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New Target field policy...no bags of any kind

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Ex Twins in 2021: Where Are They Now?

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Why isn't Buxton on MLB OPS leaders list?

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Service Time: Fixing What Is Clearly Broken

“Service Time Manipulation” has become a common term in regards to baseball over the last few years. It has again reared its ugly head after comments made by former Seattle Mariners President Kevin Mather became public.
Image courtesy of © Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports
Mather, inexplicably, shared unspoken but well-known secrets about how teams… well, his team, specifically, will keep MLB-ready players in the minors to prolong team control for an additional season.

This isn’t new and certainly isn’t a secret. The Cubs did it to Kris Bryant. The Blue Jays did it to Vlad, Jr. The Twins, who never played service time games under Terry Ryan, did it to Byron Buxton in 2018 by not bringing him back for September, while healthy, to leave him 12 days short of achieving a “service year.” Because of that, Buxton will enter his last year of arbitration after this season, instead of becoming a free agent.

Some might argue that manipulating service time after winning a Gold Glove and receiving MVP votes is an even worse look than doing it before a player’s major league career begins, but I digress. That is not the point of this article.

This is an idea of how to fix the problem. It’s just an idea. It’s not designed to solve all the problems; however, it is designed to eliminate “service time manipulation.” (Ultimately, teams and agents will continue to look for loopholes to best serve the side they are on.)

Currently, players need to be on a major league roster for 172 days to get credit for a full year. There are exceptions, for example, if you’re on the 40-man roster and start the season on an optional assignment and get recalled within the first 20 days of the season, you get credit for those service days.

Kris Bryant was not on the 40-man, so the Cubs simply held him down until 171 days were left in the season, selected his contract and knew that, no matter what, they’d have his service for almost seven full seasons instead of six.

One solution would be to handle free agency the same way as Super-2 status and award the top group (for arbitration it’s 17%) of players with 5+ years of service time free agency at the conclusion of the season. I wouldn’t love it and teams would likely never agree to it. Could you imagine going into a trade deadline and not knowing if your best pitcher is going to be a free agent after this season or next season?

Another solution would be to make all players free agent-eligible after three years of arbitration, which would essentially let Super-2 players hit free agency one year sooner. It would be simple enough, but teams would still control this and could potentially hold players down longer to miss the Super-2 threshold, thus extending team control for a year. (The advantage would be that the “threshold” isn’t known until the end of the season and that free agency is still three (or four) seasons away.)

The problem with both ideas and the current method is they are both based on service time and clubs hold all the control over that. Therein lies the rub.

So let’s peel this back even further, to when teams first acquire player’s rights.

Without getting into all the minutiae of how everything works from initial player acquisition to free agency, the basic timeline goes like this:
  • Players are drafted (typically as high school seniors or third-year college players) or signed internationally (at 16 years old).
  • Teams sign players to a minor-league contract that can be renewed up to six times.
  • After four or five years (depending on how old the player was when acquired), teams must protect the player on the 40-man roster or risk losing him.
  • Once a player is on the 40-man roster, he can be held in the minor leagues for three (or four) years on “optional assignments.”
  • When a player reaches three years of MLB service (or if you’re a Super-2), you enter your three (or four) arbitration years.
  • Once a player reaches six years of service, he finally becomes a free agent.
So, in theory, you can hold a player in the minors for seven years, add him to the 40-man for three seasons and then finally see him make his debut 11 years after joining the organization, potentially making him free agent-eligible up to 17 years after being brought into the organization. (This never happens, by the way. But could.)

More likely, though, players are added to the 40-man when they’d be Rule 5 eligible (after four or five years), bounce up and down for a year or two and then are major leagues, hitting free agency 10-13 years after being drafted or initially signed.

For reference, Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios were drafted in 2012 and will be free agent-eligible after the 2022 season. Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler were signed in 2009. While all three have signed extensions, Sano would reach free agent-eligible service time after the 2021 season, while Polanco and Kepler are likely to do it after the 2022 season. Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis, two of the fastest moving prospects, would hit free agency 10 years after becoming professionals.

So let’s eliminate “service time” all together from free agent eligibility as it seems to all balance itself out over time anyway.

Here’s the idea:

If you’re signed at 19 or older, teams get 11 seasons of control.
If you’re signed at 17 or 18, teams get 12 seasons of control.
If you’re signed at 16, teams get 13 seasons of control.

