A Sense of Urgency

Eugenio Suarez could be part of a vital, young Reds infield, but he’s missing a key compatriot. (via Hayden Schiff)

I follow a bad team with a low payroll that has told fans it will have money to spend when the time comes. And yet, this offseason, when the free agent market collapsed, nothing happened. The Reds (my team) didn’t sign anyone of note even though they certainly could have used a pitcher and an outfielder, at the very least. I talked myself into it with the usual “rebuild” noises. They’re the kinds of justifications many of us give ourselves after watching what the Cubs and Astros have done.

But the more I thought about it, the more bothered I was, because the Reds could have gotten better. Indeed, they could have gotten better simply by letting top-prospect Nick Senzel break camp with the team. But they didn’t. Instead, they sent Senzel to Louisville, where he’s currently cooling his heels waiting for what is hopefully a short bout of vertigo to pass so he can get back to destroying Triple-A pitching.

And this same team that didn’t sign anyone of note and didn’t call up its best prospect to help just-added Matt Harvey with the seeming intent of giving him actual time as a starter.

For all of these decisions, you can make the case that the move is good for the Reds in the long term. They gained extra control of Senzel; they might be able to flip Harvey; they figure to get another high draft pick, and so on. Other teams do exactly this kind of thing.

But it stinks.

Not only does it stink, it plays on our worst impulses as fans. Many of us think too much about the desired result and not about the experience of getting there. We want to win the World Series, and we don’t care how it’s done. Teams play on this desire when they justify not spending money, and the result is that we are getting further and further away from what should be every fan’s goal: having – as nearly as is possible — the 750 best players available filling out the rosters of the 30 major league teams.

How the System Is Flawed: Players on the Cusp

Last season I wrote a piece in which I found that, among other things, the rostering of players 22 years old and younger declined severely when the modern system of free agency was implemented. This was the first instance of service-time manipulation. This isn’t a revelatory notion. If you know you have a finite number of years of control over a player before he can depart in free agency, it makes sense to wait until he’s able to perform at something close to his peak level before you call him up. Essentially, you want the player’s six best years to be the years during which you get to pay him much less than he would otherwise be worth on the open market.

In recent years, we’ve seen this concept extend further, so that many teams either wait two weeks to gain an extra year of control or two months to gain an extra year while avoiding an extra year of arbitration. Service-time manipulation is an explicit violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but teams have become very good at not saying why they are keeping a player down, making it a very difficult case to prove.

Again, these tactics make a certain kind of business sense. They may be good for your team, but they also ensure we are not seeing the best baseball teams we can see in what is supposed to be the best professional league in the world.

This season, notably, it kept not just Senzel, but also Ronald Acuña, from breaking camp with their respective clubs. And there are players like Aaron Judge, Joey Votto, and — to a lesser extent — Todd Frazier who endured the same. There is a fairly large list of players who we know to be good or even great major leaguers, who hit very well in the minors, but were kept down because their profile indicated keeping them down an extra year or two increased the surplus value a team stood to gain from their first six years. 

Before free agency, we would have watched these player grow from solid contributors to genuine stars over the course of several years. As a fan, it’s hard not to feel that I’d rather have seen, for instance, Votto be good for two or three WAR a year for an extra season or two instead of bearing witness to the end of Scott Hatteberg’s career.

How the System Is Flawed: Prospects without Large Bonuses

Not often, but sometimes, players who are drafted late and aren’t given much in the way of signing bonuses become not just major leaguers but excellent ones. The quintessential example of this is Mike Piazza of the 63rd round.

Recently, MLB was able to successfully lobby for a bill predicated on bizarre notion that being a professional baseball player is a 40-hour-per-week job that requires work only during the season. The bill formally exempted minor league players from federal overtime laws by classifying them as seasonal employees. Most make the equivalent of 40-hours of minimum wage for every week they work during the season. That’s about $1,200 a month. Minor leaguers also aren’t paid during spring training, meaning many make right around $6,000 a year.

The argument was that teams simply could not afford to pay minor leaguers more, and that tracking their overtime hours was too complex. The fact is that a team controlling 175 minor leaguers could pay them all $30,000 per year for a total of $5.25 million, which while not insignificant, is a cost that every major league organization could absorb.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Even setting aside the argument that workers ought to be paid for their work, it matters because the current wage system forces some players out of the game not because they lack the skill to keep playing but because they can’t support themselves. MLB, of course, was notoriously slow to realize that unpaid internships drastically thin the talent pool when staffing a front office, so it’s unsurprising that it doesn’t see low wages to minor league players as an issue. But it is one more factor that may — even if only slightly — ultimately diminish the quality of major league baseball.

