A few days ago, Minnesota Twins GM Thad Levine stuck his foot in his mouth with greater force than a Miguel Sano home run. When asked about Platinum Glove center fielder Byron Buxton, stuck in Triple-A even after rosters expanded, Levine responded to The Athletic’s Dan Hayes thusly:
“We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t at least aware of service time impacts on decisions we make.”
For all intents and purposes, Levine admitted to gaming Buxton’s service time. The fleet-footed outfielder needs thirteen more days in the majors to accrue three years of service. The Twins will delay his free agency by a full season if they keep him in the minors this September. This is an all-too-frequent practice in baseball, usually implemented by keeping top prospects in the minors for the first few weeks of the season. It’s the only logical reason why we haven’t seen Vladimir Guerrero Jr. debut in the majors yet. It’s deplorable and unethical for two important reasons:
- Gaming service time artificially depresses free agent earnings. The longer a player has to wait, the older he’ll be when he becomes a free agent. Naturally, younger free agents sign longer contracts and make more money, so this puts an unfair hindrance on Buxton’s future earning potential.
- It prevents teams from fielding the best players. Obviously, Vladito is one of the 25 best players employed by the Blue Jays. Keeping him in Triple-A prevents the Blue Jays from fulfilling their obligation to the fans to be as competitive as possible.
In theory, the MLB Players Association should jump all over Levine. This is exactly the kind of slip-up they needed to attack this issue. Here’s MLBPA President Tony Clark’s response, as told to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic:
“We will review all options with Byron and his representatives.”
...that’s it?!? Where’s the fire and brimstone decrying such reprehensible behavior from a front office? Where’s the indignation that the Twins withhold the best players from their major league roster? In fact, why doesn’t the MLBPA appear to be doing anything at all?
There are options available to the MLBPA in this case. Levine’s comment cracked open an opportunity for them, but it’s not exactly simple. Let’s look at the Collective Bargaining Agreement to discern what the MLBPA can- and should- do to represent Buxton and set a new precedent for young minor leaguers.
(Time for a disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and nothing in this article should be construed as a legal opinion. However, I am president of a labor union, albeit a very different type of one, and have some experience with labor disputes.)
First of all, it’s important to note that Buxton is still a member of the MLBPA, even though he isn’t currently in the major leagues. All members of the 40-man roster are eligible to join the MLBPA, and nearly all of them do. That includes prospects on the 40-man who have yet to debut in MLB.
As for the CBA itself, what’s absent is just as important as what’s present. Nowhere does it say anything about teams putting the best players on their roster or their need to compete at the highest possible level. In other words, the CBA doesn’t compel teams to field the best players. Even though Levine indicated Buxton remains in the minors for non-baseball reasons, that doesn’t directly violate the CBA. In fact, the only language that could potentially be relevant to this case isn’t favorable to Buxton. According to Section VI. E. Salary Arbitration:
“Any Player with a total of three or more years of Major League service, however accumulated, but with less than six years of Major League service, may submit the issue of the Player’s salary to final and binding arbitration without the consent of the Club...”
The words “however accumulated” could be construed in a few different ways. Most of the time, this just means even if a players is up-and-down, he’s still arbitration eligible once he accrues three years of service time. If you squint at it, these words could also be interpreted as “however the Club decides to give service time to the Player.” Admittedly, it’s kind of flimsy, but this interpretation would put the discretion of service time entirely up to the club, however they rationalize it. Most of the time, that’s pretty obvious, but if Levine says service time is a factor then this language might possibly allow him that right. Again, flimsy, but if I was defending the Twins I would probably go with it.
In spite of this, there’s still plenty the MLBPA can do. They may or may not be able to file a grievance. CBA language is spotty at best on this issue, and it’s really up to smarter people than me to determine. However, the CBA only lasts until 2021. If they want to get better language next time they negotiate, the MLBPA must take action publicly.
At bare minimum, Tony Clark should call a press conference in which he vociferously condemns the Twins and all of MLB for playing service time games. They need to increase the fervor of the national discussion around service time manipulation by speaking out against it. They should also encourage their members—the actual ballplayers—to speak publicly. Twins teammates and contemporaries from around the majors need to come out in support of Buxton, either by words or actions. There’s a player rep in every clubhouse, and they need to mobilize to show solidarity. Imagine something simple like a message of support (such as “Free Buxton”) on every player’s cleats during warm-ups. It would instantly become the hottest topic in sports.
Would all of this compel the Twins to recall Buxton? Not necessarily, but if the MLBPA wants better contract language in the next CBA, they need to start now by turning this into a public matter. They must put pressure on MLB to promote their best players. They won’t get it by keeping quiet and asking politely during collective bargaining.
There are other factors to consider which could inhibit the MLBPA. Article XI Grievance Procedure of the CBA doesn’t specifically say anything about keeping grievances quiet, but there are several other types of confidentiality clauses in the deal, and perhaps this somehow bleeds into one of those.
Perhaps Buxton doesn’t want to make an example of himself. Maybe he’s just not inclined to make a big deal out of this. Nevertheless, there plenty of other players in similar situations. It would be hard for the MLBPA to advocate for Guerrero to be called up because he’s not on the 40-man roster, and therefore not an MLBPA member (and when he does reach the majors, it will be at the expense of an existing member getting booted from the 40-man). However, Eloy Jimenez is on the 40-man roster, and presumably a MLBPA member. There’s no argument for keeping him in the minors this September, except for service time. Surely there are other prospects as well who have proved their worth in the minors. The more examples there are, the stronger the MLBPA’s case would become, at least in the court of public opinion.
Perhaps the MLBPA is working on this behind the scenes. Frankly, that’s not good enough. If they want to put real pressure on teams to stop messing around with service time, or really any issue whatsoever, they need to be vocal. Lukewarm promises that they’re “looking into it” just lets the public gloss over the problem and MLB feels no urgency to change their practice. It’s time for the MLBPA to rise up in support of its members and for the good of the game. Sadly, they seem content to do just the opposite, letting Levine and the Twins get away with depriving Buxton an earlier bite at free agency. That’s unfortunate for him, for prospects like Guerrero and Jimenez, and for fans who want their teams to compete.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983