If you miss a significant amount of any season (“significant” can be negotiated or defined by someone independent… but I’m thinking Tommy John surgery), add one year of control.

After your third season accumulating service time in the Major League, you’re eligible for arbitration. (If you are on the roster for one day or every day, it counts towards the three seasons.) Every season from the fourth season until free agency, you are eligible for arbitration.

If you win League MVP or Cy Young at any point before your last two years of control, the last season of control becomes a player option at a price to be determined and accepted or declined prior to the last season of control.

The motivation for everyone now becomes getting your best players to the show quicker. For teams, it is more seasons of your player; For players, it is more chances to make money.

What do you think? Is it time to abolish the current rules and start over? Or do we simply adopt the rules laid out above?

Disclaimers:

Are the 11, 12 and 13 years of control the right lengths? I don’t know, but it’s a start. And it’s close.

Whenever I say “arbitration,” I’m talking about a process that helps determine salaries. I think the current process is garbage, but how to fix arbitration is a story for another day.

Does the ability to reduce control have to be tied to winning MVP or Cy Young? Absolutely not. Not specifically those awards nor only those awards. Could an independent metric like WAR be a factor? Yes! All told, this would be a great thing to negotiate in the CBA. I just don’t want it to have anything to do with the amount of days a player has spent in the major leagues.

I used Soto and Tatis as examples and, as such, they would basically spend three extra years in the majors before free agency, which theoretically seems like a not great deal for them. Players could and would still sign big deals like Tatis did. On the flip side of that, Soto *could* go through the arbitration process six times. Could you imagine how much money he would stand to make in those final three years? He could be the highest paid player in baseball.

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37 Comments

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Channing1964
Feb 24 2021 07:22 PM
It's a big mess and I had hoped I'd never see another strike in my lifetime. Sadly it is inevitable.

I actually really like this idea... I do think the number of years would be an issue. That said, the idea of - as in your Soto example - of a guy having six years of arbitration is intriguing. 

 

And also, teams may have tough decisions on whether or not to tender (or non-tender) guys in those years as well. That would allow them to become free agents earlier. 

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Jeremy Nygaard
Feb 24 2021 07:50 PM

I actually really like this idea... I do think the number of years would be an issue. That said, the idea of - as in your Soto example - of a guy having six years of arbitration is intriguing. 
 
And also, teams may have tough decisions on whether or not to tender (or non-tender) guys in those years as well. That would allow them to become free agents earlier.


You're already giving up a ton of years with minor league years + optional years + six years of service. Even the best players aren't hitting free agency within 10 years of signing.

Sure, maybe the years are too long. But let's start the clock at signing so we can move on from the in-career (lack of) moves that pit teams vs players.

There would probably be better players getting non-tendered... or likely traded.

Yes, move this along, get rid of arbitrary restraints.If arbitration isn't working fix that too.Who raised the salary bar?The players could not pay themselves.Look at Trout, Tatis, and the others who have been given exhorbitant contracts even when the teams are bidding against themselves.The poor owners are asking for help to control their own idiocy.

 

A system that prevents a college player from reaching free agency until his 30s or so is probably a non-starter with the players' association. I'd also question whether the intent was to further hollow out the NCAA baseball program and basically coerce every good prospect to sign professionally after high school.

    • Major League Ready and Doctor Gast like this
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Jeremy Nygaard
Feb 24 2021 09:13 PM

A system that prevents a college player from reaching free agency until his 30s or so is probably a non-starter with the players' association. I'd also question whether the intent was to further hollow out the NCAA baseball program and basically coerce every good prospect to sign professionally after high school.


The current system is going to prevent Kris Bryant from reaching free agency until he's 30.
I like the idea, although I agree with the others that these particular parameters seem harsh on college draftees.

Maybe just make it universally age-based, so free agency at age 29?
    • 4twinsJA likes this

The current system is going to prevent Kris Bryant from reaching free agency until he's 30.


And your proposal suggests it should be pushed back to age 32?

You're already giving up a ton of years with minor league years + optional years + six years of service. Even the best players aren't hitting free agency within 10 years of signing.


Bryant will be a free agent 8.5 years after signing. The best players aren’t always using all of their options or minor league years.
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tony&rodney
Feb 24 2021 09:49 PM

Baseball had total control of all players until Curt Flood led to change. Clearly, it seems from the obvious manipulation of the current system by baseball management, a new form of change is now near. What that looks like will be up to the next CBA.

