A set free agency age won’t fix service time, or the obsession with cheap players

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Earlier this week, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote about a service time solution presented to him by an anonymous team executive. The idea is a set age for free agency for all players: “Make all players who celebrate their 28th birthday by a specified date eligible for free agency at the end of that season.” Rosenthal discusses some pros and cons of the plan, and ends on the idea that both MLB and the Players Association should be focusing on making sure service time considerations are no longer the impetus for whether a prospect is ready to reach the bigs.

I’d like to go in a little further on the issues with this kind of system, though, separate from the concerns Rosenthal raised. Primarily, I don’t think it even solves the problem it supposedly seeks to address. The idea is that, knowing a player might reach free agency sooner than six years (or seven years) after reaching the majors, a team would promote them to the bigs sooner. The more likely scenario, given what we know about how teams operate and view players, is that we’d just see more of a churn through players to ensure the roster was always stocked full of young-enough pre-arbitration players. So, an exacerbation of a pre-existing problem.

Rosenthal points out that getting players to free agency earlier, especially college players, might result in more high-end contracts for that class of player, citing the record contracts for college pitchers and position players as evidence. The problem is not that the potential top earners with college experience don’t make what they should if they’re 29 years old before they hit free agency, though. It’s that the vast majority of players below them are underpaid relative to their production, and for teams, that’s a feature, not a bug they need to squash through collective bargaining. A forced age for free agency might result in another player or two brought to the majors who otherwise might have had their service time manipulated, sure, but it would not do anything to address that teams focus heavily on pre-arbitration players in their roster construction: it might instead encourage even more of that behavior.

And, for a team like the Rays — the focus of Rosenthal’s piece, thanks to top prospect Wander Franco — that routinely deals players well before they are approaching free agency to bring in new prospects and pre-arbers, would likely convince them of promoting exactly zero players they feared losing to free agency sooner. It might just result in even more churn for them.

The way to fix service time manipulation without reinforcing existing issues elsewhere in MLB’s economics is to address the concept of service time within the compromise scenario that’s already in existence. That might sound odd, considering, but hear me out. The wait for free agency is as long as it is because the previous, pre-union setup was “there is no free agency,” and now that there is and it’s not going anywhere, the teams are in a position to say “there already is free agency, what more could you want?” That’s going to be tough to bargain against — there is nothing stopping the owners from just saying “no deal” to any proposal that considers changes to the free agency structure, and I have a hard time imagining that on its own is a winnable reason to strike in response — but adjusting how other items in the pre-free agency bin work could be easier. Really, with the laundry list of items the union needs to fix, do you think it is worth spending a significant amount of their bargaining power and leverage on making sure everyone is a free agent by 28? There’s a reason this idea Rosenthal shared came from a team executive, you know.

Focus on service time itself, and let the ripples from that flow outward to arbitration and free agency, rather than the top-down plan of free agency sooner: why rush getting to free agency, anyway, when the market is in a precipitous decline for those who aren’t superstars, and arbitration lets a third-party enter the discussions to force a team to pay up when they try not to?

Back in 2019 at Deadspin, I wrote a piece titled “Fixing MLB’s broken economics is about more than free agency,” which sought to explain that there was no magic bullet solution for the dismal free agent market, but that the minimum salary, arbitration, and service time all needed individual tweaks in order to better the entire package, with free agency sort of righting itself as the health of the rest improved. On service time, specifically:

Service time is easily exploited, and the incentives to do so are easy to see—FanGraphs’ explainer page on service time rules from 2011 is caught between praising the obvious efficiency of CBA exploitation and remorse at championing that notion. One full year of MLB service time is 172 days, and only 172 can be counted in a single year. So, 5.171—that is, five years and 171 service days—is a representation that a player is one day shy of six full years of service. That one day means the team has another entire season of that player at their disposal.

The service time manipulation game is played out for more than just one day of the regular season because there are more than 172 service days in a season. Teams need to make two-plus weeks vanish to ensure that they get that extra year; if they also want to delay arbitration eligibility, they can hold down a prospect such that they end up with under 2.130 years worth of service time at the end of their third season. Waiting until June usually does the trick.

What constitutes a full year of service time has to change in these economic discussions, and change by enough that teams can get away with punting a few weeks to start the season. Even 150 days would change the equation, but it would be better to focus on an even lower number—at 125 or 100, say—while retaining the cap on days earned so that no player winds up earning nearly two service years over the course of one season.

As I wrote at the time, teams won’t like this, but they aren’t going to want to agree to a change in free agency without charging the PA a premium for it, and it’ll still be easily exploitable without actually solving any problems in the end. At least with a change to how service time itself is counted, the union can propose that they’re looking for less radical change, even if the benefits will heavily outweigh what they’d get from seeking a more radical-looking alteration, like with the 28th birthday idea. It’s the kind of subtle(r) move that the league always pulls against the union, with disastrous results for the PA, so why not try something similar in the other direction?

Changing the service clock setup makes it more difficult for teams to defend their service time manipulation. It won’t necessarily stop it, but neither will changing the free agency setup: at least here, teams are in more of a position to lose a grievance, or actually suffer at the big-league level because of their greed.

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