When you’re a hardcore baseball nerd like me, your dreams look very different than counting sheep/getting chased by ghosts/whatever else it is other people dream about. My two main REM-cycle pursuits revolve around baseball, and wielding absolute power.
So let’s combine the two. MLB’s owners suddenly vote to depose Rob Manfred, declaring his decades of experience as a skilled attorney and shrewd steward of the game to be inadequate when compared to a lanky Canadian with a Seth Rogen voice who played one year of Little League. Even better, on my first day as MLB commissioner, every copy of the collective bargaining agreement gets destroyed, meaning the sport has to start all over.
My first two moves would be to make woefully dated mid-90s action movies the only allowable programming in every MLB clubhouse, and to immediately expand to 32 teams, so we can have an even number of teams in each league and end the scourge that is interleague play, doing away with red-hot Padres-Royals September action forever. My third move, though, is the big one.
Blow up the current rules on service time.
If you’re a Blue Jays fan, this has been a miserable season. The Jays are on pace for their second straight losing campaign, and their worst record in 23 years. Josh Donaldson, one of the best and most popular players in franchise history, ended his tenure as a Jay on a minor league rehab assignment, with injuries washing away his season and Donaldson sorta kinda but not really deflecting talk of a serious rift between the team and its star player. Injuries and diminished stuff fueled terrible efforts by rotation stalwarts Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.
The one saving grace was supposed to be the arrival of wunderkind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. When Baby Vlad strode to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of the final exhibition game of the spring in a scoreless tie at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium (home of his dad’s greatest exploits and also the cutest baseball photo ever), you had an inkling something magical was going to happen. It did.
Sadly, that moment proved to be both the highlight of the Blue Jays’ season, and also the only glimpse Jays fans would get of their future superstar in a Toronto uniform all year. That’s because MLB’s current service time rules incentivize teams to hold their best players down in the minors as long as possible, to retain those players’ rights for an extra year (or in some cases, to tamp down arbitration payouts via sidestepping the dreaded Super Two rule).
One of the most egregious examples of this bizarre dance happened in 2015. That season, the Cubs were legitimate World Series contenders who also happened to have the best hitting prospect in the game just a phone call away from Wrigley Field. Yet just before opening day, Cubs management declared that Kris Bryant still had to refine his game before he’d be ready for The Show. A couple weeks later, Bryant had miraculously acquired all the skills he didn’t possess before, and got the call. By an incredible coincidence, that call-up came at the exact moment when Bryant’s free agency clock ticked ahead by a year, giving the Cubs an extra season of club control.
Other than a nice first couple weeks of this year, the 2018 Jays were never actual contenders, so adding Guerrero wasn’t going to affect their chances either way. But one of the great joys of being a fan is getting to watch your team’s homegrown, hot-shot rookie make his big-league debut, and project him as the next Mays or Maddux. The Jays have one of those potentially generational prospects in Guerrero. Yet we didn’t get to see him at Rogers Centre this year, because based on the current rules, that’s the smart business decision to make.
This is the dumbest scenario imaginable. In what other field would a for-profit enterprise have a product that could absolutely dazzle its customers from the moment it got introduced, only for that company to decide it’s better to store that product in Storage Basement C of a faraway warehouse?! Vlad Jr. hitting an obscene .381/.437/.636 as a 19-year-old across four minor-league levels yet never earning a major-league promotion is a telltale sign that the business in which your company operates has completely lost its way.
It’s time to fix this problem. Fortunately, as MLB’s new commissioner, I have the answer.
Few entities in sports generate as much glorious cash as MLB Advanced Media. As tradition-bound as the sport as a whole can be, it’s no exaggeration to say that MLBAM reimagined the future of television. So we’re going to dip into that bottomless well of cash, and withdraw $60 million from the central fund that gets doled out across every team. Hell, let’s just call this $60 million pot The Vlad Jr. Fund.
Here’s how it works:
The first team to call up its top-rated prospect in a given major-league season instantly gets a check for $10 million. The next 16 teams to do so also collect checks, but at progressively lower dollar amounts.
Think about it. You think the Tampa Bay Rays, perennially the least valuable franchise in the sport and either dead last or very near it in annual revenue, wouldn’t have seriously considered making dynamic young prospect Willy Adames their everyday shortstop on opening day? Could that $10 million windfall have helped the Rays address other roster shortfalls this season, or even enabled Tampa Bay to, say, offer their No. 1 starter a lucrative long-term deal that could’ve bound him to the Gulf Coast for years to come? Wouldn’t those types of aggressive moves have helped a team generate badly needed fan interest at a time when a terribly-located, no-frills ballpark is crushing attendance?
And couldn’t those same arguments apply (albeit in a few different ways) to White Sox and Jays teams deciding what to do with future all-stars like Eloy Jimenez, and our pal Vlad Jr.?
You see flaws in this plan, don’t you? I’ve already thought of several potential drawbacks, and have addressed them all.
First, players typically earn top-prospect sheen based on the rankings of other companies like Baseball America. So teams could simply play down the talents of the players they perceive as best-in-their-system, talk up lesser guys, and make a money grab. To fix that pitfall, I’ll reestablish the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau. Once a robust, independent scouting service that helped teams that lacked deep rosters of in-house scouts, the bureau laid off its last five scouts this spring, ending a 50-year run. By reestablishing the bureau, MLB can give more jobs to smart, qualified, hungry scouts, while also ensuring the integrity of The Vlad Jr. Fund.
Second, a team could call up its top prospect, then send him down a few days later and keep him on the farm for another year, thus grabbing the prize money and still getting to preserve an extra year of controllable service time. Under my plan, that top prospect would have to spend the rest of the season on the major-league roster, or else the team loses his rights — same as a Rule 5 pick.
Third, money-hungry teams might cynically wait for the first rival club to make the leap, then immediately text the league office in a mad dash to be second, third, fourth, and so, hoping to rake in as much cash as possible. Under The Vlad Jr. Fund scale, the dollars would drop dramatically from #1 to #2, then edge down progressively from there. The money would be doled out as follows:
Team #1: $10M
These numbers aren’t set in stone. They’ll go up with inflation, of course. And if teams don’t move aggressively enough based on the scale of these payouts, we can tweak as we go.
Yes, there are diminishing returns here, and at a certain point, some teams might decide it’s not worth it to call their guy up. But plenty of teams’ top prospects might actually be a little too young or too raw or too injured to make The Show. If a bunch of teams feel that way in a given season, or simply act a little too late, so be it.
The Vlad Jr. Fund doesn’t force anyone to make an irresponsible decision. It simply prompts clubs to stop depriving their fans of fresh faces we’d all love to see. If teams are going to choose dollars over fans’ wishes, just dangle enough dollars out there so that everyone’s interests meet in the middle.
This way, everyone wins. Especially those of us who’ve had to wait far too long to see the chubby Dominican-Canadian kid from Montreal take the sports world by storm.
Thanks to CBS Sports writer R.J. Anderson for his assistance with this article.