Service Time Manipulation

This is probably deserving of a longer post, but I wanted to spend a few minutes to talk about the ethics of service time manipulation. Baltimore and Tampa Bay have both elected to send two of their best players to Triple-A to begin the season, opting to go with a sub-optimal roster for the beginning of 2009 in order to create a long term financial advantage by delaying the free agency for Matt Wieters and David Price.

From an organizational standpoint, there are all kinds of reasons why it makes sense. The value of having an extra year of club control over one of the elite talents in the game is tremendous, and far outweighs the incremental gains the team would get from having their best line-up on the field for the first six weeks of 2009. From a cost/benefit perspective, trading six weeks of Price or Wieters’ production in 2009 for an entire season of their production in 2015, it’s an easy call.

As fans, we usually want the organizations we root for to do whatever they can to better the organization, both short term and long term. In most cases, the fans are in total agreement with the organization and are willing to trade the benefit of seeing a player like Wieters or Price for six weeks now to get an extra year of their abilities down the line.

However, I have to wonder how we would feel if we were in the players shoes. There is no question that Wieters is the best catcher in the Orioles organization right now. No one would argue otherwise. He has done everything necessary to establish himself as the guy who can offer the most at his position, but he’ll begin the season in the International League so that the Orioles can deflate his future earnings. If this happened to you at your job, wouldn’t you be outraged? Can you imagine your boss looking you in the eye and telling you that he’s purposely giving you an undeserved negative performance review so that the company won’t give you the raise you’ve earned?

I mean, really, wouldn’t most of us want to take a swing at that guy? Somehow, though, because Wieters and Price are operating at a higher pay grade, they’re supposed to be okay with it. Why?

I’m not blaming the teams. They really are making the best decision for their own franchise, given the current rules. But isn’t it time to admit that these rules suck? Thanks to how service time and salaries are correlated, MLB is actively encouraging some teams to put an inferior product on the field to start the year. Isn’t that fantastic?

There are a lot of things in baseball that just don’t live up to common sense, unfortunately. Having rules that discourage teams from putting their best players on the field should be near the top of the list of things to get fixed.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


91 Responses to “Service Time Manipulation”

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  1. Evan says:

    I can see why the players would be annoyed, but they did (indirectly) agree to this. It’s a collectively bargained system.

    I’m not comfortable criticizing it without having a better alternative to propose.

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    • Trenchtown says:

      I’m inclined to agree. Firms are profit maximizers and rent seeking in nature and the way the collective bargaining agreement is written it is their prerogative.

      However, I wonder how these actions relate to long-term relationships between players and ball clubs. If a team is going to be partaking in this strategy I don’t think that they can complain when someone like Ryan Howard says he wants to shatter the arbitration award record.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long-term this is bad for business. By making contract negotiations a zero sum game rather then a collaboration between the team and the player it makes the players appear greedy and hurts them image and will draw less fans to the game. It’s in just as much the team’s interest to make sure their star players are well liked by their fans as it is for those players to perform.

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    • The Typical Idiot Fan says:

      “but they did (indirectly) agree to this. It’s a collectively bargained system.”

      Collectively bargained by current members of the union. How many first year amateur draftees and international signees are going to say “F this union, I wont play for MLB.” The current CBA is designed to help the veterans, not the rookies. This is exactly what Dave is talking about. You don’t walk into your new job as an 18 year old kid, piss on the union head, and say that we’re going to change stuff.

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  2. Ryan B says:

    Agreed. I’ve wondered why that date is so close to the beginning of the season so that it basically tempts the teams to hold players down for six weeks. What if this date were pushed back to the All Star Break? Then the team would not be gaining as much by holding a player down. As it is, the team basically gains a full season as Dave said (minus the six weeks). Pushing this to the Break would mean only half a season gained, at the cost of infuriating the fans. The rules need to be changed….

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  3. Berkmaniac says:

    Yeah, but most of us (probably all) are not getting paid a minimum of hundreds of thousands of dollars, with a signing bonus in the millions, so I don’t feel bad for the players. So yes, they are supposed to be okay with it. We are not talking a slightly higher pay grade, rather a ridiculously large difference in pay.

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    • MB21 says:

      Salary shouldn’t have anything to do with it. If it’s wrong to do it for someone making minimum wage then it’s wrong for someone who could make $1 billion per year. Shorting someone of the money they can earn is wrong. In fact, you’re cheating Wieters of a lot more money than you are someone who is making minimum wage.

      However, the players association agreed to this and obviously knew it would be taken advantage of by the teams so I don’t have a problem with it. I think it’s reasonable to believe that the players association was demanding something in return that the owners were reluctant to include and in the end they included it, but demanded this be included. We obviously don’t know what happened in the negotiations, but it’s unlikely the owners simply asked for this and were given it without giving anything to the Union.

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      • Evan says:

        I don’t think it makes sense to describe this as right or wrong. By virtue of being agreed to by all parties in the CBA, the concept of right and wrong ceases to apply.

        The practice is permitted. That’s all that matters.

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      • manifestus says:

        Then again, a variation of this is played out every year when we file taxes. People making minimum wage are not treated the same as the folks making 1 billion dollars per year.

        Just thought I’d insert my 2 cents :)

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      • Nathan says:

        No, right and wrong still exist. Just because something is legal, doesn’t make it morally right and just as something morally wrong isn’t necessarily illegal.

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    • JH says:

      Only people selected in the first five rounds are guaranteed a significant amount of money. Minor leaguers in Triple-A make between 15-18,000 a year. A guy drafted in the 10th round usually signs for around $10,000, and as he works his way through the minors, he makes between $8,000-$18,000 a year until he reaches the majors, at which point his salary explodes. Wieters is fine financially. A lot of players, particularly international guys, aren’t in his position.

      Giving teams an incentive to keep people in the minors who are ready to contribute is dumb. The point isn’t that the team shouldn’t do it or that you should be playing a violin for Matt Wieters. The point is that the system is broken.

