TORONTO – There is a downside, a substantial one, for the Toronto Blue Jays in keeping Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in the minors all season as a way to contain his service time, and it will only get worse if they delay his 2019 debut long enough to steal an extra year of club control.
Yes, the business case for keeping him down is pretty convincing in that if the club waits roughly two weeks before bringing him up next year, the gilt-edged prospect’s eligibility for free agency would be pushed back an entire year, from the end of 2024 to the end of 2025.
If Guerrero becomes the player he’s widely projected to be, that extra season is worth tens of millions. It’s quite significant.
Still, of all the positive lessons the Blue Jays have been driving into the 19-year-old, the last message they want to leave him with is that the front office will use the rules of the game to screw him financially when it has the upper hand.
To be clear, the Blue Jays’ actions this year reinforce precisely that, as they refused to call up Guerrero throughout a summer in which he posted near-historical minor-league numbers at double-A New Hampshire and triple-A Buffalo; kept him down despite objective measures projecting him to right now be among the game’s most elite hitters and sent him to the Arizona Fall League while the active big-league roster is up to a bloated 35 players.
Those actions have put the Major League Baseball Players Association on watch, too.
“The union’s position on service-time manipulation is clear, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and other great young talents around baseball have earned the right to play on the field for a major-league team,” a players association spokesman told Sportsnet on Thursday. “The decision to not to bring him up is a business decision, not a baseball decision. It’s bad for the Blue Jays, it’s bad for fans, it’s bad for players and it’s bad for the industry.”
The comment from the union comes a day after Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro told MLB Network radio that keeping Guerrero down, “has nothing to do with business.”
“It has nothing to do with anything other than we think the best thing for him developmentally is to play in Arizona and continue to develop,” Shapiro continued, adding later: “We’re trying to do everything we humanly can, developmentally, with an accelerated timeframe to ensure that (Guerrero’s) defence, his preparation, his routines, his understanding of his impact as a leader and as a teammate, all the different things that go into it, that they’re taken advantage of and we can build as strong a foundation as possible when he gets here.”
The argument is unconvincing given the financial incentives for the team to delay Guerrero’s arrival and the evidence demonstrating that he’s quite decidedly among the 25 best players in the Blue Jays’ organization at any level.
At this point, there’s nothing that he’s really going to learn in the minors that he can’t pick up in the majors, which is why the union has surely discussed legal action with Guerrero’s representatives.
In 2015, the union filed a grievance on behalf of Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs alleging that his service time was manipulated by the team to delay his future free agency. For technical reasons, the matter hasn’t yet proceeded to an arbitrator, but it’s certainly possible the Blue Jays could find themselves in a similar spot should Guerrero not break camp with the team next spring.
A fair argument can certainly be made that the Blue Jays are simply executing the collective bargaining agreement as it’s written, and that to be responsible stewards of the club, manipulating Guerrero’s service time is the right thing to do.
There’s validity to that, and any system that creates status through a counting mechanism is vulnerable to such chicanery.
An interesting alternative can be found in the National Hockey League, where players gain unrestricted free agency once they have accrued seven seasons (40 games played constitutes a season) or reached age 27. Because it exists in a cap system any comparison is apples-to-oranges, but NHL players rarely find themselves in the type of situation Guerrero finds himself because of the dual tracks to the open market.
A change in baseball isn’t likely until the current CBA expires Dec. 1, 2021 and given that union head Tony Clark during his all-star game meeting with the BBWAA described the previous off-season as “a direct attack on free agency,” there will be bigger flash points to resolve.
Still, Guerrero is far from the only prospect being artificially kept down. This season alone, the Atlanta Braves delayed the arrival of phenom Ronald Acuna Jr., to push back his free agency a year while the Chicago White Sox have steadfastly refused to bring up Eloy Jimenez.
Until the CBA stops incentivizing teams to not always use their best talent, clubs could decide to do right by their players and allow meritocracy to rule the day, while not depriving their fans of an opportunity to watch a special player.
And more specifically to the Blue Jays, they can avoid compounding any damage created by their refusal to call up Guerrero this year by not gaming him next spring.
After all, if they do end up turning the screws on him in 2019, it will only give him more incentive to do the same back to them every time he can.