Piazza is an excellent example because he famously came from a family of means. He was able to stick. Not all players can. Indeed, the stories of minor leaguers struggling to make ends meet are many, and it’s impossible to believe some aren’t forced out of professional baseball by a pay scale that’s almost impossible to survive on. They are forced to choose between playing ball and a stable livelihood. Piazza is the classic example of a late-round pick who made good, but he’s hardly alone. Albert Pujols was a 13th-round pick; Mark Buehrle was drafted in the 38th round; Travis Hafner was taken in the 31st round. How many of those guys have we missed out on because they couldn’t make it work financially?

How the System Is Flawed: Tanking

Draft picks help build winning teams. High draft picks help more. If you know you don’t have a shot at the playoffs, why not tank and aim for the high draft pick, right? Sure, I get it, but it stinks. Wouldn’t baseball be more fun for fans if everyone tried to win?

The 800-Pound Gorilla

We haven’t discussed the changing financial structure of MLB. Major League Baseball and its teams are much more of a unified corporation now, with the owners functioning more as shareholders than as true competitors. Thanks to large joint ventures like MLB’s Central Fund, revenue sharing and the sale of BAMTech, you don’t necessarily have to win to make money (as the Marlins sale has shown us), and that makes the product on the field matter less.


Every single game should matter to a major league club. I know that’s a controversial statement, but stick with me. Many fans are okay with teams not actively trying to compete in hopes of building for the future. Some of that will always be taking place, but it will be better for everyone if we move past an era where there is true incentive to suppress talent at the major league level. The simple fact is that baseball is more fun to watch when it’s played as well as it can be. It allows fans the belief that their games matter, that their teams care, that the purpose for which we are all gathered is the thrill of winning, rather than some cynical financial ploy.

Essentially, if every team uses (or abuses, depending on your view) the system to maximize its chances of winning a World Series, the quality of play is suppressed. If, however, every team avoids abusing the system, the quality of play is improved without significantly altering any individual team’s chances at a championship in either the near term or the long term.

Any proposed solution has to do three things: It has to incentivize best practices when it comes to player development, it needs to encourage teams to call up players as soon as they are legitimate major leaguers, and it has to disincentivize tanking.

Minor league pay is the gating factor that is the least likely to change, at least as long as minor leaguers lack union representation. For it to change, a front office would have to eschew intense institutional pressure to keep minor league pay constrained to current levels. A front office would have to see a tremendous amount of benefit from players drafted without significant signing bonuses. It seems more likely that minor leaguers will see their conditions change through organized agitation rather than a general manager breaking the mold.

Anti-tanking measures likely would require a modification of the draft or the playoff system. I’ve seen various solutions proposed already. The goal is the same: to limit the number of teams that are truly, truly awful. Teams no one has any interest in watching should be prevented at all costs.

But the most obvious area that needs to be addressed is the one that keeps top prospects in the minors. It’s also the one that would be the hardest to address in any upcoming collective bargaining negotiations because neither side has real interest in changing the status quo. Both the owners and major league veterans — who wield most of the power in the union — have an interest in keeping the labor market static. The Players Association doesn’t represent minor leaguers. Teams want to avoid calling a player up until they can get his peak years at a discount; veterans want to minimize the competition for major league jobs.

What needs to happen is an alteration of how long teams can control players that also merges, to some extent, the major and minor league service time rules. For instance, there could be a stipulation that all players become free agents at the age of 28 or after seven years of signing their first professional contract (with obvious exceptions for Latin players who sign before they turn 18), whichever comes first. There would also have to be adjustments to how pre-arbitration and arbitration years work. I would suggest that arbitration apply only to players who are in their age-26 season or later and who have at least two years of service time.

In that circumstance, a Bryce Harper or a Kris Bryant ends up being heavily team-friendly while still getting a huge payday. Todd Frazier, on the other hand, starts making arbitration money before he becomes a free agent while also probably getting called up sooner.

This would be an incredibly complicated negotiation, but the primary point is that the extent to which a player is cost-controlled needs to be tied to his age rather than his service time. Though there would be some exceptions (more than a few players have falsified their ages, after all), service time is a lot easier to manipulate than a birthday.

Heck, maybe the best solution would just be a simple one: All players become free agents following their age-27 season, regardless of accrued major league service time. That gets players up as soon as they’re useful and insures a pre-decline payday for every major league player who wants to test the waters.