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      • jwb says:

        Minor leaguers in AAA make $10,750 ($2,150/month, 5 months) unless they’re on the 40 man roster. Minor leaguers in rookie ball and short season A ball make $3,300 ($1,100/month, 3 months).

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      • jwb says:

        Oh, my source on this is A.J. Hinch, Director of Player Development for the Diamondbacks.

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  4. Kevin S. says:

    But they aren’t gaining a full season, not effectively, anyway. What’s the discount rate on a season of control six years out? I’m not saying that it isn’t worth more than the six weeks or so, especially because the player’s production will most likely be much higher down the road, but it’s not as simple as one year minus six weeks.

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    • Tim says:

      While the PV argument is fine, there are other factors, too. The Orioles have a near-zero chance of making the playoffs this year. Losing 6 weeks of ML service time in 2009 is a negligible cost…perhaps a zero cost to the team and it’s fans. Gaining a year when the team (one hopes) is competitive is far more valuable….particularly when we’re talking about a player who’s performance is projected to be among the most valuable in the game.

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  5. While I agree with the premise of your article (the rules are rather counter-intuitive and could definitely use to be re-thought), I feel like it’s slightly incorrect to be discussing Price in the same breathe as Weiters. While financial reasons might have something to do with why the Rays are sending Price down to begin the year, I really honestly believe that it has more to do with refining certain aspects of his game.

    Price has come out himself and said that while refining his change this spring, he lost the feel for his slider. He was purely a slider and fastball pitcher when he came up to the bigs last year, which is okay as a reliever, but would limit his upside as a starter. He looked less than sharp at various points this spring, plus he got shelled in his most recent start in minor league camp. And really, the Rays don’t stand to save much money on delaying Price’s arbitration deadline, since they’re already paying him his signing bonus in various installments (there was an article on this on DRaysBay a bit ago).

    Anyway, it’s definitely a good point that you’re making, but maybe switch Price’s name with Longoria’s because in that case, there definitely wasn’t any reason to keep him down besides money. “Experience failure”? Yeah, right.

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    • Ian M. says:

      I agree with you that the Rays’ decision has something to do with refining Price, but I think it has even more to do with getting something out of Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann. Both pitchers are top prospects (Hammel did spend all of last season as a little used long reliever) and both are out of options. Neither will be able to pass through waivers. The two of them, Jason Isrenhousen, and Price were all competing for only two roster spots. While it is in the team’s long term interest to delay Price’s arbitration, it is even more important to get something, either production or a trade, out of its long term investments in top prospects.

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  6. Fett42 says:

    Maybe the service time should be games played, plate appearances, batters faced, etc? Of course that raises another host of questions about whether it would affect how they are used in game…

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  7. Teej says:

    Agreed that the rules need to change. It’s just too easy to bone a player out of money he has obviously earned. I don’t blame teams for taking advantage of it, because hey, that’s the business, but I’d like to see the rule changed to where it’s much more risky for the team to do so.

    As for how much money these guys make compared with you and me, I find it mostly irrelevant. They’re getting their fair share of the profits generated in a business that they create. The reason I don’t make a half-million a year is because there’s no one willing to pay me that. But Americans are willing to pay a ton of money to watch baseball. So unless consumer demand drops, players are going to keep making more money than us. If there’s any moral choice here, it’s on us to stop giving them all our money.

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  8. Baltfan says:

    If the Orioles simply want to ensure that Wieters doesn’t accrue a year of service time this year, they only would need to keep him in the minors until 4/17. If he is called up ok that date, he would accrue 171 days of service time, which is short of the 172 required to count as a year.

    With the early off days, we’re only talking about Wieters missing 9 games, not 6 weeks.

    Also, I think it’s fair to weigh the fact that Boras clients have historically been encouraged to not sign extensions prior to being eligible for free agency, so there isn’t much concern about angering Wieters to the point that he won’t re-sign, since he probably won’t either way.

    Just two rational actors acting in their own best interests, as they do in any business.

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    • Jon says:

      I don’t think this is true.

      He would be eligible for arbitration as a super-2 player if he is among the top 17% of players with more than 2 years of service time but less than 3.

      There is no set date that would guarantee that he’s not in the top 17%. Teams are likely monitoring other players and seeing when they are called up, etc.

      I believe the generally accepted day to be safe about making sure the player is not in this group is around late May.

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  9. Basil Ganglia says:

    This is a matter that was decided upon in collective bargaining. There is no ethical issue at play here. If the players now find it objectionable they can petition to reopen the CBA or put it on the table in the next bargaining session.

    While I agree this is not fair to the individuals directly affected, such as Wieters, collective bargaining by its nature subjugates fairness to the individual to what is agreed upon by the collective.

    In terms of fairness this is no different from a layoff situation under a bargaining agreement in which layoffs are made based on seniority (more specifically, lack of seniority) rather than based on performance. Just as a skilled player like Wieters takes it in the shorts here because he doesn’t have enough years of service time, so does a junior talented aerospace machinists take it in the chops when he or she loses a job just because they don’t have enough service time with the company.

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    • Teej says:

      What’s unfortunate is these rules are collectively bargained by guys who are already major-leaguers and are making the good money. They don’t really have any incentive to make it any easier for a young buck to take their jobs. I’m not saying the veterans are going out of their way to screw over the prospects, but it’s definitely not at the top of their list of concerns.

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      • NadavT says:

        There’s a similar dynamic in hospitals and the hours that residents work. It’s not just that the veterans want to keep newcomers from taking their jobs — there’s also a sense of, “if I went through this before, then why should they have it any better than I did?” For the people making the decisions who have already gotten past getting screwed by the system, they probably look at the whole process as a character-building exercise

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      • Kenshin says:

        I don’t really understand the argument that the current collective bargaining agreement frees the team from ethical culpability. Just because it is legal to depress rookie salaries does not make it ethically acceptable to do so.

        The hospital analogy also doesn’t fly with me. I think the tension is between maximizing resident education and maintaining pt safety. I don’t think seniors are being curmodgenly when they express concern about lowering work hours.

