Kevin Mather, who up to Monday was CEO of the Seattle Mariners, made some remarks at a Rotary Club luncheon a few weeks ago. The aftermath was ably covered here Monday by Sara Sanchez after Mather resigned his position. (Our friends at Lookout Landing have a complete transcript, if you’re interested in his full comments.)
I want to focus here specifically on Mather’s remarks about MLB players’ service time. Essentially, he said the quiet part out loud, something we’ve known for quite some time:
Mather undermined strategy on the baseball side, admitting that the team was possibly manipulating service time for top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert. Mather also divulged information about contract negotiations with Kelenic and pitcher James Paxton and called veteran Kyle Seager “overpaid.”
Mather drew the ire of the MLB Players Association by saying neither Kelenic nor Gilbert would be with the major league club on Opening Day as a way to keep club control for longer.
This is something we as Cubs fans are quite familiar with, as this happened to Kris Bryant in 2015. He was kept in the minor leagues until literally the first day the Cubs could gain an extra year of team control. (I have always wondered if KB would have been recalled on that day if Mike Olt hadn’t been injured and the team actually needed a third baseman.)
Bryant filed a grievance over that and lost.
Mather was basically confirming that the owners have done this and the Mariners intended to keep doing this.
Thank you Kevin Mather. I sincerely mean it. You just said what everyone already knew, but now we @MLB_PLAYERS have official evidence that is going to help a lot of players. Again, thank you!! Bravo— Josh Donaldson (@BringerOfRain20) February 23, 2021
Gerrit Cole, a member of MLBPA leadership, is speaking passionately and eloquently today about the way clubs use analytics to suppress salaries, manipulate service time, etc. Gerrit thanked Marvin Miller in his Yankees intro presser. A lot to unpack here.— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) February 23, 2021
Not going to try to sum it up or tweet out short quotes because there's a lot here and... of course... he gave pretty lengthy answers. One summary is that the Mariners situation teed up an opportunity for players to express a lot of long-simmering frustrations in baseball.— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) February 23, 2021
So players are justifiably angry about Mather’s comments and the entire situation revolving around service time and extending beyond that, arbitration salaries and free agency.
We are in the final year of the MLB/MLBPA collective-bargaining agreement that went into effect in 2016. That agreement is generally seen as a step back for players, as they seemed to focus more on lifestyle issues than on service time, etc. This was in no small measure due to having MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark lead the negotiations. Clark is a well-respected leader, but the MLBPA could have used a good labor lawyer in charge of negotiating, as they did with Michael Weiner, who passed away far too young at 51 in 2013.
Now the MLBPA has a good labor attorney in Bruce Meyer, who will lead negotiations while Clark remains the public face of the players’ association.
How can the players rectify some of the things that went wrong previously, that were summed up in Mather’s comments?
It’s clear to me that owners will want status quo, especially after they lost quite a bit of revenue due to the pandemic. Granted and stipulated, owners don’t have quite the money they did before 2020. On the other hand, what some teams — including the Cubs — did this offseason gives pretty strong evidence that those clubs are prioritizing profit over winning. No one begrudges MLB teams — businesses like any other — making money. But if you’re not even going to try to win, why bother?
Here are a few things I think players ought to ask for, and these things might level the playing field a bit while still making money for owners.
It’s time for the manipulation of service time to end. Instead of having it keyed to days or years in MLB, it should be linked to a players’ draft status. Let’s say free agency nine years after a high school player is drafted or six years for a college player. That would give them FA status at age 27, which would make them eligible for big-money deals right when they hit their peak earning years, rather than 30, when some players are in decline.
To help protect teams who want to keep the 27-year-old stars, have the first two years of free agency be restricted FA, similar to the NBA, where the player’s original team would have the right to match a free-agent offer. That way the player could still get a market-rate contract, but the original ballclub could keep the player if they’re willing to pay that market rate.
After those two years, with the player at age 29, he’d reach unrestricted free agency.
Salary cap/salary floor
The luxury tax has, for the last few years, served as a de facto salary cap, because most owners won’t go over it. Some teams have come out and stated that publicly.
Players have, rightfully so, resisted a cap for decades. But if the cap came along with a salary floor, players might be willing to agree to a cap. Right now, we have two teams (Pirates and Indians) whose payrolls will be around $40 million this year. The Marlins might be even lower.
For example, if a salary floor were instituted at $100 million, mid-range players who even today remain unsigned might get jobs, because teams would have to pay at least the floor. After a year or two both the floor and the cap could be indexed to league revenue. If revenue goes up, both go up — but when they go down, both would drop, an acknowledgment from players that owners might not be able to pay as much when (for example) there’s a pandemic.
With a system like this, you’d need more revenue sharing, and some owners have been quite resistant to that. But it could mean, in the end, more revenue for the entire league, because a floor-and-cap system likely would mean more parity among teams. It’s really not good for MLB to have the Yankees and Dodgers dominate things for decades. Revenue sharing like this might also be able to generate more money to pay minor leaguers.
Owners seem pretty dug-in to their positions, and with Mather’s comments, players are more and more upset with the current system. It does not bode well for the CBA negotiations, but I think if some of the above proposals were made and eventually instituted, perhaps we wouldn’t lose the entire 2022 MLB season to a labor dispute.