A New Challenge for Marvin Miller

Marvin Miller solidified the strength of the MLB Players Association and helped the players earn free agency.  I wonder if he saw this one coming…

Before what we now know as free agency, the players were tied to a particular team through what was known as the reserve clause.  This meant that a team owned the player’s rights as a commodity.  Player salaries were naturally depressed as players never reached the open market and players had zero choice in what team he would play for.  This all changed when Miller, as executive director of the MLBPA, negotiated free agency after arbitrator Peter Seitz handed down the Messersmith/McNally decision which, for all intents and purposes, opened the floodgates of free agency.  Miller recognized that if a large amount of players were deemed free agents, this would flood the market and keep salaries down.  Owners, fearful of free agency pushing salaries up, came to an agreement with Miller on free agency that would take effect after six years.  The first three years, the player is bound to his team for an amount of money determined by the team.  The next three, the player is aigible for salary arbitration where, if the team and player can’t come to an agreement, each submits a number to a neutral arbitrator who then decides the player’s salary for the upcoming year by selecting one of the numbers submitted.

On July 18, the agent for Francisco Liriano asked the union to investigate why Liriano has not been called up to the Twins from AAA Rochester despite posting an 8-0 record and 2.53 ERA in his last ten starts for Rochester.

With two years and 45 days of ML service time, if on the Twins major league roster, Liriano could possibly continue to accrue service time to join the top 17% of players between two and three years of service (often referred to as “Super Twos”)to qualify for early arbitration (for more detailed info on the actual rules that govern player mobility, check out the MLB Basic Agreement).  However, since he is toiling in the minors, Liriano’s service clock is stagnant and the Twins are effectively able to keep Liriano at a lower price for an extra year.

Since free agency began in the late 1970s, there has been an increased focus on acquiring other teams’ talent rather than developing your own, so this issue of effectively halting a player’s service clock has never really been addressed by collective bargaining.  In the post Moneyball era, however, the focus has shifted back to developing a team’s own young talent (see: Oakland A’s, Minnesota Twins, Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, et al) since this is the only way smaller market teams can compete in a game dominated by large market teams.

This issue is going to be a tough one for the union to prove.  There is no way they can demonstrate that the Twins are keeping Liriano in the minors just to keep his service time stalled.  The Twins are a half game back in the AL Central and have had solid pitching this season (although I’d take Liriano over most of their starters, especially Livan Hernandez and his 5.29 ERA and .335 batting average against).  With small market teams struggling to keep their own players and stay competitive, I don’t blame the Twins for sheltering Liriano in the minors, thinking they have a better shot in a year or two.

This may be the first of these sort of cases, but I can assure you it won’t be the last.  Look ahead for some changes to the “Super Two” rule to prevent teams from keeping a player in the minors to halt his service clock.

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