set free agency age -- players become a free agent at age 27 or after seven years of service, whatever comes first -- though the NHL is also a salary-capped league with a different aging curve. In baseball, we see a teenage player once every few years. In the NHL, most games feature an 18 or 19-year-old. Point is, a free agency age would not unprecedented, and guess what? The MLBPA hired Meyer away from the NHL Players' Union. Hmmm.
Once the next round of CBA talks begin, the union will surely focus on improving free agency and eliminating service time manipulation. I think the best way to do that is with a free agency age. Get players into free agency in the prime of their careers and give teams a reason to call their best young players up as soon as possible. It's good for the union and good for the game overall, I think.
Whether the MLBPA can convince MLB and the owners -- without first going on strike, I should note -- to sign off on a free agency age is another matter. This might be something the union gradually builds toward. Maybe they can get guaranteed free agency at age 30 to start, then work lower that age in the future. But at least make some gains in the next CBA, because right now, free agency and service time rules are broken.
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