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      • Bill says:

        Wieter’s joined the Union of his own free will. It is illegal (and certainly unethical) to force someone to join a union. I don’t know if any player has ever not joined the union, or how it would work if they didn’t, but the fact that they haven’t means that they believe the benefits of the union outweigh the problems.

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      • Brian Cartwright says:

        Wieters is not a member of the union, as membership is for players on the 40 man Major League Roster. Only in some states is it illegal to force someone to join a union. “Right to work” vs “closed shops”.

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  10. aweb says:

    “From a cost/benefit perspective, trading six weeks of Price or Wieters’ production in 2009 for an entire season of their production in 2015, it’s an easy call.”

    Is this true though? Price and Weiters are good right now, and healthy. Trading in 6 weeks (or even 3 weeks) this year of actual production and experience for 26 weeks 6 years from now? For a catcher and pitcher, being healthy and useful in 6 years is far from a sure thing. A lot of teams have been burned by those “buy out the arbitration years” contracts. It seems to be a trend from the last 5-10 years, so there might not be enough data yet, but it doesn’t seem like an open and shut case to me. Has anyone actually checked how these types of manipulations work out in the long haul?

    Also, fans in the seats now are worth more than 6 years from now, not less, as are ad and tv contracts teams sign.

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    • Evan says:

      It’s certainly true for Wieters. The Orioles don’t benefit at all from being marginally better in 2009, because they’ll still be lucky to finish fourth in a five-team division.

      In 2015, that might matter (and it’s more likely to matter, because we’re taking about a full season).

      Not to mention 2012, Wieters’s last pre-arb year. If they’re relevant that year, those cost saving could have a huge impact.

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  11. archilochusColubris says:

    Everybody seems to be appealing to the CBA for moral absolution here, but the CBA is exactly the point under contention. Dave isn’t denying the fact that the involved parties are actually just acting in self-interest in a perfectly clear and pre-negotiated business arrangement. The issue is whether or not this business arrangement provides an ethical backdrop over which to run the business of baseball.

    In fact, the ethical burden isn’t on the teams at all: it’s on the Player’s Union. The issue here–one that economists have been on for years–is that the Player’s Union has the ability to negotiate with Future labor that it does not currently represent. Once given that ability, it’s no surprise that they would make ridiculous, perhaps downright unethical concessions, on labor arrangements for future cohorts, providing asymmetric profit opportunities for employing younger workers. This issue isn’t solely restricted to athletics, but is amplified by the presence of the draft. The very idea of a draft, while perfectly natural for allocating athletic talent so as to ensure competitive balance, would be considered unequivocally collusive in most industries. Can you imagine graduating from college after studying computer science and being drafted by a certain software company, requiring you to work in a certain city and banning you from negotiating with any other firms? (Well, personally i don’t find this the most repulsive societal institution, but it’s surreal nonetheless.)

    Anyway, i’m right with Dave on this being unethical, but it’s hard to see what party would have the interest to renegotiate the CBA to fix this. That is, unless the anti-trust exception is re-negotiated with a certain eye towards ensuring labor rights for future athletes.

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    • Basil Ganglia says:

      If you have a problem with the CBA setting rights for players who aren’t yet members, then by extension you should have problems with the entire issue of closed shop labor unions. Every labor contract negotiated under a closed shop arrangement defines the rights for future employees who are not yet part of the organization. It is very common for unions to extract benefits for current members at the expense of those people who are not yet members of the union but who will be obligated to join the union as a condition of employment.

      While individual states can ban closed shops should they choose, as a matter of federal policy it clearly permissible for labor unions to bargain away the rights of future members. In fact, to the extent there is an ethical debate on this point, the debate often focuses on whether it is ethical to give employees the choice to opt out of the union.

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      • Nathan says:

        Do any of the states that have banned closed shops have major league teams? This could make for a very interesting legal argument.

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  12. don says:

    This is, in my opinion, a very messy situation. I don’t really know the best answer. I’ll throw out what I see as some pros and cons of various ways of doing it:

    Currently: The players are held down, trading part of an age 22-ish season for a full age 28-ish season. This obviously hurts the players, especially since as is rookies are relatively underpaid.

    Salary slots: A la the NFL. Now, it doesn’t necessarily pay to have a high draft pick – unless there’s a mega-can’t-miss-sure-fire talent, you’re probably going to be overpaying for guys who will never make it at the expense of veterans. Look at some of the ridiculous contracts for top NFL picks – there are rookies on the bench making far more than established veterans.

    Free agency for everybody: The payroll disparaties are too huge, and if a team with the Yankees payroll has decent scouts and front offices they’ll dominate every year.

    I guess you can patch the current system, and prevent this sort of service time manipulation and get better, but I really don’t think there’s anything close to a perfect answer.

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    • don says:

      That should say – good players under team control are relatively underpaid, especially pre-arbitration. Not just rookies.

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  13. Thanks for bringing this topic up again, Dave. I hadn’t really considered this tactic from an ethical perspective until it came up last year with the Mariners and Jeff Clement. Ethics are an important part of any field and tend to get a bit lost in the min-maxing we all like to do as analytically-oriented fans.

    Those saying that this is not a question of ethics but one of business and the collective bargaining agreement are completely missing the point. This is exactly the sort of thing that ethics are meant to address. Sometimes acting ethically requires deviating from a strict interpretation of the rules, and from the bottom line.

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    • Well what’s more ethical; the team making more money in the long run and the player making less money, or the player making more money in the long run and the team making less money?

      I mean, I think the issue here is that, either way, someone is getting shortchanged, and personally I don’t see why it’s any more ethical if the team is getting shortchanged than if the player is.

      (And I notice you weren’t explicitly arguing that in your post, but it seems like some people in the thread are coming from that point of view, so I figured I’d comment on it here)

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    • Evan says:

      I disagree entirely. Ethics are there to tell you how to act in cases where you do not have agreed-upon rules already in place.

      If ethics can trump the rules, then the rules are pointless.

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      • Jeff Nye says:

        That’s not what ethics are for.

