When the Mariners signed Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million deal following the 2013 season, it sounded like an awfully big contract, both in terms of years and dollars. Cano’s been worth his deal in the first half of the contract but now Seattle is trying to get out from under the remaining five years. Can’t blame them for that.
The Cano contract was an example of how the system sort of “worked” for the players. No one shed too many tears when Cano, before he was eligible for free agency, gave the Yankees a Dollar Value of $38 million while collecting $9 million in actual salary back in 2010. The balance was that the club would come out ahead early in a player’s career, while if the player was good enough to be productive through his arbitration years, he would get rewarded with a big contract in free agency.
But that balance is now mostly gone, as clubs don’t hand out big contracts in free agency as a regular occurrence. Sure, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado should come down with great contracts. But how many others will come close to Cano’s AAV of $24 million? Or how many five-year or more deals will be signed?
And that’s not horrible in a vacuum. Clubs shouldn’t hand out eight digit, guaranteed deals to guys in their 40s when they sign them in their early 30s. But since this new economic enlightenment is now the way the offseason game is being played, baseball needs to address how it compensates players earlier in their career.
We see too much of clubs manipulating when a rookie gets called up, as they’re more interested in getting an extra year of control and avoiding Super Two status then they are fielding the best team possible. And the arbitration process binds players to their club – at a higher, but still below-market rate – for several years. Is it too long? Maybe, maybe not. But all of those things need to be addressed in the next CBA.
The MLBPA has come under fire for not correctly reading the tea leaves and doing a better job of protecting the interest of the players in this regard with the last labor agreement. Instead, the union seemed to focus on days off for players and ensuring greater enforcement of start times on getaway days. Without a doubt, those things have value. And they benefit everyone in uniform, not just those lucky enough to play long enough to reach arbitration or free agency. But it’s hard to view what they won being worth what they lost.
The current CBA goes through the 2021 season, so it’ll be awhile before the players can address the new economic realities. Hopefully that gives them enough time to come up with a strong plan. But at the very least, their new plan should address service time manipulation and how long until players are eligible for free agency.
One of the challenging things facing the union is how to come up with a different plan, given the different roles that players have. A starting position player may play 150 games, while a reliever on the roster all season might get into 60 games and a starter will only appear in around 30. Perhaps they can come up with some type of hybrid, where they keep some version of the current service time rules for arbitration and free agency, while also introducing benchmarks that would allow the best players to get paid sooner.
Something along the lines of once a position player accrues 164 games played, he’s eligible for arbitration. Which means virtually everyone who is a regular starter would be eligible after their second season. And it could be 90 games as a reliever or 40 as a starter as thresholds for pitchers. And then say that arbitration lasts for two years before a player becomes a free agent. So, the top players would be under team control for four years.
And if that’s not long enough, you can borrow an idea from football where a team can get an extra season of control by signing a player to an additional year based on some pre-determined benchmark.
Let’s use Michael Conforto as an example. Conforto made his 164th start in 2017, meaning he would have been eligible for arbitration prior to the 2018 season. Under the current rules, Conforto is eligible for arbitration for the first time right now. So, Conforto would have reached arbitration a year earlier. The current rules have Conforto as a Met through the 2021 season, when he first becomes eligible for free agency. Under this proposed plan, Conforto would be a free agent following the 2019 season, as ’18 and ’19 would be his two arbitration seasons.
But the Mets would have the opportunity to gain an extra year of control if they guaranteed Conforto some set salary for an additional year. Prior to his first arbitration season, the Mets could sign him to a three-year deal at some benchmark – say the 10th-highest AAV salary among MLB right fielders. Or after his first arbitration season, they could sign him to a two year deal at some higher benchmark – say the 7th-highest AAV salary. The exact position of the benchmark can be tweaked to whatever makes the most sense. But this is a framework that would allow teams to keep their stars for five years while paying them closer to a market rate.
Perhaps innings rather than starts should be what the threshold for arbitration is based upon, to avoid manipulation by the clubs. The goal for the union should be to avoid the loopholes that currently exist. If Peter Alonso is the best choice at first base for the Mets, he should be there on Opening Day, not three weeks later because it’s more advantageous for the club that way.
The next CBA should contain no incentive for clubs to keep players in the minors, and it should get players to both arbitration and free agency quicker than they do now. This will allow players to get paid more during their prime seasons and still reach free agency while they have multiple productive seasons left in the tank.