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Messin' with rookies is not that big a deal

Jun 10, 2009, 9:01 AM EST

Maury Chass is concerned about a competitive integrity issue that has nothing to do with steroids:

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 . . .

. . . 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.

What Chass is describing, of course, is the whole
“Super Two” dance in which teams engage in order to prevent early
arbitration eligibility. The primary example Chass uses is Ryan Braun,
who wasn’t called up by the Brewers until the end of May in 2007
despite obviously being ready to contribute before then. Noting that
Braun’s absence may very well have meant the difference between the
Brewers making and missing the playoffs that year, Chass says “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.”

I sympathize with Chass’ argument, because I like to see
young prospects play, and I laugh at the people quoted in the article
trying to claim that service time manipulation is not what’s going on
with these late call-ups. Of course it is. But Chass is being
intentionally obtuse here. Chass was one of the first writers — maybe the
first to seriously cover the business and contracts side of baseball.
He should know then, that while a team’s manipulation of service time
on the front end may cost some games in April and May of the player’s
rookie year, the purpose of the tactic is to basically buy a full
additional year of that player’s time during his prime by delaying free
agency. We may not like the practice, of course — and we can’t deny
that saving money is a huge factor here — but if the Brewers cost
themselves two or three wins in 2007 in order to ensure 160 games of
Ryan Braun in 2013, I’d be loathe to say that harms the integrity of
the game.

The issue of service time manipulation is the subject
of collective bargaining. The owners take full advantage of this rule,
and the players know the score on it. They have the power to fight for
concessions on that point if they want to, however, an in light of
this, I’m hesitant to make a competitive issue out of it like Chass
does.

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