        There are plenty of cases when the law allowed something that was ethically reprehensible (slavery comes to mind).

        The only reason law usually trumps ethics is because law is generally backed by a system of punishments, where ethics generally aren’t except in specific cases like legal ethics (although even legal ethics are more like profession-specific laws than actual ethics, it’s sortof a misuse of the term).

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      • Terminator X says:

        There was a time in this country when African-Americans were bought and sold like property, deprived of their freedom (unless you buy into Hegel’s master-slave relationship, but that’s neither here nor there), forced into labor in unfit conditions, deprived of food, whipped, abused, and beaten.

        Was it within the rules? For the most part, yes.

        Was it ethical? Barring a small handful of non-mainstream, largely out-dated ethical perspectives, no.

        You say, “If ethics can trump the rules, then the rules are pointless.”

        I say, if ethics trump the rules, then the rules need to be seriously re-examined.

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      • Terminator X says:

        Our rules and laws should be derived from our collective ethical thought. Our ethics should NOT be derived from our pre-existing rules and policies.

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      • Evan says:

        “Our rules and laws should be derived from our collective ethical thought. Our ethics should NOT be derived from our pre-existing rules and policies.”

        I would argue that ethics and rules are entirely unrelated.

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      • manifestus says:

        I have to agree with Evan. Besides which, in response to Alex and Terminator X: how does ethics even come into play really? Are ethics objective truths or just some democratic consensus? ‘Barring a small handful of non-mainstream ….’ — my response would be that for quite a long time the consensus was that slavary WAS ethical and that “small handful” was in fact the dominant point of view (obviously within the particular culture/society). All this points to is either that ethics are immutable and we just suck at identifying them or that ethics are basically some variant of determined societal consensus. In either case, a somewhat pointless issue when examining the rules of governance.

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  14. Jeff Nye says:

    Collective bargaining isn’t a “get out of jail free” card for ethical concerns.

    Sometimes the gap between what you may do, and what you should do, is vanishingly small; sometimes it’s enormous.

    What separates good organizations from bad, in any business, is how they evaluate and bridge that gap, and you can bet that the young talent in these two organizations have a different view of their employers than they did yesterday, CBA or not.

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  15. It is obvious that there is a problem here. As fans though where should we stand? The Rays may regret waiting to call up David Price. The AL East is a very tough division and even 2 or 3 loses could mean making the playoffs or not.

    But Tampa is a small market team, having an extra year of control over David Price could mean a big difference down the road.

    I guess it’s probably smarter to screw these guys over. I can certainly understand the players hating it. I remember when the Rays pissed off Delmon Young when they did something similar to him.

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  16. Omar says:

    I’d probably knock up my bosses daughter if he did that to me.

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  17. Chuck Hildebrandt says:

    I find it interesting that all of the posts to this point are focusing on the ethics of this business practice as it pertains to the employer and to the employee, and no one has yet touched on what I think is the most disturbing issue at hand.

    By taking advantage of this rule to lock up an elite talent six years from today, the team is putting an inferior product on the field today. That might be advantageous to their business, but as the consumer of the product, the fan has every right to be angry and feel cheated by this practice.

    We’re supposed to be happy that Matt Wieters will be cheaper to the team in 2015? Why should I give a flying fudgsicle what Matt Wieters costs to the Orioles in six years? That couldn’t matter less to me if it tried. What does matter to me is that my team is punting on an entire quarter of this season to gain an arcane business advantage. If I’m an Orioles season ticket-holder, I am outraged that they think so little of my business that they would foist this crap on me.

    I guess it’s up to me as a customer to take my business to another major … oh, wait — this is a legal monopoly. Oh yeah. never mind, then. :/

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    • Well, assuming you’re still an Orioles fan in six years, you’ll probably appreciate that Wieters is still with the team, and hasn’t left as a free agent yet, especially considering that they aren’t going to contend this year.

      In other words, if you’re a fan and you care about the team’s performance, you should give a “flying fudgsicle” what Matt Wieters costs to the Orioles, because if they’re able to hold on to him for less money, they can put a better product on the field for you.

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      • Dennis says:

        Right, Alex. Jeff, it seems to me you can’t have it both ways. If you agree that trading six weeks of Wieters now for a cheaper Wieters in six years is good business (ethics aside), then as an Oriole fan you should be happy – unless you feel the Orioles have unlimited resources with which to field a team.

        As for the ethics of the situation, I’m not sure I understand the argument that it’s not ethical. Should we expect MLB teams to give up an advantage that results from the CBA by simply saying it’s “unethical” to take such advantage? I don’t see it, unless one wants to open up the whole CBA and the practical implications of it to some sort of ethics review.

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    • Robbie says:

      As a Rangers fan, I care a lot more about where Elvis Andrus is in 2015 than where he is in April.

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    • Steve says:

      If the O’s were in likely to challenge for the East i’d agree with you, because not having Wieters for two months could hurt the teams playoff chances. But the O’s will be lucky to get out of the cellar this year and I care more about what he can do in the future when hopefully the team around him is more talented. I’m not a season ticket holder but I try to go to 5-10 games a year. I’ll be happy to go to a game or two when he’s not there because its baseball not football or basketball. Its not like the O’s are holding down a Peyton Manning or a Lebron James….one great player doesn’t make a baseball team a winner.

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  18. mattsd says:

    I’ve had similar thoughts in regard to contracts with escalators based on service time.

    Look at Orlando Hudson’s contract. For each at bat from 576-632 this year, he will earn an extra 10k. So if the Dodgers are not in a race at the end of the year, and Hudson is healthy and sitting on the threshold, are they ethically obligated to play him?

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    • Evan says:

      I don’t think so, and I think Hudson should have been aware of that when he signed the agreement.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      Well then Hudson should play extra hard to make sure that the Dodgers are in contention at the end of the year.

