Entering the 2018 season, third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays system was among the top prospects in baseball. He was considered a future superstar, having torn the cover off the ball in 2017 while splitting time between A and high-A ball. But MLB Opening Day 2018 was less than two weeks after Guerrero’s 19th birthday, and his lack of experience in the high minors made for legitimate concerns not about Guerrero’s bright future but of what Guerrero was at that moment in time.
But the next five months established not only that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has worlds of potential, but that he is ready not only to survive but to thrive in Major League Baseball. He spent most of the season in AA, and in 266 plate appearances, Guerrero posted a triple-slash line of .402/.449/.671, good for a wRC+ of 203 (in other words, Guerrero was more dominant at his level than any MLB player has been at his level this season). After being promoted to AAA, Guerrero’s performance dipped…barely. In 128 plate appearances with the Buffalo Bisons, Guerrero went .336/.414/.564, good for a 175 wRC+.
Now, Guerrero is a teenager with limited exposure to MLB-caliber pitching, so he almost certainly wouldn’t be a 175 wRC+ hitter in the big leagues (to be fair, only Mike Trout projects higher than this, and barely), but by Steamer’s Rest of Season projections, Guerrero is projected to be tied for the 22nd best hitter in Major League Baseball. His expected wRC+ matches the expected marks of Jose Altuve and Francisco Lindor, and is just a hair below that of Manny Machado. There is no question that Vlad Jr. is, to put it very conservatively, among the best several hundred hitters on the planet. And yet the Blue Jays never called up Guerrero, nor seriously considered doing so, even when fellow third baseman Josh Donaldson missed most of the season with injury before being traded last week to the Cleveland Indians.
Guerrero is just the latest notable example of service time manipulation. Once players have accumulated 172 days on an MLB team’s roster, they will accumulate one year of service time. Once a player has accumulated three years of service time, he is eligible for salary arbitration (as opposed to just being paid the league minimum) and once he has accumulated six years of service time, he is eligible for free agency. There is also a “Super Two” exemption for players who just miss the cut for arbitration which MLB explains here.
The Blue Jays are not going to make the playoffs in 2018, so rather than begin Guerrero’s service time clock on games which aren’t especially meaningful to the franchise, they are working to assure that they will gain maximum benefit at minimal cost from Guerrero. Despite the fact that he will almost certainly be the Blue Jays’ top projected player for 2019 (barring an unforseen major new acquisition), Guerrero will likely begin the season in AAA, spending a token couple weeks in Buffalo before arriving in Toronto with a just low enough amount of service time to remain arbitration eligible through 2025.
Guerrero is far from the first exaxmple of this. Earlier this season, top prospect Ronald Acuna Jr. was held in AAA by the Atlanta Braves until the Braves could milk another year of control out of Acuna. Perhaps the most infamous recent example, particularly from the perspective of St. Louis Cardinals fans, is that of the 2015 Chicago Cubs, who kept notable blue-chip prospects such as Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber in AAA Iowa in the very early stage of the season. In the end, it might have cost the Cubs a division title, or at least home field advantage in the Wild Card Game, but it allowed them an additional year of underpaying their players, so few questioned the move.
Every team in baseball has figured out this workaround. The Cardinals haven’t really done anything close to it since Oscar Taveras in 2014, but that’s more a matter of scarcity of super-prospects. The Minnesota Twins, a playoff team in 2017 which finds itself far on the outside in 2018, is taking things a bit further this year, sneaking another year of control out of center fielder Byron Buxton.
It is obvious why teams are doing this. But it is hurting the game even moreso than teams not spending on top-dollar free agents. That Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Eloy Jimenez or Peter Alonso are not playing in Major League Baseball this September demonstrates a very simple truth–the quality of play in Major League Baseball is not as high as it could be. And fans have become so accustomed to it that we’ve barely noticed.
Countless national MLB analysts, including but not limited to Joe Sheehan and Keith Law, have spoken of the ridiculousness of the system while noting fan complicity in the matter. The Guerrero maneuvering, for one, is defended as being a smart move, thus excusing any associated moral failings of it. It shouldn’t be surprising that Blue Jays approach the situation from this perspective–fans are raised as fans of teams, primarily. Your favorite players will eventually retire, but your favorite teams will always exist (usually). I’m as guilty as anybody–when my favorite players leave the Cardinals, I don’t maintain more than superficial interest in their careers, but unless the DeWitt family sold the Cardinals to, like, a literal hate group, I will retain my loyalty to the team.
And for decades, particularly post-Moneyball, fans have been taught to praise and cherish efficiency of their favorite teams. It is a logical extension to treating “it’s strictly business” as Michael Corleone’s sage life wisdom rather than the words of a cunning sociopath. And it was absolutely enabled by Keith Law himself–he did, after all, name his book Smart Baseball rather than Aesthetic Baseball.
This isn’t to say that Keith Law is acting in bad faith–“baseball teams are making the financially prudent move by manipulating service time” and “baseball teams are depriving fans of joy by manipulating service time” are not mutually exclusive takes. I agree with both, in fact. But our attitude towards players’ rights to maximize their income, even when the alternative is the money being pocketed by exponentially wealthier owners, has created a complacency where we value efficiency to such a degree that we don’t bother to ask for a change in the system.
The Cardinals have (in)famously not been enormous spenders in free agency, having signed their most expensive free agent contract nearly nine years ago (for a player who had most recently played for the Cardinals, anyway). But for all the grievances about OPENING DEWALLET, larger free agent signings have been met not only with criticism, but occasionally a sense of animosity towards the player for signing it. Dexter Fowler’s dreadful sophomore season in St. Louis has been met with choruses of fans questioning his effort. Jhonny Peralta, an extreme bargain in the first year of his contract, was ridiculed during the sharp decline in the latter half of it. Even Adam Wainwright, beloved fan favorite that he should be, receives hate from fans for having the audacity to age (even if said fans don’t seem to understand the terms of his contract).
But this is a one-way street. Michael Wacha was paid the league minimum for as long as the Cardinals legally could and then begrudgingly offered arbitration. And Michael Wacha, despite being dramatically underpaid throughout his career (FanGraphs estimates his career open market value at $90.2 million, and that’s not even counting his 2013 postseason heroics), doesn’t receive that benefit of the doubt. There is no compulsive hope to see Michael Wacha become overpaid to offset how underpaid he was in the early stages of his career. Bargain-bin free agents such as Pat Neshek are cherished even as fans wouldn’t have been hurt had he been paid more.
Ultimately, the responsibility for players being paid fairly (and, especially in the case of those whose service time is being manipulated, promptly) falls primarily on the MLB Players’ Association. And while the union has been run by skilled legal minds, especially Marvin Miller but also Donald Fehr and Michael Weiner, the current executive director is Tony Clark, a former MLB first baseman who is by all accounts a decent and well-meaning man but who is likely out of his element as a labor negotiator. Last week, it was announced that attorney Bruce Meyer would take over as the MLBPA’s chief negotiater, and while Meyer’s effectiveness remains to be seen, this appears to be a sign that the union is taking seriously the notion that the team owners are willing to take advantage of them. Which they are.
Something needs to change. Perhaps the Rule 5 draft needs to be be broadened to include minor league players far more quickly than 4-5 years after being drafted. Perhaps the service time rules need to be amended to disincentivize manipulation. Perhaps the billionaires who control Major League Baseball could even pay their minor league players a living wage (even if this doesn’t have much impact on service time manipulation, they should really just do this already). But the current system is failing the sport.