Up until the past two weeks or so, the free-agent market was very slow-moving and teams were simply unwilling to spend. Big-market clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees are cutting payroll to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold, and about one-third of the teams are rebuilding, so they aren't spending money either.
"Pitchers and catchers will report to camps in Florida and Arizona next week. A record number of talented free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at record highs.
Spring training has always been associated with hope for a new season. This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom. This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game."
Major League Baseball responded by saying owners "own teams for one reason: They want to win," which is a lie. Owners want to win! But it is disingenuous to pretend they're not in this to make money. Also, MLB chalked up the lack of spending to clubs going through "cyclical, multiyear strategies directed at winning," which is a fancy way of saying rebuilding.
Clearly, the players association is not happy with the current lack of spending around baseball. And they have themselves to blame, there's no doubt about that. The union agreed to the current collective bargaining agreement, which implemented those harsh luxury tax penalties and limits on amateur spending. They can blame the owners all they want. At the end of the day, teams are playing by the rules.
The current CBA doesn't expire until December 2021, so realistically, there's not much the MLBPA can do to force teams to increase their free-agent spending. They have to wait until the next round of CBA negotiations and push for more favorable terms. There is, however, something the union can do in the interim to create some headaches for MLB, and really drive home the point that they're upset about the current state of affairs.
The MLBPA can file grievances related to the Braves inevitably manipulating top prospect Ronald Acuna's service time to delay his free agency. They might be able to loop top Yankees prospect Gleyber Torres into the mix as well.
For years MLB teams have been gaming service time to "buy" an extra year of control of their best young players. It takes six full years of service time to reach free agency, and it takes 172 days of service time to be credited for a full year. So, teams would leave their top prospects in the minors just long enough for them to only accrue, say, 170 days of service time as a rookie, thus buying that extra year of control.
The best example of this is Kris Bryant. Three years ago the Cubs sent Bryant, who was so obviously ready for the big leagues, to Triple-A for two weeks at the start of the 2015 season, claiming his defense needed work. Two weeks later, he was brought up. The Cubs will now get six full seasons and most of a seventh full season from Bryant before he qualifies for free agency thanks to those two weeks in Triple-A. The same has happened to many other prospects.
Acuna, 20,and he did all you could want a top prospect to do in the minors last season. He hit .325/.374/.522 with 31 doubles, 21 homers and 44 stolen bases in 139 games while rising from High Class-A to Triple-A. Acuna then won Arizona Fall League MVP honors by hitting .325/.414/.639 with seven homers in 23 games for the Peoria Javelinas after the season.
The Braves traded Matt Kemp over the winter and have an opening for Acuna in their lineup, and yet he might wind up back in the minors to start the season anyway, so the Braves can get that extra year of control. Players are not oblivious to this service time manipulation. Acuna spoke about it with MLB.com's Mark Bowman last month:
"I've talked to some people, and I think the debate is whether they should keep me [with Triple-A Gwinnett] for a couple weeks or a month or however that works, contractually, to benefit the team," Acuna said through an interpreter. "I've tried not to focus on any of that. My goal is just to compete for the roster spot and hopefully make the team."
As for Torres, he will compete for New York's second base job this spring, but could also wind up in Triple-A to begin the season. For what it's worth, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told David Lennon of Newsday the team is not concerned with service time and will take the best team north out of spring training.
"It's not part of my evaluation process," Cashman told Newsday. "We're trying to win. If we feel that somebody could benefit from more time in the minors, we'll make that decision at the end of camp. But I'll take all the information from what I see and factor that into the evaluation. Every win for us is valuable."
That sounds great, but here's the thing: GMs always say that. The next GM who admits a top prospect is going to Triple-A to delay free agency will be the first. Torres knows what's up -- "I want to play. I feel like a kid with a new toy. I don't think about whether I'll make [the roster] Opening Day or go to [Triple-A] Scranton or the minor leagues for two weeks," he said to Dan Martin of the New York Post -- and there's nothing he can do about it, really. He just has to play hard and force the issue.
The MLBPA, however, can file a grievance on behalf of both players, alleging their teams are acting in bad faith and not abiding by the original intentions of the service time rules. Such a grievance would not be unprecedented. The union filed grievances on behalf of both Bryant and Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco three years ago for this very reason, service time manipulation. Nothing came from the grievances, but the MLBPA tried.
The tricky part is making a case that Acuna is clearly MLB ready and doesn't belong in Triple-A. The Yankees have a convenient excuse for sending Torres to Triple-A: He had Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow last June and hasn't played since. Sending a just-turned 21-year-old kid back to Triple-A following a major injury is in no way unreasonable. The Yankees wouldn't have a hard time defending their decision to send Torres down, should they do so.
Acuna, however, is perfectly healthy, and he has been dominant. The Braves have an open outfield spot and given the available personnel -- Atlanta is tentatively scheduled to start Lane Adams or Preston Tucker in left field alongside Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis -- it seems obvious Acuna is the best man for the job. Consider some 2018 WAR projections:
The objective and independent projection systems see Acuna as the best left field option this season -- ZiPS projects Acuna to be one of the best players on the Braves overall -- and yet he might not get the job. It's one thing to bury the kid behind a proven veteran like Kemp. It's another to bury him behind career journeymen like Adams and Tucker.
Of course, the Braves can come back and say Acuna is still a 20-year-old kid with only 54 games of Triple-A experience -- he hit .344/.393/.548 with nine homers in those 54 games -- and they want to send him back down for some fine tuning. These service time grievances are always ruled in favor of the team because how can the MLBPA prove the player is MLB ready? It's very subjective.
That said, the grievance would not be pointless. It would create some headaches for the team(s) involved and it would draw more attention to service time manipulation, especially if the MLBPA does it again and again and again. File a grievance for Acuna, file a grievance for Torres, file a grievance for Rays righty Brent Honeywell, file a grievance for Nationals outfielder Victor Robles. Just keep hammering away and maybe one day the MLBPA will win a grievance and change the service time game.
Right now, there's not much the union can do to increase spending. Yeah, Darvish and Hosmer cashed in big recently, but many top free agents are still unsigned, and a small army of second- and third-tier free agents are unemployed. Hosmer getting that contract doesn't mean everything is OK now. The union should still still be concerned about the free-agent market.
, and battling service time manipulation is one way to do that. In Acuna (and Torres), the union has a major service time grievance on the horizon, and it should prepare the best possible case between now and then.