 

The game is negatively impacted when a team uses a lesser player in championship competition due to an ability to extend years of control for a player's years of service. Individual careers are also affected. Baseball owners and management would be stupid to not seek a continuation of the current system and would be even more pleased with a return to the good old days. The union has to see that there must be some changes. A compromise of sorts will need to be worked out between the players and owners that each can live with going forward after this season. We, the fans, will live with that system in the same manner as other changes that have occurred down through the decades.

 

A question that keeps coming back to me is how can people see a person's choice of employment, regarding location and working conditions, as reasonably tied down for a period of a decade. Why? There must be some parallels in different careers or jobs, but I cannot think of a job where one is tied to an owner who picks them and then controls their destiny for a decade or much more. Keep in mind that baseball is a closed system. 

 

I appreciate that owners deserve to make money like anyone else and repeatedly tell young people that they better hope that their employment offers some financial gain for their employer or they will soon be out of a job; no mon, no fun. However, I would expect to see a reduction in those service years in the next CBA. 

 

We can be certain baseball will survive no matter how radical a change. It is almost impossible to understand where the union will make a stand. If I had to draw an arbitrary line as the post discusses, a quick pick would be an age - free agency at 24/25. Then again, perhaps the union prefers arbitration years. Sure to be interesting.

 

I like the idea, although I agree with the others that these particular parameters seem harsh on college draftees.

Maybe just make it universally age-based, so free agency at age 29?

 

yeah, while I like this idea, it's clear that (as with any deal) details would have to be worked out. Maybe there are more age breakdowns. 

 

21-year-old: 9 years.

22-year-old: 8 years. 

23-year-old and older 7 years. 

 

I'm sure if a study was done looking at MLB players who reach 8+ years in professional baseball and determine an average longevity for those players to reach free agency, probably since the current CBA details have been in effect... a huge percentage of those don't get to 9 or 10 years, or never do become free agents... but for those that do, it'd be interesting to know. I'm sure someone could do some study on that. 

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Jeremy Nygaard
Feb 24 2021 11:30 PM

And your proposal suggests it should be pushed back to age 32?


Like I said, I'm not sure that the years are right. Maybe they're too long... but the idea is simply to start the clock at the initial signing, not an arbitrary time that the team decides, and then give the teams the option to stop and start as they desire.

There are going to be groups of players that would look at this and think, "Nope. This is bad for us." Look at the current setup and it's probably the same.

But the idea that the Union is going to negotiate a deal that makes it better for all the player groups... well, the owners aren't going to fall for that either.

I do think, though, that in this world of give-and-take, the players would give a little bit to escape the perils of Service Time Manipulation.

If it was simply aged-based free agency, don't you think that would have the same, negative impact on drafting older, college players? I'd avoid drafting them altogether... and sign a whole bunch of 16 year olds instead.

 

If it was simply aged-based free agency, don't you think that would have the same, negative impact on drafting older, college players? I'd avoid drafting them altogether... and sign a whole bunch of 16 year olds instead.

With hard caps on draft and international spending, there's no real benefit to doing that anymore. You could prefer 18 year old high school draftees to 21 year old college draftees, I suppose (and I'm sure some teams already do in some situations), but most of those high school guys aren't going to contribute much in MLB before age 23 anyway.

 

And this ignores your point about extended arbitration. Yes, drafting a 22 year old Brent Rooker gets you fewer years of control if he's a free agent at age 29, but with fewer opportunities for arbitration, they're potentially cheaper overall. And his pre-arb years will be closer to his projected "prime" age seasons.

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nicksaviking
Feb 25 2021 08:26 AM

I'm all for fixing it, but I don't see any solution that doesn't greatly help the big spending clubs and greatly hurt the small spending clubs. If Carlos Beltran or Manny Machado now have to be traded when they are 23-24 instead of when they are 25-27 the talent disparity is going to be exasperated to an even greater degree.

 

I really think this has to be done in tandem with a greater revenue sharing system. Even if no one can agree to a hard salary cap, there has to be a hard salary floor, and it has to be significantly higher than clubs like Pittsburgh, TB and Oakland are currently willing go to. If the luxury tax threshold is 210M, the floor has to be something like 150M.

