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Honesty Is No Excuse

Ed Botti

A relatively significant story in MLB got its spark in a very unusual way this past week, and then the flames were fed by the winds of public outrage, player comments and the cancel culture, and a long time Baseball executive was taken down. The impact of this will be felt in multiple ways.

Did I mention MLB and MLBPA don’t agree on the matter?

How did this all get started?

On the evening of February 20, 2021, a Seattle Mariner long time season ticket holder by the name of Eric Hess decided to check out what his team is up to in spring training, so he clicked on a YouTube video, and a chain of events was started that ended with the team president’s resignation and public ridicule.

Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

He saw a video uploaded the prior day by the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club that contained then Mariners president and CEO Kevin Mather’s Zoom dialogue with club members from Feb. 5, 2021.

It sounded interesting, so he began to watch it.

Within 10 minutes he began to notice Mather’s bluntness when discussing contract details regarding top ranked outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic. You may recall, Kelenic was the Mariners’ key acquisition in the infamous Mets/Mariners Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz trade of the 2018 off season.

By the time the 46 minute video was over Mather also made critical and controversial remarks on a range of topics, people and issues in MLB.

The Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club took it down.

But the damage was done.

The video went viral after Hess shared it on his social media accounts.

What exactly did this video contain that was so toxic to the MLB community?

He is shown in the video stating the Mariners were not going to call up their top prospects last season for service-time reasons, at any cost.

“If our major-league team had a COVID outbreak or injuries and we had to call people up from the taxi squad, we were a little short on players, because there was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park,”

“We weren’t going to put them on the 40-man roster, we weren’t going to start the service-time clock. There were all kinds of reasons. If we would’ve had an injury problem or COVID outbreak, you might’ve seen my big tummy out there in left field. You would not have seen our young players, our prospects, playing at T-Mobile Park.”

Later Mather was asked about top prospect Jarred Kelenic.

“He’s a very good player and quite frankly we think he’s going to be a superstar. We control his major-league career for six years, and after six years he’ll be a free agent. We’d like him to get a few more at-bats in the minor leagues, probably at Triple-A for a month, then he will likely be in left field at T-Mobile part of the next six or seven years, then he’ll be a free agent. He won’t commit beyond his free agent years.”

He said similar things about top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert.

“You won’t see him on April 1, but by mid-April you will see a young man named Logan Gilbert. He’s the real deal.”

As a matter of background, service-time manipulation is theoretically not against the rules, but it is viewed as a bad-faith approach that amounts to lost player earning potential.

It’s the dirty little secret, that isn’t such a secret anymore, even before the Kelenic story.

Engineering service time equates to postponing a player’s first big payday. George Springer had his service time delayed in 2014 by the Astros (shocker!). It turned out to be a significant matter in his case. With the economics of baseball during Covid, one could make the argument that his pre Covid earning potential exceed his current valuation and the deal reached with the Blue Jays.

That one year difference changed a lot for him. But I doubt the Blue Jays are complaining.

How does this work?

For a player with absolutely no MLB service time, all that has to happen to push free agency out a full year is to spend 15 days in the minor leagues to start a season and effectively a major league career.

That is what Kelenic and his agents are claiming, and they have a solid case. It’s all on video.

To reach a year of service time, a player needs to be on the major league roster for 172 days out of 187 days. 92% percent of the year.

On the surface, its sounds unfair and even unscrupulous. But for teams that cannot afford super star players, 15 days buys a full season.

As I like to say, there are three sides to every story. Yours, mine, and the truth.

From a team’s view, there’s no reason not to employ service time strategies. In those 15 days, the difference between a top prospect and a replacement player is maybe worth a single win, at most.

Not all teams play by these rules, for example most recently with the Padres and Fernando Tatis, Jr. and the Mets with Pete Alonso.

You may recall the same maneuver was heavily discussed and challenged in 2015 by Kris Bryant and Scott Boros. Two weeks in 2015, and the Cubs saved a full year of service time.

151 games and 650 at bats that did not count towards his service time. Seems a little unfair to me.

Bryant and Boros filed a grievance over the manipulation of service time and lost.

Since that time, Bryant has made $44,559,500 on the field, not including endorsements, etc…

Bryant will be a free agent following 2021. I think things worked out pretty good for him.

So at 20 years old was Kelenic a ready to go prospect and did the Mariners deliberately hold him back?

In 2019 (age 20 season) he hit .291/.364/.540 with 23 home runs at three minor league levels. ranks him the fifth-best prospect in baseball. You decide.

In business, everyone looks for an edge. Baseball is no different. As Michael Corleone would say, “it’s not personal, it’s strictly business”.

Kelenic would have a substantial salary deferred for a year and play the 2021 season at the Major League minimum salary (presuming he makes the team). I hope he can get by on that measly $570,500. He would then have to play three more seasons to be arbitration eligible and six more years to hit free agency.

Shuffling some paper work and 15 days equals 1 year to the Mariners.

To make matters even worse we learned that Kelenic now claims he is being punished for refusing to sign a contract proposal with the Mariners 14 months ago.

Kelenic claims that it was made very clear to him by Mariner officials that had he signed that contract, he would have debuted last year.

To me, that means Kelenic and his agents made a conscious decision not to sign the contract for future value considerations. In other words, squeeze more from the Mariners. That was their choice and they had every right to do so.

So, the obvious happened, the Mariners returned serve.

How many 20-year-olds turn down $ millions before stepping on a MLB diamond?

The terms of that offer are not public, but I think it’s safe to imagine that the 20 year old would have been an overnight millionaire, and still would have had a chance later in his career to test free agency.

