JUNE 1 JAUNT UNDERMINES INTEGRITY

By Murray Chass

June 9, 2009

The integrity of the game is a phrase heard often in any discussion of steroids and baseball. Major League Baseball says players have to be tested to ensure the integrity of the game; each player who tests positive damages the integrity of the game.

There is no test, on the other hand, for a practice that undermines the integrity of the game. Let’s call it the June 1 Jaunt. That’s the date, give or take a week, on which good young minor league players travel to the major leagues, belatedly summoned by their employers.

Teams don’t talk about the practice of manipulating players’ major league service time. They don’t acknowledge it, and they don’t want to call it to the attention of fans and reporters. They think if they don’t publicize it no one will notice.

But how can you help but notice an influx of rookies in late May and early June. Making their major league debuts in the past couple of weeks were Tommy Hanson, Braves pitcher, June 7; Gordon Beckham, White Sox third baseman, June 4; Andrew McCutchen, Pirates center fielder, June 4; Matt Wieters, Orioles catcher, May 29; Sean West, Marlins pitcher, May 23; Kris Medelin, Braves pitcher, May 21.

And let’s not overlook David Price, the Rays’ post-season sensation last October, who reappeared with the Rays this season on May 25. The 23-year-old left-handed pitcher may be the most significant name on the list because he follows by a year his teammate Evan Longoria, who underwent a similar experience but slightly earlier in the season.

“This is my 20th year in this business,” Paul Cohen, Longoria’s agent, said, “and for the majority of my career the majority of young players are not ready April 1, are not ready May 1. They’re not ready until June 1.”

It’s fascinating, though, to see how, when their teams deem them ready for the majors, these young players all are ready around the same time – about two months into the season.

One of the most telling examples of recent years was Ryan Braun (above). A can’t-miss rookie in 2007, Braun had to play in the minors until the Brewers finally called him up May 25. In the remaining four months of the season, Braun hit well enough to win the National League rookie of the year award. He batted .324, slugged 34 home runs and drove in 97 runs in 113 games.

Despite Braun’s potent production, the Brewers finished two games behind the Cubs in the N.L. Central. He missed the first 47 games waiting for the Brewers to let him start collecting his service time. What are the chances Braun would have changed the outcome of two or three games and put the Brewers in the playoffs? Very good, I would say.

But the Brewers were more interested in extending their control of Braun than in winning games and a division title. That desire, shared by most other teams, goes directly to the integrity of the game. When a team doesn’t do everything it can to win games, it cheats its fans, and the fans have to ask why and accuse the team of deliberately not trying to win.

Promoting Braun to the majors would not have been the same as improving the team by signing a free agent to a $100 million contract. Doug Melvin, the Brewers’ general manager, was said to be tied up with the draft Tuesday and didn’t return a telephone call seeking his thoughts two years later on his decision to leave Braun in the minors.

What is behind this practice that undermines the integrity of the game? Four words: major league service time. By manipulating a player’s service time, a team can delay his eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency.

For service time purposes, a full year is defined as 172 days. A season is 183 days, meaning if a player isn’t called up in the first 12 days of the season, he can’t get a full year’s service time for that season.

Even if he is added to the roster on the 13th day of the season and remains in the majors the rest of the season, a player would finish that season with less than a year of service time. That means he would need six more years to qualify for free agency and three more for salary arbitration instead of five and two.

There is one exception to arbitration eligibility. Although players generally need three years in the majors to be eligible, there is a group of “Super Twos” who qualify. They are the 17 percent of players who have the most service time among players with two to three years of service.

If a team keeps a player in the minors for the first two months of a season, it can assume the player won’t have enough service time that year to qualify as a Super Two.

The least amount of service time a Super Two has had was two years and 128 days in 1991. In the last two years, three of the last four and four of the last six, the cutoff has been two years and 140 days. In those years players who weren’t in the majors for 44 days or more their first season didn’t make it.

When the Rays delayed Longoria’s (at left) promotion to the majors last season, it was not about salary arbitration. The Rays called him up April 12, meaning he missed the first 13 days of the season and would get credit for a maximum of 170 days of service time. That, in turn, meant he would fall two days short of a full year of service time and the Rays would have him for virtually seven seasons before he could be a free agent.

The Rays used that extra year as leverage in their negotiations with Longoria for a multi-year contract. Six days after joining the Rays, Longoria agreed to a 6-year, $17.5 million contract with options for three more years.

I asked Longoria’s agent if he considered taking action against the Rays under the grievance procedure. “We’re all big boys,” Cohen replied. “We know what’s going on. Players get it, agents get it, It’s part of the unwritten law. They save millions of dollars.”

Cohen said he and his client had expected that the Rays would call up Longoria in September 2007 in advance of his being on the team in 2008. But the callup didn’t come. Then, Cohen said, “It was evident in spring training last year he wasn’t going to make the team.”

“We had been negotiating his multi-year all through spring training,” he added. “He understood, we understood that this would be a moving target. This would cost a year of salary arbitration. We laid out for him the scenarios. We spoke to Tampa over the course of many weeks about all the issues. All the parties understood what was happening.”

In addition, the agent said, “He loves it there. We have a good relationship with the organization.”

Price, this year’s Longoria, was left in the minors for nearly two months despite his brilliant relief work in the playoffs and the World Series. He could have started the season in the team’s starting rotation, but the spot went to Jeff Niemann, also a rookie but one with a lower ceiling than Price.

The Rays made Price the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft and signed him to a 6-year, $8.5 million contract. But they have been less generous with his service time. He had 31 days coming into the season and at the end of the season will have 163 days at most, leaving him, like Longoria last year, short of a full year.

Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ general manager, did not return a call seeking comment about the team’s treatment of Longoria and Price.

Any club executive who is asked why he left a player in the minors for a week or two months always has reasons: the pitcher needed more work on the command of his fastball; the hitter needed work on hitting curveballs. However, Neal Huntington, the Pirates’ general manager, was a little more forthcoming when he decided to leave the team’s promising center fielder, McCutchen (at right), in the minors at the start of the season.

“Every decision we make has some financial or business ramifications, so it would be disingenuous of me to say that this one didn’t,” he told reporters. However, he added, “But our driving force is Andrew McCutchen’s development and growth.”

The Pirates finally promoted McCutchen last week when they traded Nate McLouth to the Braves.

Cohen said players are good judges of who should be on the 25-man roster coming out of spring training. “Proof of the pudding is the players know,” he said. “The players nine times out of 10 know who should break camp and who shouldn’t.”

Rob Manfred, M.L.B.’s chief labor executive, didn’t agree with my view of the June 1 Jaunt.

“The basic agreement sets up certain rules, and clubs are free to manage within the rules,” Manfred said. “Just because it looks to you like they’re managing a guy’s service, that may not be the case. There may be reasons other than economic why they’re not bringing a guy up, reasons which are not transparent to the public or the press.”

The union has raised the matter in collective bargaining but has not made a major issue of it. That may be because players and agents haven’t made an issue of it with the union.

Michael Weiner, the union’s general counsel, said the issue has been around since the Super Two negotiations, or about 10 years.

Cohen acknowledged that it would not be easy to prove that a club kept a player in the minors for service-time reasons. “It’s such a gray issue,” he said. “It can be rationalized a million ways. If you wind up in court, what’s the crux of the case? Was the player ready or not? How do you quantify that?”

The way Cohen sees it the players have no defense against the practice, which doesn’t violate any of the collective bargaining rules.

“Many years ago,” he said, “when the Red Sox did it to Mo Vaughn, who was in the minors when he had no business being in the minors, I figured that no one was safe from it.”

 

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