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  19. Terminator X says:

    How about this as the groundwork for an alternative:
    A player is eligible for arbitration as soon as he hits 3 years of playing time, even if it’s in the middle of the season, that salary lasts until he hits 4 years playing time when he goes to arb again, and again for 5 years. Oooh but I guess there’s the problem with that, what happens when a player’s final arb contract expires mid-season? It sounds crazy, but you’d have to assume that unless an extension is worked out he’d be a FA. Maybe you could set up a system where the remainder of the final season can be bought at some set standard like a 10% raise, pro-rated of course.

    And the teams could still take advantage of it and get the bonus 6th year by holding the guy back in the minors, but at least the players wouldn’t be getting screwed as much.

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  20. ubelmann says:

    Wieters is talented, no doubts about that, but is it completely implausible that the Orioles really, truly feel like it is best for his development to spend some time in AAA completely independent of service time considerations? There’s been a lot of hype surrounding him so far and considering that he’s never spent time in AAA, with only 93 professional games behind the dish, it seems reasonable that pushing him all the way to MLB right now might be a little over-aggressive.

    And as Steve Slowinski mentions above, Price has come out and publicly said that spending some time refining his slider before starting in the bigs might be good for him. If he’s mad about this, it’s awfully hard to tell.

    I remember similar rumblings about the Twins sending Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza to AAA out of spring training to manipulate their service time, but in hindsight it seems painfully clear that the Twins simply didn’t value those players as highly as some outside observers.

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  21. JayhawkBill says:

    Excellent discussion.

    I haven’t read anybody else commenting that Matt Wieters got both a six million dollar signing bonus (per Cot’s Contracts) and the opportunity to participate in a minor league training program courtesy of the Orioles organization. The opportunity to play in MiLB isn’t insignificant; other athletes compete hard for that chance, regardless of the low salaries. The six million dollars, though, is more than most Americans’ lifetime earnings, and, even for a talent such as Wieters, I see nothing wrong with the Orioles taking action to retain exclusive control of him a year longer, at the small short-term competitive cost but significant long-term competitive gain of their team, as long as they’re acting in accordance with the Basic Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA. If Wieters has invested prudently, he’s set for life, and he will most likely earn many more millions (or tens of millions or possibly even hundreds of millions) of dollars. I don’t feel sorry for Wieters.

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    • Terminator X says:

      The average American makes as much in a year as the average Russian makes in 3 years, the average Chinese person makes in 8, the average Georgian makes in 11, the average Indian makes in 17, the average Kenyan makes in 30, the average Afghani makes in 55, and the average Ethiopian makes in 65, and as much as 2 average citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo make in 75 years combined.

      Tell me now, would any of that make it ok for your employer to force you to wait until right after yearly raises and bonuses are given out to take the certification tests that are required to get aforementioned raises and bonuses?

      “Hey settle down Bill, you’re still doing better than those poor schlubs in Somolia. You’re set for life compared to them, so what are you complaining about?”

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      • JayhawkBill says:

        Strawman argument, Terminator X. Wieters is an American, working in the US and Canada, already paid far more than an average lifetime’s earnings in those nations to accept employment at his own choosing. Unless Wieters plans to relocate to Somalia, your points don’t alter the core issue: Wieters is well-compensated, and Baltimore is working within the Basic Agreement and Wieter’s contract.

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      • Terminator X says:

        I apologize then, from your last two sentences I took you to be in the “well he’s making way more than me, so why should I care” camp. Apparently I was mistaken, and that was just commentary and not an argument.

        It appears instead that you fall in the “It’s within the rules, therefor it’s ethical” camp, or maybe the “It’s what they agreed upon, therefor it’s ethical” camp, I can’t quite tell. Or maybe it’s a third one I can’t discern. Care to clarify for me so we’re on the same page?

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      • manifestus says:

        I’m in the “It’s in the rules and if you wanted it changed you [or someone else] should go and make that happen, because otherwise unless you believe in objective truths [regarding ethics] determined in some way by arbitrary [or perhaps subjective] means this really is a rather pointless issue” camp.

        In short, the LAW is what matters here. And if that means it’s an unfair law someone should go fight it. Since Wieters and Price aren’t suddenly trying to fight this case, I don’t think I should care enough to fight for it either.

        As far as the certification tests point — it would make sense if the law said it was fine for the company to do so. You can guess as to why the company did what it did, but unless you can prove that said company forced you to wait … it matters not a whit.

        Likewise, players could probably make some argument about why they should be called up and making more $$$, but at the end of the day the organization isn’t breaking some standard law.

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  22. chuckb says:

    Excellent post, Dave. There’s no question whatsoever that this practice is unethical and wouldn’t be allowed in any other industry in America. The teams should absolutely be ashamed of themselves, not from a business standpoint, but from a moral and ethical standpoint.

    The one thing you wrote w/ which I disagree is that you said that “we can’t really blame the teams.” Of course we can. They’re acting unethically. That’s inarguable. Since when can we not blame people for acting unethically? I suppose we should just look the other way and say, “Good for them! They’re taking advantage of the rules. It’s not their fault. It’s baseball’s fault or the rules’ fault.” No way. While it is baseball’s fault, the teams have a moral obligation to society to act in a moral and ethical fashion.

    Both Price’s and Weiters’ agents should have gone to their organizations prior to them announcing their final 25 man rosters and told them, flat out, if you send my client to AAA in a way to shamelessly suppress my client’s future earnings, you can cross his name off your list as far as resigning as a free agent in 6 years. You’ll save $5-10 M but absolutely lose the right to negotiate with him when free agency is upon him. Period! It may have no effect but, in my opinion, they lost the moral right to even attempt to resign those players.

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    • Terminator X says:

      Of course, the ethical egoist would say that the teams ARE acting ethically by acting in their own self-interest.

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    • Basil Ganglia says:

      This happens all the time throughout industry in America. Virtually every collective bargaining agreement extracts penalties from those employees forced to join the union in favor of those who are already members of the union. The most common example is charging “initiation fees” that are really just subsidies to reduce the dues paid by existing members. In other cases it involves negotiating lower pay rates for new union members so that the pay levels of current members can be sustained.