    • DocBauer, Vanimal46 and gagu like this

 

I do think, though, that in this world of give-and-take, the players would give a little bit to escape the perils of Service Time Manipulation.

Agreed that there would have to be give-and-take, but Service Time Manipulation primarily just affects a small subset of players, with Bryant being the poster boy. I think any proposal that pushes free agency way back for members of that high-profile subgroup is probably a non-starter.

 

I'm all for fixing it, but I don't see any solution that doesn't greatly help the big spending clubs and greatly hurt the small spending clubs. If Carlos Beltran or Manny Machado now have to be traded when they are 23-24 instead of when they are 25-27 the talent disparity is going to be exasperated to an even greater degree.

I'm not so sure. Beltran and Machado are going to be much more valuable at age 23-24 under this proposed system, than they are at age 25-27 under the current system. Hence, low-revenue teams will have less incentive to trade them, and/or the ability to demand greater trade returns.

If the luxury tax threshold is 210M, the floor has to be something like 150M.

I too would like to see a floor. But $150M sounds more than a tad high to me. I don't know where the "50% of revenue" target for major league salaries actually came from, and it probably presumes a right to a 15% profit on revenues so I am willing to let the least successful teams fail to hit that target by a bit, or even (*gasp*) lose money in an occasional year. But there are 7 teams with revenue (according to Forbes) below $275M, and I don't think those teams are just lazy and need some new incentive to market themselves better. The Miamis and Oaklands are going to have a problem with such a high floor. A floor of even $110M would be such a huge step in the right direction anyway, and would be a show of good faith.
 

    • DocBauer likes this

I think a combination of set years of control from day of signing or drafting and additional spots of protection could be interesting. As the league streamlines the minor league systems maybe make the protection of the 40 man roster be a 52 man roster. That covers your ML and AAA team. So you have to be ready to have your best prospects in AAA after a set number of years after acquisition.

 

16-18 year old signees/draftees get 10 years total control, protected on 52 man after 5 years

19 or 20 year old signees/draftees get 8 years total control, protected on 52 man after 4 years

21+ year old signees/draftees get 7 years total control, protected on 52 man after 3 years

 

So you're hitting free agency at 26-28 years old, but have to be protected and there's no reason not to have them in the bigs if they're ready since you're gaining no extra years of control, but able to do the up and down dance between the majors and minors at 21 to 24ish years old. Don't necessarily have to have your guys in AAA if they're on the 52 man roster, but felt like a good number as it covers 2 roster sizes. Years and roster size may need tweaking, but that's my general idea.

 

 

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nicksaviking
Feb 25 2021 11:00 AM

 

I'm not so sure. Beltran and Machado are going to be much more valuable at age 23-24 under this proposed system, than they are at age 25-27 under the current system. Hence, low-revenue teams will have less incentive to trade them, and/or the ability to demand greater trade returns.

 

It's not about their value, it's about moving them and still getting a return for them before they jet off to the big markets. The earlier their initial service time is up, the earlier the clubs will have to reckon with losing them.

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nicksaviking
Feb 25 2021 11:06 AM

 

I too would like to see a floor. But $150M sounds more than a tad high to me. I don't know where the "50% of revenue" target for major league salaries actually came from, and it probably presumes a right to a 15% profit on revenues so I am willing to let the least successful teams fail to hit that target by a bit, or even (*gasp*) lose money in an occasional year. But there are 7 teams with revenue (according to Forbes) below $275M, and I don't think those teams are just lazy and need some new incentive to market themselves better. The Miamis and Oaklands are going to have a problem with such a high floor. A floor of even $110M would be such a huge step in the right direction anyway, and would be a show of good faith.
 

 

Yeah, I just pulled a number out of the air, but I don't think there should be a 100M gap between the floor and the luxury tax. I think the floor should be uncomfortable for enough clubs to compel greater revenue sharing, which will in turn compel more teams to pay their young stars market value.

 

An uncomfortably high floor may in turn provoke a better broadcast situation too. The big clubs may be incentivized to not let the small and mid market clubs succumb to unfriendly TV deals. Heck, it then might just be easier for the league to consolidate broadcasting under one umbrella like every other sport, finally making the game more accessible.

 

It's not about their value, it's about moving them and still getting a return for them before they jet off to the big markets. The earlier their initial service time is up, the earlier the clubs will have to reckon with losing them.