The goal of all of these suggestions is to make sure that we, as fans, are getting the best possible product. There are discussions to be had about labor conflict and the way revenue is distributed. But no matter what happens in those negotiations, we are all better off if every team is incentivized to field the best 25 players it can find.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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Marc Schneider
6 years ago

Another problem, it seems to me, is that profitability in all sports, not just baseball, is increasingly divorced from actual attendance. With TV and internet revenue, I’m not sure how much owners care about actual attendance and this revenue is less impacted (although some) by how bad the team is. Back in the day, teams’ revenue was tied to how many people came to the game so that fans unsatisfied with the product could voice their displeasure by not buying, as in any other business. Owners were more incentivized to improve their product so that more people would come. We’ve seen how owners, such as in Miami, can be profitable by having a low payroll and poor attendance because there are other sources of revenue, largely a product of having more successful teams, that do not rely on people actually coming to the games. I don’t know how to resolve this problem, but the market just is not functioning correctly when quality and profit are not in line.

6 years ago

Thanks for the great article, I’m also troubled by the tanking phenomenon.
My suggestion would be to reduce the time before rule 5 eligibility to say 2 years. Pairing this with either starting the service time clock when a player is added to the 40 man roster, and reducing pre arb and arbitration time to a year or two would help. Possibly longer pre free agency periods for revenue sharing teams. This would encourage teams to call up quality players or lose them and reduce the ability to stockpile prospects like the Astros did.
Perhaps tightening revenue sharing eligibility based on major league payroll would force teams to compete.

6 years ago

Great article. What role, if any, do you think the Wild Card games play in inhibiting player movement during the midseason, post All Star period. It seems a lot of teams hang on to talent they might otherwise have traded, hoping against hope they might snag a WC birth.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jason Linden

I’m of the opinion frankly that by causing better players to stay in residence instead of being traded to the truly competitive pool, it has the unintended consequence of stopping younger player from reaching MLB sooner by moving into freed spots previously occupied by those traded. In addition, it drives contract lengths to longer duration on teams who keep potential trade candidates, hoping against hope they can crack into later October baseball.

6 years ago
Reply to  Jason Linden

Any increase in the number of playoff teams would need a fundamental reorder of the draft and series format. If half the teams make it top seeds need a greater advantage. Like 5 home games in. 7 game series.

I already don’t like the demphasis on the regular season. Winning 100 games only to get a 1 game home field advantage and lose to a 79-81 team in5 sounds dreadful.

6 years ago

My problem is not with the idea of “tanking” per se, but that the current Rule 5 and 40-man roster rules don’t “churn” talent to the majors fast enough. That may be a distinction without a difference, however, and I think both problems have a (fairly simple) common solution:

1. Significantly speed up Rule 5 draft eligibility requirements: 18-and-under signees become eligible after 3 years, 19-and-over signees become eligible after 2 years.

2. Keep the framework of 6-year free agency, but base it on 40-man roster time, rather than major league service time.*

Let’s use the Ronald Acuña saga to illustrate the domino effects of these changes. With these rules in place, Acuña would have been eligible for the Rule 5 draft after the 2017 season. The Braves would have to add him to the 40-man roster, as he would obviously be a Rule 5 selection. This move means Acuña’s free agency clock is ticking at the start of 2018, whether he is in the majors or the minors. So there is no incentive to keep him in the minors.

*This would nullify the current concept of “option years”. I suggest that “option years” be re-defined to simply align with a player’s pre-arb years. Pre-arb players can be optioned freely, arb-eligible players need to clear waivers.

6 years ago

The problem of this is it shortens the window to win. The royals called up their great prospects early and let them learn the job in the majors and in the end it worked but only toward the very end of the window.if you are a small market that extra year can be very valuable.

6 years ago

As an A’s fan who has simply branched out to find more enjoyable baseball to watch (first to the Giants, now on to watching peak Trout), this hits home for me.

At first I though it clever when teams gamed the system to gain competitive advantage. But now that all teams are the wiser and there’s not as much to gain, the substantial negative side effects for the players and fans are beginning to chafe.

I like your idea for age-based free agency. Perhaps an alternative is 8 or 9 years since their draft year.

6 years ago

Free agency after the age 27 season is preferable for many reasons. More prime age free agents. Less decline years in mega contracts.

Pay scales would need to be adjusted upward for players who debut at 19 though. That 19 year old Bryce Harper would be playing more years at the minimum than aaron judge.

Free agency at age 28 or after 7 MLB seasons, whichever comes first seems fair. Both sides get something because star players in free agency come with significantly less downside risk at 28 than at 30.

6 years ago

I think the 800 pound gorilla in the room is what happens when the cable TV model changes? I just don’t see how they can keep extracting more and more for these deals. I guess it will take some years to happen but this market seems primed to fragment to me.