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    • ubelmann says:

      You make it sound as if there are no reasons anyone might send them to the minors other than service time considerations–as if everyone agrees precisely on how to evaluate young talent and as if everyone agrees on precisely how talent ought to be developed.

      It’s quite possible that Tampa Bay and Baltimore are simply underestimating the abilities of Price and Wieters to play full-time in the majors at the beginning of the season. That might make them bad at evaluating talent, but it doesn’t necessarily make them unethical.

      It is also possible that they are acting unethically to exploit what more or less amounts to a loophole in the rules, but it’s not as though anyone has definitive evidence that either organization believes that it would be best to promote both players to the majors if service time was no object.

      We can’t judge their motivations solely by their actions, and their motivations are critical to whether or not they’ve crossed some ethical boundary.

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    • Snapper says:

      Well, in Wieters case, with Boras as an agent, the O’s know he’s taking the most $ in 6-7 years regardless.

      But, in general, this threat is very hollow. No one is going to not resign if the team is the highest bidder and they otherwise like playing there.

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    • Jon says:

      The teams are doing what they are perfectly entitled to do.

      The players are perfectly entitled to try the negotiation tactic you suggest as well.

      And then whatever happens happens. Everyone is playing by the rules.

      The players have the strongest union in pro sports. They will not agree to a salary cap, somehow have gotten teams to consistently offer guaranteed contracts, etc. The teams find a way to perfectly conform to the rules that the players agreed to, and you’re saying they’re unethical?

      It completely blows my mind that anyone can blame the teams at all. They are 100% doing the right thing. Sometimes it comes at the risk of sacrificing the current season, which is what the Rays may be doing, and that’s their call.

      Next time, the players can try to find a solution to this that they’re satisfied with when they hit the negotiation table.

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      • jwb says:

        “The players have the strongest union in pro sports.”

        Yet they earn the lowest percentage of the gross of any of the four majors.

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    • jwb says:

      “if you send my client to AAA in a way to shamelessly suppress my client’s future earnings, you can cross his name off your list as far as resigning as a free agent in 6 years. You’ll save $5-10 M”

      No, they should just tell them that they will have to spend $10-20M more to sign their client when he gets to free agency. And make that information public.

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  23. Where are these moralists when the players are boning the owners via arbitration? The arbitration system is totally screwed up, and players have a huge advantage there because the arbitrators don’t know what they are doing. Why do we applaud them for being capitalists and winning huge salaries they don’t deserve, while when the owners act totally within the rules of the CBA to guarantee another year at a cheap price for their player, they get excoriated?

    And, so what if Weiters might be the best catcher that Baltimore has? That’s not the key question, the key question is, “Is Weiters ready for the majors?” Nice hitting on his part in AA, but he’s never been to AAA. How many players do well up the ladder then hit the wall in AAA, or even the majors? Sean Burroughs was also a sure thing too, but he died on the vine.

    Price also has a question mark too. He had made AAA, but he didn’t pitch particularly well there, 4.50 ERA, lot of hits, a lot of walks, sure only 4 starts, but looks like he still have something to learn there. Again, the key question is whether he is ready or not, and there is still some questions he can answer by going to AAA. Homer Bailey did pretty well going up the system too, but hasn’t figured out the majors yet.

    Sure, the two teams could just put them out there, but if they aren’t ready, it’s not going to be pretty. It’s not a foregone conclusion that they will be good in the majors – it certainly looks very good, and most probably pretty good, but not certain that they will be good. Why rush them to the majors now, and risk having them flop, when you can send them to AAA, be sure they are ready to move up to the majors, then do it.

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    • Bill says:

      I agree – the only way this could be a moral issue would be if the players (or owners) were forced to sign the contract by using unethical means.

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  24. Tom Au says:

    There’s really a very simple solution to this. Instead of doing the “reckoning” on an annual basis, do the reckoning for time actually spent in the majors. If a player starts in the majors six weeks into the 2009 season, he should be able to go free agent six weeks into the 2015 season. (Or maybe make the “interval”
    mid-year instead of the end of the year.) That would be “inconvenient,” but discourage teams from “playing games” in this fashion.

    Great point for raising the ethical issue, Dave.

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    • aweb says:

      That would affect far more players than the very few who are having their playing time manipulated . Injury replacements, legitimate AA/AA breakout seasons…I think this would result in more games with playing time, not less. Those second-tier prospects, who aren’t likely to be stars (but sometimes turn into them) but get blocked by decent veterans, would suddenly not be called up after an injury. Teams would make even more choices to not have their teams be as good as they could be.

      I don’t see the problem with the current situation at all…if teams are willing to gamble future vs current value, then do so. The best players don’t have a right to the full-time jobs, it’s up to the management. baseball players are like actors – if movie makers don’t want to hire the best person possible for every role in every movie, that’s up to them.

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  25. Charlie Santangelo says:

    How can it be argued that the rules suck? The one fact that has not been mentioned is that at the end of the day, at least in the case of David Price, the Rays will not be able to afford to keep him. That is the PLAYERS fault…it is their union that has driven salaries into the $20mm/year territory and made it so a franchise such as the Rays cannot afford to keep their top talent into their free agency years and, thus, forced them to take as much advantage as possible of the player at a discounted rate.

    I’m sorry, but it seems as though every shift the last few years has been to send even more money to these players, and now that the franchise has figured out how to keep a player for their fans for one extra year we are crying foul play…does anyone else see the problem in this?

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    • jwb says:

      “That is the PLAYERS fault…it is their union that has driven salaries into the $20mm/year territory”

      Because, after all, the PLAYERS dictate contract terms, not the other way around.

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  26. dan says:

    Sure it’s not fair but this is nothing unique to baseball. Employment and compensation are never based on merit. There’s no judge to say what’s fair and not and decide who made the biggest contribution and compensate them appropriately. I’ve never heard of it working that way anywhere.

