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The Myth of Six Years of Team Control

Last week, Ken Rosenthal reported — and others have since confirmed — that the Astros offered top prospect George Springer a seven year, $23 million contract. He turned them down, and has since been optioned to Triple-A, where he will begin the season. Presumably, had he accepted the contract offer, he may very well have been named the Astros Opening Day right fielder, as the contract would have nullified the benefits of keeping him from accruing a full year of service time in 2014, and it’s not like the Astros have a better right fielder blocking his path at the moment. However, since Springer did not accept the contract, he’ll have to wait at least a few weeks to join the Astros, and potentially a few months if they decide to try and get him past the Super Two cutoff as well.

On the one hand, it’s easy to paint this as a picture of an organization acting in bad faith, using the carrot of a big league roster spot to try and coerce a young player into signing away his future earnings potential. The MLBPA is even considering filing a grievance on Springer’s behalf — even though he isn’t a member yet, since he is not on the Astros 40 man roster — over the issue, though it would be nearly impossible for them to prove intent given that Springer only has 266 plate appearances in Triple-A; optioning out a young player with Springer’s contact rate would be pretty easily defensible on merit alone. But the perception of impropriety still exists, due to the appearance that his demotion was directly tied to his decision to reject the Astros contract offer, whether that is actually true or not.

The Springer news has brought about another round of calls for reformation of the rules in order to remove the incentives for teams to keep their best young players in the minor leagues to begin the season, and I’m with the crowd who thinks that MLB is best served by allowing teams to make roster decisions based on talent and performance rather than worrying about accrued service time. I’d rather see George Springer play in April than whoever the Astros end up rolling out there on Opening Day. But for MLB and the MLBPA to come to any sort of consensus on this in the next CBA negotiations, everyone will first have to admit that the concept of six years of team control is basically a myth.

The opening paragraph of the CBA’s section on Free Agency — Article XX, Section B — states the following:

Following the completion of the term of his Uniform Player’s Contract, any Player with 6 or more years of Major League service who has not executed a contract for the next succeeding season shall become a free agent, subject to and in accordance with the provisions of this Section B.

Six or more years. The CBA does not say that a player is entitled to free agency after six years in the big leagues; it sets six years as a minimum for a player to be eligible for free agency. It explicitly states that players can have more than six of service before they are free agent eligible, but they cannot have fewer than six years. The six year line is a minimum, not a maximum, and nowhere in the CBA are players guaranteed free agency following their sixth calendar year in the Major Leagues.

The reality is that the rules, as they are written, give Major League teams control over a player’s rights for seven years, not six. And seven years of control is and has been the norm for nearly every player in MLB.

In MLBTradeRumors Arbitration Tracking tool, there are 179 players listed who were arb eligible this off-season. Of those 179, exactly 10 of them — 5.6% of the population — reached their service time level with the minimum number of days required and are on track to reach free agency with exactly six years of service. Six of the 10 are relief pitchers, who aren’t exactly going to hit it rich in free agency anyway. Only four currently active arbitration eligible regulars — Jason Heyward, Austin Jackson, Colby Rasmus, and Mike Leake — are on pace to reach free agency with the minimum level of service time. Everyone else is going to fall into the “or more” category, and will have had their rights controlled for seven seasons before they reach free agency, not six.

And this is why the Astros made George Springer a seven year contract offer. They already owned his rights for seven years. Teams can choose to forfeit one of those years of team control in exchange for a few extra weeks of production up front, but that’s simply not a good trade-off for big league teams to make, which is why almost no one does it. If the MLBPA wants to negotiate an end to service time manipulation in the next CBA, it will almost certainly have to agree to codify the seventh year of team control in order to do so. Because that seventh year of control already exists, for all intents and purposes.

Now, this isn’t to say that teams should be making young prospects take-it-or-head-to-the-minors offers. You don’t want the rules to allow teams to essentially force MLB ready players to sign bad contracts in order to get called up, but we should also acknowledge that there’s another interpretation of the facts here.

After all, we know that the contract offer to Springer was not made in isolation; the team reportedly also has made long term offers to both Robbie Grossman and Matt Dominguez, Major League players with minimal accomplishments at this point in their careers. As an organization, the Astros seem to be clearly betting on the positive expected value of signing early career contracts on the hopes that they get one big breakout star. If by locking up five young players, they avoid the massive cost escalation that would come from one of them developing into an All-Star, the savings from that one deal alone could cover the increased costs of signing the entire group.

In order to make this kind of bulk-buying strategy work, however, you have to actually get a pretty decent sized group of players to sign, and the Astros simply don’t have that many extension-worthy Major League players. One could even argue that Grossman himself is perhaps the least talented player we’ve ever seen offered a long term deal, and his inclusion in the group purchase strategy shows that the Astros have expanded their pool to include players who wouldn’t otherwise normally be extended offers at this point in their career.

Springer is certainly more talented than Grossman, and more worthy of a long term commitment from the franchise, but he’s also a prospect who has never hit in the big leagues before; based on MLB precedent, he too is an unusual candidate for a long term deal. The fact that the Astros offered a barely above replacement level guy like Grossman a multi-year deal suggests that perhaps their plan is less nefarious than it has been made out to be, and that they are simply attempting to limit their costs by applying Groupon’s business model to baseball players.

And keep in mind, these long term deals have nothing to do with short term cost savings. The Astros aren’t saving money in 2014 by sending Springer to Triple-A; they’ll have to pay at least the same league minimum salary to whoever plays right field as they would have had to pay to Springer. Their offer to Springer was about future cost savings, just like every other extension signed this winter. In pretty much every negotiation between team and player, the carrot that the team has to offer is guaranteed security now in exchange for a lower best-case scenario outcome if the player stays healthy and turns into a star. The Astros offered Springer $23 million worth of security for the rights to put a cap on his arbitration salaries, and likely to get an option or two on his first couple of free agent years. It doesn’t have to be viewed as a gun-to-his-head ultimatum tied to his desire to not spend a few more months in the minors.

More importantly, though, we should just accept the fact that Springer isn’t being robbed of anything that he has an actual claim to. The CBA does not give players the right to free agency after six years of team control. It gives him free agency after at least six years of team control, and that has developed into an accepted minimum of seven actual years for almost every player in baseball. There are very likely better ways to codify this so that teams wouldn’t have to option out top prospects for a few weeks at the beginning of their first year, but the first step to modifying the rules would be to accept that the window of team control is, in all practicality, actually seven years.