In the NFL and NBA, teams hype up their top rookies to boost ticket sales as fans eagerly await to see the future of their franchise in the first game of the season. That is not the case in baseball anymore, as top rookies are held back from the Opening Day roster, even if they’re ready for the big leagues, as teams manipulate service time to push back the free agency and arbitration clock. The practice has become so blatant that it has caused tensions between owners and the union.
The status quo isn’t good for teams and it isn’t good for players, so it may be going away under the next collective bargaining agreement. The owners have already submitted a proposal to players that would eliminate service time for free agency, and instead make all players eligible for free agency once they turn 29.5 years old, according to a report last week from Joel Sherman of the New York Post. Players who turn 30 after July 1 of that season would be eligible for free agency. Sherman also reports that MLB would create a $1 billion pool, tied to revenues in future years, to be allocated to players pre-free agency by a formula to replace the arbitration system. He reports that arbitration-eligible players received around $650 million this year.
A uniform age threshold gets around the service time issue and gives players a shot at free agency possibly while they’re still in their 20s. The average player doesn’t make their MLB debut until close to their 25th birthday, so this could actually get a lot of players closer to free agency, especially players who debuted late in their careers like Whit Merrifield.
On the other hand, it also makes it so players that make their MLB debuts at a younger age have to wait longer until free agency. These are quite often some of the best players! Wander Franco, who just debuted with the Rays this year at age 20 and has already set the on-base record for a player his age, wouldn’t be eligible for free agency for another decade.
Delaying free agency until players are basically in their 30s would likely further depress spending on free agents. Teams have already begun to shy away from free agent players over 30, when players are already in their decline phase.
Perhaps the union could negotiate a provision that players can be eligible for free agency at age 29.5 or after six years of service time, whichever occurs first. But this removes much of the incentive for owners - the ability to retain good, young talent at below-market prices.
Another possibility is to tie free agency to when the player first signed a professional contract, perhaps eight years after a college player first signs, and ten years after a high school or international player signs. You could also start the clock once they are added to the 40-man roster, although there may still be some service time manipulation.
The proposal to eliminate the arbitration system is a welcome development. The arbitration system is an antiquated relic from the 1980s that has been slow to keep up with ways of evaluating players, rewards service time over performance, and keeps top players from earning anywhere near market value. A formula could be a rigid way of paying players, yet still an improvement over the current system, although the devil is in the details. Perhaps some restricted free agency in the last year or two before a player is eligible for unrestricted free agency could help those top players earn closer to what they deserve.
Overall, these proposals may be still in the owners’ favor, but they are a positive first step in negotiations. The current pay system for players is broken - it restricts player pay during their most productive years, and rewards them when they are in their decline phase. It took 40 years, but teams finally wised up and have slowed the amount of money they give out to players in their 30s, but have yet to pay more for players in their 20s because they don’t have to. The union needs to wake up to this new dynamic and fight to get more pay for players when they are in their prime.
In any case, if owners and players can agree that it is time for “service time” to go, this will be great for fans. Player personnel decisions should be made for baseball reasons, not financial ones. Fans need a chance to get excited about rookies. And I don’t ever want to hear the term “Super-Two Arbitration” again.