    Compensation is always always based on a negotiation. In a normal job employees really only have the one card to play: “i quit”. And management tinkers with compensation based upon their fear of or desire for that outcome. Closed the biggest deal in company history but you’re easily replaceable? No raise. Thanks for your great effort. Here’s a clock for your desk. Totally useless bureaucrat that’s fun at the weekly karaoke party? Corner office! Btw, do you like hookers and blow?

    Since, for reasons that are often wholly ignored (a practice which I’m going to enthusiastically adhere to here), baseball players largely can’t quit or be fired individually, we have the collective bargaining agreement. Which purposefully favors veteran players. Because that’s who got to vote on it. Is it fair? Nope. Was it designed to be? Not even sort of.

    I think this comment from the always eloquent Jarrod Washburn really sums it all up nicely:

    “Was I overpaid last year? Yeah, for what I did, … But somebody told me once that when you sign a contract like that, you’re not pitching for that contract. You’re getting paid now for what you did in the past — when you weren’t making any money and [were] putting up the numbers.”

    Wow. He’s fun. But that’s largely how the system works. Young players are underpaid on purpose and the money saved goes directly towards inflating the market for veteran players. As many people have already pointed out, if Price and Wieters should be mad at anybody, it’s the mlbpa members who gave them the shaft with the awe-inspiring craziness of the super-two rule (which, come to think of it, was actually designed to prevent this exact scenario. maybe those mlbpa guys aren’t that bad after all.) Although I imagine that when Matt and David are Washburn’s age and actually have a chance to change something, they’ll be just fine with the status quo. Just a guess. I could be wrong.

    Anyway, none of this has anything to do with the morality of Tampa Bay ownership. They’re doing exactly what any corporation should do: looking out after their own best interests. If you want checks and balances against that, look to the union or look to the government. They might want to talk to you about fairness and morality. There’s always a chance I guess. With the Rays, all you’re ever going to get from the Rays is blank stares and double talk.

    And it could always be worse. These guys could be professional football players: You can’t quit to work for somebody else. But you can be fired? For being injured? While playing football? Really?

    Seems like a better direction to send outrage.

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  27. George says:

    Sigh. Yet another tiresome column about how the players are so hard done by.

    Does service clock maniupulation lead to a sub-optimal outcome (not necessarily the best team on the field at this exact moment in time)? Sure. I prefer it, however, to the far more suboptimal outcome where service time cannot be manipulated and the Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers get to fatten up even more than they already do on the young talent of poorer teams.

    Put in a salary cap (and floor) and reduce the time players are controlled. I can go for that. Allow a few teams with virtually unlimited resources to continue to spend without restraint and then do the same thing? Might as well end MLB as we know it today.

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  28. Steve says:

    Not sure if someone else already covered it don’t have much time here at work but with Price’s service time, he was called up in mid september so he has a few more weeks on Wieters, to delay his arb. clock wouldn’t they have to hold him out till mid June?? Unless there is something that Sept. callups don’t count towards service time.

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  29. alskor says:

    You cant blame MLB teams for taking advantage of the rules. If the rules are unfair (and Im willing to concede on that point to some degree) then the rules must be changed.

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  30. birtelcom says:

    I’m not sure that it’s quite right to say that union members have no reason to protect the interest of future (but currently unrepresented) members when negotasting collective bargaining arrangements. Incoming rookies and other young players represent a constant threat to replace marginal veteran major leaguers, and if the salary scale for young players is low, that increases the incentive for owners to rely on such lower priced younger players in lieu of higher priced veterans. As such, a lower salary scale for younger players can supress salary levels all across the spectrum of salary categories and experience. If I can replace a veteran with a nearly equally qualified, mimimum salary young player, the effective cap on that veteran’s salary is at or close to the young player’s minimum salary. The availability of David Price and others at a minimum salary for an extra year will have a real effect on the slary levels of competing veterans. Union members are short-sighted if they fail to take into account the interests of future members with whom they will someday be competing for roster spots.

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  31. Jon says:

    I will try not to be biased by my hatred for nearly all unions.

    But to me this is a case “you made your bed, now lie in it.” The players wanted this “top 17% get super-2 status” or whatever it is, and they got it. Next time, negotiate something that’s not so easily exploitable.

    Sure, I agree that it’s not a good thing in general, but this is just one of many broken aspects of the sport (inability to trade draft picks, free agent ratings and compensation, etc.).

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  32. Alex says:

    The Baseball Players Association is so absurdly powerful that I can’t ever imagine feeling sorry for them about anything. There are so many concessions that they could reasonably make (involving things like salary caps, salary ceilings, maximum contracts, etc), or could have reasonably made in the recent past (PED testing), but they’re so concerned with getting the top few players a few extra millions that they forsake the “little guys” like the prospects that you’re all crying for here.

    If baseball players want things to be more fair, they can have it. But they are so stubborn in negotiations for everything that I don’t see how anyone could feel sorry for any negative circumstance that comes about as a result.

    It’s been said before. This is a business. It’s not always happy and perfect for everyone. Players cite that every time they leave your favorite team to get more money somewhere else. Maybe it’s time you started saying it back to them.

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    • Alex says:

      I meant “salary floor” when I said “salary ceiling,” of course, as an example of a concession players can make. Its awfully redundant the way I wrote it!

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  33. Visigna says:

    The solution to this problem is to create a “Super 5″ system for free agency in the same manner as the “Super 2″ for a player’s first year of arbitration. That way, a team can still hold a player down in the hopes of delaying free agency, but it is a gamble because he might be eligible for free agency if he is a few days short of 6 years. Therefore, the only way to guarantee a player wouldn’t be eligible for free agency would be to hold him down for several months, which would be a much larger penalty during the current season. This wouldn’t be perfect, but it would take the ethics out of it for both sides, which is the point of this discussion, and hopefully encourage more long-term deals to keep franchise players with their original teams.

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  34. russ99 says:

    if Wieters is a Boras client, then I have to say more power to the O’s. ;)

    If Boras can use the system (agreed to in the CBA) to it’s fullest extent to benefit his client, than the Orioles should be able to use the system the same way.

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  35. This is a good question to ask. But the answer is that the practice isn’t inherently unethical.

