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Wetmore: Would restricted free agency help solve MLB’s market problems?

Major League Baseball looks generally to be in pretty good shape. Every year you read columns about how the end is near for the sport; and every year they make more money.

So while we won’t be there to sound the alarms that baseball needs a drastic overhaul to hope to survive, we can’t ignore some problems. One of the perceived issues that MLB faces right now is the thought that free agency ain’t what it used to be.

Players used to be told, overtly or more tacitly, that you grind to get to the big leagues to start getting some paychecks. Then you grind to get to free agency after six years of earning your spot in the big leagues — that’s the real payday.  (Two problems with that logic, of course, are that minor leaguers could be systematically underpaid and so too could young players.)

It’s imperfect but for the whole time that I’ve followed baseball (post-1994 strike), it’s at least worked to make rich the guys who did survive to that seventh year of Major League service. Those big paydays helped make the journey financially worth it for a lot of players as they made their way through the system with hard work and years of dedication.

And that free-agent pay check still can be great if your name is Manny Machado or Bryce Harper and you made your debut before you could drink alcohol in a bar without breaking any laws. But after the past two winters it seems that there’s a window of players that is out of luck. If you debuted at 25 years old — hey, baseball is hard — and now you’re a 31-year-old free agent, that pay day is not as sure of a thing. Craig Kimbrel is the hot-button symbol du jour. But he’s only an example, and maybe an imperfect one at that.

If you’re a great player, you’re probably OK. If you’re a good player, how does a minor league deal sound? That’s the market. It’s a tough time to be one of those guys who came up with the expectation of a later-career payday only to see the market dry up as you were arriving into your own eligibility for that compensation.

It feels to me like the market needs some adjustment. I believe players feel that way right now, too. I think it’s at least worth talking about as a possible improvement: Could restricted free agency help reset the market and get players a higher share of earnings?

Travis Sawchik wrote on the topic for fivethirtyeight.com, using data and assessing the recent free agency trends of MLB. The RFA idea was written about in a 1994 edition of the New York Times as it was being proposed by owners. And others have written about the idea since that time. My suggestion is a little different than what was kicked around back then.

As always, I’m sure there will be unintended consequences to this proposal, and I’m sure various teams will dislike the idea. I’m guessing that owners would, too. That’s fine. I’m just trying to find a little money in the system for the players.

The proposal: Restricted Free Agency in Major League Baseball

*Players with at least 3 years of MLB service time qualify for restricted free agency; any club can offer a contract up to 3 years in length, for any price. The player’s previous employer has the option to match the offer sheet, or allow the player to take best offer. 

*The offer sheets are limited to 3 years so that a player still can hit unrestricted free agency after 6 years in the big leagues; and to prevent the richest teams in the game from stealing all of the good players early in their career. 

*Teams have until Dec. 1 to make an offer to these 3+ players, and then the original employer has until Dec. 15 to match the offer sheet or decline. 

*A required minimum on-field payroll would be unpopular among owners but could help short-circuit the problem that Marc Normandin wrote about for Deadspin, namely that many teams would sit out free agency and RFA if given the choice. 

The reasoning:

Why settle for a system that not only delays the start of your big league career, but then in 3 years will also agree to pay you a fraction of your worth on the open market?

I think in the interest of competitive balance, you’d need to keep the matching possibility so that small-market teams wouldn’t get robbed of good young talent.

This also could add incentive to get one of those early-career contract extensions inked (like the Braves and Ronald Acuña). And it lessens the incentive for a player like, say, Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies, to hurriedly get something done to get a relatively big payday very early in your career. Hey, even if you didn’t get the signing bonus but you’re a bona fide big leaguer, you could be just three years away from cashing in — with your current employer or your next one that values you more.

This proposal would cost owners some money, on the whole, I would guess. So why would they go for it?

Simple. To keep a good thing going. Nobody wants to see a work stoppage after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires.

This still isn’t an entirely free market, obviously. Major League Baseball likely will never have that in place. But it’s a step toward a freer market and would be viewed as a big concession in what looks to me like an icy relationship right now.





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