I'm not sure I understand. Under Jeremy's proposal, the Royals would have controlled Beltran through age 29 instead of age 27 -- two additional seasons. And the Orioles would *still* have control over Machado for 2021, 3 seasons beyond when they lost control of him under the current system.

    • nicksaviking likes this

I think some of the things you bring up as possible solutions could be viable.The flat years I think teams would like, but players would not, just as you pointed out it would make all players FA at same age, unless they are college players.If you want to go flat rate you need to add a college player years, or just say all players become FA at age 'x'

 

The younger that is the more players would be for it, and less teams would.The issue you would run into the the arbitration thing is some teams will still keep guys in minors to save money, which is not good for the game or the players.For example, a bottom feeding team will not want to bring up a player to get some MLB experience knowing that will create a year of more money.They will keep a guy down if they know they have no chance to win, because it will be one more cheap year of the player. 

 

I would be against the awards taking a year off, because it would lead to teams resting players to keep stats down too, unless you were going for the ship.I mean why would a bottom feeding team want to play a guy to get possible award that takes a year from team control.Even worse, if it is that second to last year and out of no where boom they are FA.If you wanted to compensate and use WAR or something like that, give them bonus based on WAR. 

 

No matter the rules teams will try to find ways to exploit them to their advantage, and players will try to find ways as well.I do have a feeling this will be hot topic in new CBA.

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Major League Ready
Feb 25 2021 11:47 AM

My only real concern with the new CBA is how it impacts parity and the relative ability of our team to compete. I don’t know why any fan is worried about how much the players get. Player compensation has increased and a mind boggling rate for 50+ years. The average TD household would be earning $3.17M annually if our wages had increased at the same rate. The average player makes almost 100 times the average adult in the US. Top players make more than 500 times the average. How much is enough? Why are we worried about player salaries while paying a hefty toll to attend games in a decent seat and $10 for a beer. Let’s worry about the sanctity of the game and further advantaging large markets is not consistent with protecting the game.

 

I really doubt significantly increasing revenue sharing is going to fly. How do you ask the large market owners to agree to drastically reduce the value of their franchise and their income? The new owners would really be taking it in the shorts. The players would certainly not agree to anything that would have significant negative financial impact. Having said this … Increased revenue sharing and anything else that improves parity is what I most hope to see from the new CBA

 

I also don’t see the financial upside for players most seem to think will result from less years of control. Teams are not going to spend more because players are free agents earlier. Their budgets are based on revenue. A spending floor would increase spending somewhat because those clubs have available funds. The downside would be that they would be forced to sign veterans instead of developing their prospects. I assume that’s not what we would want as fans if our team was rebuilding.

    • gagu and heresthething like this

Hey Jeremy, you mentioned 17% as the number for players with the most service time between 2 and 3 years to be eligible for Super 2.Wasn't that changed to 22% at some point? Just wondering, maybe I'm mistaken. Not that it matters too much as it probably buys the players an extra week.

 

The issue you would run into the the arbitration thing is some teams will still keep guys in minors to save money, which is not good for the game or the players.For example, a bottom feeding team will not want to bring up a player to get some MLB experience knowing that will create a year of more money.They will keep a guy down if they know they have no chance to win, because it will be one more cheap year of the player.

I think generally the arbitration process would have to be refined too, because right now players are compared to others in the same service time group. But with Jeremy's requirement that 1 day on the roster counts as a season toward arbitration eligibility, you'd have arbitration qualifiers like Bryant with 3 full years, in the same arbitration cohort as Jorge Polanco, who only played 78 games through his first 3 seasons.

 

I'd suggest that while 1 day on the roster in a season would count toward eligibility, the actual arbitration award would still be based on service days / the amount you play (and the quality of your play, of course). So it wouldn't really hurt teams to call a guy up for a few weeks to get his feet wet -- he'd become arb eligible a season earlier, but wouldn't accumulate any time/stats that would balloon his future arb award.

 

To that effect, maybe arbitration could be expanded -- make current pre-arb seasons 2 & 3 subject to arbitration, just on a lower scale. Basically replacing the sometimes contentions pre-arb contract renewals we see now, but keep the modest salary structure. The more that salaries steadily climb through a player's career, as opposed to jumping suddenly in year 4 like they do now, there is less incentive for teams to manipulate usage of that player.


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