    The assumption in the post is that the priority for management is to do what is in the best interest of the team short-term, and secondarily, to maximize the player’s monetary opportunities. Wrong. The team is obligated to balance all considerations and do what is in the best interests of the franchise, short AND long-term. If a brief stay in the minors now for a projected star results in another full year with the team at affordable prices, that decision is an easy one, a rational one, and is certainly not unethical. All but the most casual fan would support the trade-off. Sure: a team blowing a post-season shot by doing this is behaving stupidly, but I don’t know when this has happened. Even that is dumb rather than unethical—unless we are talking about the ethical obligation of competence.

    You can’t make an ethics call based on just one side of a balancing equation. Yes, a player would want to be brought up right away, but who is going to decide when he “deserves” to be brought up? Daniel Bard could probably close in the majors now, but the Red Sox don’t need him. Do the Sox have an obligation to bring him up immediately? Clearly not. How many wins is an extra month in 2009 of Matt Wieters likely to mean for the Orioles? Two? Three? How many extra wins will a veteran Wieters mean t Baltimore six years from now? The team isn’t cheating its fans, and it’s only cheating Wieters if you presume some obligation of the team to act to maximize Wieters’ earnings as quickly as possible. But there is no such obligation.

    The analogy with a typical employee being given a bad review doesn’t work. Bringing up a player isn’t based on pure merit, it’s based on the needs of the team, long and short term. Is it unethical for the Rangers to hold on to their catching prospects, even though it means that some of them will stay in the minors when they might have major league job elsewhere? No. Is it unethical not to bring up the best players in the system because they are major league-ready, even though their talents don’t match the team’s needs? No. Players under contract have an obligation to do what the team wants and needs, in the team’s best interests, not theirs, under the Rules that are imposed by the labor agreements. The team’s management has an obligation to use that player, as long as he is under their control, to maximize the success of the franchise. That involves balancing: a great player who feels mistreated might not stay when he becomes a free agent–that’s part of the balancing too.

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  36. Rafa says:

    I ended up skipping a lot of the comments once this thing divulged into examples of slavery, which, needless to say, is taking this a bit too seriously.

    Scott Boras is his agent. This guarantees that when Wieters becomes a free agent he will sign a fat contract worth more than his own value. Then, once Wieter’s skills are fading fast Boras will hoax one last big undeserved contract from some idiot of a GM that loves veterans like whoever the Brian Sabean or Ned Colletti of tomorrow will be.

    The guy’s going to get paid. The team is doing the right thing for the organization.

    Everybody wins!

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  37. Jay says:

    If you were a member of a very powerful union that provided for you to be paid a king’s ransom over time and your boss didn’t use your services for a few months to keep you from qualifying to be paid that king’s ransom for one year, I wouldn’t hold it against him the tiniest little bit. He’s playing by the rules — which, incidentally, are VERY generous to the players (one of the most generous in ANY sport) — and doing without your services for that period while you train further and refine your skills. If you owned stock in the company and he did anything else, you should want his scalp.

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  38. Scott says:

    “if Wieters is a Boras client, then I have to say more power to the O’s.
    If Boras can use the system (agreed to in the CBA) to it’s fullest extent to benefit his client, than the Orioles should be able to use the system the same way.”

    Thank you for saying this. I don’t necesarily blame the CBA or the MLBPA. I put much of the blame on the agents, especially Scott Boras. They are the ones who have found the “loopholes” and are abusing the system. I will agree the entire system is flawed and needs to be fixed, but until that time, the teams need to find ways to keep their star players around longer before signing w/ the Yankees, Mets, or any of the other big market teams.

    Either wayt he players will get their big payday, the teams will continue to make money and keep their star players in minors in order to keep them around longer, and the fan gets screwed with higher prices and an inferior product being put on the field.

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  39. CJ says:

    Teams have been doing this for years–certainly before the current collective bargaining agreement was signed. The players’ association could have bargained to change the rules if they found it that important to their membership. So, there is nothing unethical about a team using freely negotiated rules to establish service time. Weiters should just be thankful he is making it to the big leagues, and focus on performing when he gets there–or all of the discussion of service time won’t mean much anyway.

    Rules establish cut offs and deadlines in all types of employment situations. Some employer sponsored pension / retirement plans have complicated service time rules which can create results which seem “unfair” in certain individual situations. But that is the nature of establishing rules so that uniform conditions exist for the general body of employees.

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  40. e poc says:

    I completely agree with Jack Marshall’s last post. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever 100% agreed with anything I’ve read on a baseball blog. Wow. While it’s tempting, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe the practice of keeping players in the minors to lengthen their service time to be unethical, regardless of the CBA, and I don’t think the comparison to an average worker being bilked out of a bonus is an appropriate analogy. Jack explained why on both counts.

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    • Scott says:

      I also agree with Jack Marshall. Dave, I also think that the analogy you draw regarding an employee recieving a negative performance review is inaccurate. Nothing the Orioles have done has said he’s been a bad player. They’ve practically publicly admitted that the only reason for this move is the service time, not anything negatively that he’s done. I think a more accurate analogy would be if your boss sat you down and said “you’ve been doing a great job, but the department can’t afford to give you a raise right now, but when the budget is up next year, we will be able to give you the raise or promotion you want.” Would you punch your boss in the face for that?

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  41. Dennis says:

    It’s always interesting to see the “players are getting screwed” comments from people whenever this subject comes up, but as Evan and others have said, it’s just one element of the CBA. In terms of “fairness”, who gets screwed after three years of service time when players typically get a 300 to 500% pay increase….and then go on to have a poor season, but according to the CBA, the team can only reduce their salary offer by a max of 20% for the following season? In practice however, players not only don’t receive a cut in pay but often get an additional raise, despite having a poor season. There are lots of “inequities” in the CBA….but overall, the scales are clearly in favor of the players. So before shouting “unethical” at the front office, stop to consider all of the CBA provisions that benefit the players more than the owners. In the end, until it’s changed, it’s not only legal….but also ethical.

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