By Murray Chass

November 21, 2013

The New York Mets think they are so smart, but they are really so dumb. The Mets, playing a late-season version of the major league service time manipulation game, cheated shortstop Ruben Tejada out of a day on the major league roster when they recalled him from the minors in September.

While other minor leaguers they called up at the same time joined the Mets immediately, the Mets told Tejada to stay in his New York apartment and they would let him know when they wanted him at Citi Field. What they really meant was they would let him know when it was safe for them to let him dress for a game.Ruben Tejada2 225

What the Mets did was permissible under the collective bargaining agreement with the union, of which Tejada is a member, but that makes the union an accessory to the clubs’ manipulation of service time, which determines a player’s eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency.

The Mets’ instruction to the 24-year-old Panamanian to sit tight cost him only a day of service time, but that’s all the Mets needed to keep him under control for an extra year.

Despite the legality of the Mets’ treatment of Tejada, the union may file a grievance because the Mets appeared to delay adding him to their roster to delay his free agency eligibility but also for another reason.

Because Tejada is not a three-year major leaguer who automatically qualifies for salary arbitration, he qualifies as a so-called “Super Two,” that is, a player in the top 22 percent of players between two and three years of service. If he had the extra day and was a three-year player, another player would qualify as a “Super Two” and be in line for a significantly higher salary (perhaps $1 million more) than he could negotiate.

The union has been monitoring the clubs’ manipulation of service team for several years, and an agent familiar with the thinking of union officials said, “The union’s been waiting a long time for the right case.”

If the union decides that Tejada is the right case, files a grievance and wins, the Mets’ fellow club owners would not be happy that the Mets undermined their good thing over one day of service for a player who may not even be on the team in another three years.

A management lawyer questioned whether the union would file a grievance over such a minor matter and even if it did that it could win. But over the years I have heard management lawyers scoff at this sort of things and then be shocked when the union filed a grievance and won.

Rob Manfred, baseball’s chief operating officer and lead labor expert, declined to discuss the Tejada case because he would have to deal with it in a grievance if Tejada files one.

But he said (in between statements on Alex Rodriguez’s grandstand play at his own grievance hearing), “It has been long established that clubs have a right to call up players when they decide the timing is best for the club.”

David Prouty, the union’s general counsel, did not return a call, and Peter Greenberg, Tejada’s agent, said he was not prepared to say if Tejada would file a grievance.

“I’d rather not comment just yet,” Greenberg said.

Sandy Alderson2 225Sandy Alderson, the Mets’ general manager, did not return multiple telephone calls seeking comment on the Tejada matter as well as the Mets’ failure to improve during Alderson’s three years as general manager.

The Mets won 77 games in Alderson’s first year, 2011, and 74 in each of his other two seasons. Alderson was hampered in spending for players as a result of the money the team’s owners lost to Bernie Madoff in his massive Ponzi scheme, but two points should be made about that setback.

Even if Madoff hadn’t happened, Alderson would have been unlikely to spend much money because he has never believed in spending. But if a team doesn’t spend on players, it has to be shrewd in finding good players. Alderson’s protégé, Billy Beane, has done that consistently in Oakland, but Alderson has shown no such touch in New York.

Now Alderson is reduced to depriving young players of deserved service time. I have an associate who argues that since the labor agreement doesn’t bar the clubs from doing what the Mets did with Tejada, neither he nor any other player whose service time has been manipulated can complain or challenge the club’s action.

“Let the union negotiate a change in the agreement to prevent the teams from doing it,” he said.

The issue in this instance centers on a group of players who were summoned to the majors after the Mets’ AAA minor league tea, the Las Vegas 51s, was finished with its playoffs. According to a list of transaction on the Mets’ web site, infielder Zach Lutz and pitchers Tim Byrdak and Vic Black were called up Sept. 1, pitcher Sean Henn Sept. 7, catcher Juan Centeno, outfielder Mike Baxter and pitchers Aaron Harang and Greg Burke Sept. 9 and Tejada Sept. 10.

According to a person familiar with the Mets’ travel arrangements, some of the players, including Tejada, “flew on the same flight and they left him in his apartment.”

Tejada spent one day – the critical day, as it turned out but as the Mets planned it – at his apartment, then was summoned to Citi Field the next day. He started that game and the six games after that.

The Tejada situation was different from most of the service-time manipulations. Most of those came in late May and early June and were designed to have a player miss enough major league time that he would need an extra season to be eligible for arbitration and free agency.

Some of the players who were affected in recent years were Andrew McCutchen, Matt Wieters, Kris Medlin, David Price, Evan Longoria, Gordon Beckham, Buster Posey, Stephen Strasburg, Michael Wacha, Gerrit Cole and Yasiel Puig.

The tip off on why the practice is bad is that even though it’s legal, few club executives will acknowledge why players are delayed getting to the majors. They all are said to need additional work in the minors, work on their pickoff moves or holding runners on or throwing to the right base or baserunning. They all say the same thing, and wonder of wonders, all of the players learn everything they need to know by late May or early June. Mark it on your calendar for next season. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the rookies will be there.

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