Issues in collective bargaining: length of service structure

Issues in collective bargaining: length of service structure

Players are eligible for free agency after six complete seasons of major league experience under the current system. Most players start their careers on salaries that are close to the league minimum, and after three years, they are eligible for arbitration. (The Super Two exemption also allows the top 22% of players with two or more years of service to reach arbitration.)

The mechanism for assessing free agency and arbitration eligibility is expected to be one of the most controversial components of the upcoming collective bargaining talks. The MLB Players Association is anticipated to press for a change in the current system to give players more money sooner in their careers, while MLB appears to favour the status quo.

Jeff Passan of ESPN wrote earlier this week the MLBPA is hoping for players to reach free agency after six years of service or after five years of service and 29.5 years of age, whichever comes first. The Athletic reported in August they were also seeking arbitration eligibility arising after two seasons. The former ask would be an unprecedented development; since the 1975 abolition of the reserve clause, every collective bargaining agreement has set a six-year service threshold for free agency qualification. There is some precedent for the latter proposal, though. Between 1973 and 1987, players only needed two years of service to reach arbitration.

The league, unsurprisingly, hasn’t been keen on either idea. Over the summer, MLB proposed scrapping service time considerations altogether and making players first eligible for free agency at 29.5 years old. That was an obvious non-starter for the MLBPA.

While an age-based threshold would certainly be of benefit to some late-bloomers (hence the MLBPA’s desire to incorporate age into the equation to some extent), it’d also have a negative effect on many of the game’s top young stars. Carlos Correa and Corey Seager — each of whom is either expected to command or already has commanded one of the largest deals in major league history this offseason — would still be multiple years out from free agency under that kind of setup.

An age-based system would, however, address another concern players have expressed: service time manipulation. Calling up a player just days after the threshold passes for a player to earn a full season of service can give clubs a de facto seventh year of control, a loophole multiple teams have exploited when deciding when to promote their top prospects. That’d no longer be a relevant consideration under an age-based system, but even the MLBPA’s modified “age/service time hybrid” proposal could lead to gaming of players’ service clocks.

Evan Drellich of the Athletic wrote yesterday that the MLBPA has resigned itself to the potential for manipulation in any system with service time considerations. As a means of somewhat offsetting that issue, Drellich writes they’ve considered more creative ways of players “earning” service time beyond simply counting days. He floats the idea of a player who narrowly missed a service time threshold picking up additional service credit depending upon All-Star nominations or MVP voting.

Regardless of the specific form it takes, it’s clear that getting more money to early-career players is a priority for the MLBPA. Last week, Mets right-hander Max Scherzer — a member of the Players Association’s eight-person player subcommittee — told Drellich “unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid, that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”

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