Right around this time last year, some of the hottest story lines leading up to MLB opening day revolved around the hot prospects lighting up spring training. First pitch came and went, and fans were left to wonder which team would pull the trigger and bring up their sparkling young gun first. George Springer, Gregory Polanco, Oscar Tavares, and Andrew Heaney all eventually got the call, albeit with varying degrees of success (all but Springer were eventually sent back down).
This year is no different: prospects putting up sometimes video game numbers trying to force the hands that feed them into a spot on the 40 man roster. The Dodgers Joc Pederson continues to impress, the Met’s Noah Syndergaard continues to put up K’s, and the Cub’s Kris Bryant continues to just, well, destroy - Bryant recently launched his Grapefruit League leading 9th home run.
And yet come opening day, we won’t see any of this sensational talent on the field. Why?
Once a player is drafted by an MLB franchise, they likely go two ways: play for a minor league affiliate of their major league team, or hit the college route. The moment that player hits the field in the majors on their parent squad, the clock starts ticking: that team owns the rights to that player for 6 years. Unfortunately for said players, there’s some pretty damning fine print; a full season of “time served” isn’t as simple as counting down the days to 6 years.
Rather, a full season of time served comes on the 172nd day on a major league roster out of a possible 183. By delaying a prospects call-up, a team can avoid an entire year of time served by simply leaving that player short of 172 by only a day or two. An example:
Player X hits the field for the first time on opening day of the major league year. He accrues the full minimum 172 days on the roster for that year, and will remain under the team’s control for an additional 5 years at the end of the season.
Player Y isn’t so fortunate. He lights up spring training, but gets left in the minors for the first few weeks of the season. He’s called up in May, and the team reaps all the benefits of that player’s production without having committed a full year. When Player Y’s season is up, even having played the majority of their season in the majors, their team still maintains the rights to them for an additional 6 seasons by leaving him short of a full season by only a few days. When this player is finally eligible for free agency, he will (in theory) have served his 6 full seasons, plus an additional season minus a few weeks – close to 7 years!
Teams spin it almost entirely in one direction: player development. But at the end of the day, it comes down to one factor: money. You can’t exactly fault them either way – why wouldn’t a franchise want to keep their highly touted prospect around for an additional year if only by holding them back for a couple weeks.
The problem starts with that same hand that feeds them: the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiated by the Players Association and the League. The rules agreed upon are specifically designed with major league players in mind, which is precisely the problem: neither the league nor the association care about the rights of a minor league prospect. The CBA is essentially a set of terms agreed upon with zero people at the negotiating table representing players not in the league.
This is a pretty major flaw, and not without its own spotlight. Keith Law of ESPN recently suggested a slightly revised version of the rule that would benefit both player and team, though it’s hard to imagine teams wouldn’t find another loophole regardless. Though players can be compensated fairly well during that 6 year span, the real payday comes in free agency – teams must do everything in their power to delay that inevitable transaction - teams must do everything in their power to delay that inevitable transaction since they only have a three years to do it. Per Wikipedia's page on MLB transactions:
The bottom line: players have a very specific window of time in their lives to be productive and make money - age, health, and longevity make up the key variables in what amounts to a player’s livelihood. By holding back a player just those few days, teams are essentially robbing them a year of their career and, ipso facto, their future value. Considering that an MLB player can on average expect no more than a 5.6 year career according to a study in 2007, every day matters.
In my book, everyone loses. Major league teams open up the season without their best possible squad on the field; paying fans come only to see a slightly watered down product. And to-be MLB prospects, without any representation at the bargaining table, are handcuffed into sacrificing a year of their career because of a silly rule. In this ‘Tommy John’ era of baseball where a pitcher is one awkward throw away from a potentially career derailing injury (31 MLB cases alone last year, receiving a surgery with an 80% success rate), or a batter one fastball to the head from never making it back, it’s absolutely time to start thinking about what time served should mean, and not how it’s defined in an agreement motivated solely by money.