Over the last few years there has been a growing distrust between MLB and the MLB Players Association. The players union does not like that teams are tanking, scaling back on their free-agent spending, and manipulating the service time of their top prospects, among other things. The collective bargaining agreement expires in December and negotiations are expected to be contentious.
Service-time manipulation is widespread but near impossible to prove. Kris Bryant filed a grievance against the Cubs for manipulating his service time in 2015, . It's an open secret teams manipulate service time (i.e. keep their prospects in the minors long enough to delay free agency). Good luck proving it though.
The best evidence is candid comments made by the other side and Seattle Mariners president Kevin Mather appears to have provided those comments earlier this month. During an event with the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club, Mather indicated the club was not going to call up their top prospects last season for service-time reasons no matter what. A video from the Feb. 5 event was posted on YouTube on Friday, but has since been removed. A full transcript is available at Lookout Landing.
"If our major-league team had a COVID outbreak or injuries and we had to call people up from the taxi squad, we were a little short on players, because there was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park," Mather said. "We weren't going to put them on the 40-man roster, we weren't going to start the service-time clock. There were all kinds of reasons. If we would've had an injury problem or COVID outbreak, you might've seen my big tummy out there in left field. You would not have seen our young players, our prospects, playing at T-Mobile Park."
Later in the video, Mather was asked about top prospect Jarred Kelenic, and said the club tried to sign to him a long-term contract similar to the six-year extension they gave Evan White last year, before White even made his MLB debut. Mather then indicated Kelenic will be called up this coming season after a few weeks in the minors (which would delay his free agency). He said the same about top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert.
"He's a very good player and quite frankly we think he's going to be a superstar," Mather said about Kelenic. "We control his major-league career for six years, and after six years he'll be a free agent. We'd like him to get a few more at-bats in the minor leagues, probably at Triple-A for a month, then he will likely be in left field at T-Mobile part of the next six or seven years, then he'll be a free agent. He won't commit beyond his free agent years."
And here's part of what Mather said about Gilbert: "You won't see him on April 1, but by mid-April you will see a young man named Logan Gilbert. He's the real deal."
Mather offered an apology in a statement Sunday night, saying "there is no excuse for my behavior, and I take full responsibility for my terrible lapse in judgement."
The MLB Players Association issued a statement on Monday, calling Mather's comments "offensive" and saying they represented an "unfiltered look into Club thinking."
Service-time manipulation is technically not against the rules but it is a bad-faith tactic that amounts to wage theft. Manipulating service time equals delaying the player's first big payday. George Springer had his service time manipulated in 2014. How much more does he get as a 30-year-old free agent pre-COVID last offseason compared to the six-year, $150 million deal he received as a 31-year-old this winter? Probably a lot more. Service-time manipulation took money away from him and his family.
For a player with zero MLB service time, like Kelenic (and Gilbert), all it takes is 15 days in the minors to push free agency back one year. Several teams have opted not to manipulate the service time of their top prospects in recent years, including the Padres with Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Mets with Pete Alonso, but they are in the extreme minority.
Kelenic, 21, was acquired in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz trade with the Mets. He hit .291/.364/.540 at three levels in 2019 and MLB.com ranks him the fifth-best prospect in baseball. Spending 2020 at the alternate site paved the way "for him to start reaching his potential as an All-Star very soon," says their scouting report.
In addition to the service-time comments, Mather complained about paying Hisashi Iwakuma's translator and said prospect Julio Rodriguez's English was "not tremendous." He also claimed MLB teams lost $2.9 billion in 2020.
Rodriguez, a Dominican outfielder ranked No. 2 in Seattle's farm system, responded on Twitter shortly after the video made the social media rounds.