The number 58 overall prospect, Evan White, signed with those very same Mariners for a six-years and $24 million. It seems plausible that the number 5 overall MLB prospect would have gotten more, probably a lot more.

They chose not to sign, as is their prerogative.

Being a 26 or 27 year old premier free agent didn’t hurt Manny Machado or Bryce Harper’s wallet.

Speaking for just myself, if my goal was to get to the major leagues, and at 20 years old I was offered a multi-million dollar contract to do so, while my friends were back home laying brick or driving a truck, I would have jumped at the opportunity. But that’s just me.

“It wasn’t just communicated one time to me. It was told to me several times. That’s the God’s honest truth. It got old’’, Kelenic stated.

Brodie Scoffield, Kelenic’s agent recently stated “It was made crystal clear to Jarred, then and now, that the decision not to call him up is based on service time. There’s no question that if he signed that contract, he would have been in the big leagues.”

The Mariners conceded that they informed Kelenic he would be on their 40-man roster in 2020 if he signed, starting the year in Class AA, with a chance to be on the big-league team by the end of the year. But they insist no promises were made.

Being on the 40 man roster is not the same as being on the MLB 26 or 28 man roster. Did he misunderstand that context of the conversation, is he misleading us, or is he being punished?

As stated above, Mariner First baseman Evan White, who signed a six-year, $24 million contract before the 2020 season, spent the entire year in the big leagues. Logan Gilbert, who also declined a long-term contract, remained in the alternate camp with Kelenic.

Jerry DiPoto, Mariner General Manager, makes a valid point when he stated “I’m not sure how you construe a service-time manipulation with a 21-year old player who has played (21) games above A-ball, and has not yet achieved 800 plate appearances as a professional player. That would be an unprecedented run to the big leagues that hasn’t happened in three decades” (since Alex Rodriguez in 1994).

“While Jarred is a wildly talented player, we do want to make sure that he has checked off the boxes in development because it’s incumbent on us, not just for the good of the Mariners, but for the benefit of Jarred Kelenic to make sure he has been fully developed.’’

Does that make any sense?

Photo Columbus Clippers, 1995

Photo Columbus Clippers, 1995

Consider this, Derek Jeter had 1,751 minor league plate appearances before getting called up in 1995. Gleyber Torres? Try 1,602 minor league plate appearances. Seattle Mariner Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez had 2,842 minor league plate appearances. Young Dodger star Cody Bellinger had 1,530 minor league plate appearances. Juan Soto of the Nationals may be an exception, he only had 512 minor league plate appearances, but then again he did hit .362 in those 3 seasons on the farm.

Kelenic has 751 minor league plate appearances and is a .290 hitter. Can the argument be made? Possibly, but it is unusual to get the call up with less than 800 – 1,000 plate appearances.

Back to Fernando Tatis Jr., he had 1,213 minor league plate appearances and Pete Alonso had 1,090 minor league plate appearances.

How about Evan White? He had a total of 1,011 minor league plate appearances to go along with 739 NCAA plate appearances when he was at the University of Kentucky. That adds up to 1,750 Division 1 and minor league plate appearances.

The Mariners maintain it had nothing to do with money or punishment. They brought to the public’s attention that they also “called up outfielder Kyle Lewis and pitcher Justin Dunn in September of 2019, starting their service clocks”.

It sounds fishy to me, but who really knows? It’s a tough business. Both sides are greedy.

They both try and extract every single penny from the other. Does it make a lot of sense that a ballplayer making anywhere from $570,000 to $30MM a season needs a $100 dollar per diem? I don’t see too many of them buying their own lattes while on the road. The team pays for it. I don’t blame them, but it is also an open secret that many of them never spend the per diem. Rickey Henderson used to throw it in a shoe box, and then take a box of cash home and give it to his kids.

Mather’s comments are just more gasoline on the fire. MLB and MLBPA do not like or trust each other, and this is just going to make the new CBA more difficult.

The MLBPA issued a statement on Monday, describing Mather’s comments as “offensive” and saying they embodied an “unfiltered look into Club thinking.”

Now Kelenic and his agents are considering filing a grievance.

The truth of the matter is that Kelenic had the chance to be paid big money and play at the MLB level. He wanted more money, so he turned it down. Now he wants us to be sympathetic? He wants us think he is some kind of a victim?

It doesn’t work that way. He could have taken the money. He’s 20 years old. How much does he need before he turns 26?

I guess $30-$40MM isn’t enough these days.

That type of greed is the exact reason why the Mariners and other teams are forced to play games with service time.

I am all for everyone making everything they can. But remember Newton’s third law “for every action, there is an equal reaction”.

As we have written recently, a new CBA needs to be done this year because the current CBA expires in December 2021

If the players have their way the new CBA just might fix this conundrum. The owners on the other hand, don’t feel the same way. They like the loophole.

I am going to go out on a limb and predict negotiations will be contentious.

Other issues to be discussed and agreed to include MLBPA loathing of teams that are tanking, and scaling back on their free-agent spending, among other things.

MLB is a business, and if a business decides to delay the introduction of a product (player) to their customer (fans), it’s their right to do so. At the end of the day, they are the ones that took the risk of buying and operating a professional sports team.

For the player, it must feel like a slap in the face. To work hard, sacrifice, improve, and be away from family, only to get held back for financial reasons is a tough pill to swallow.

For players on the MLB team it is nothing less than betrayal by their front offices. The Mariners missed the 2020 playoffs by 2 games. It’s possible that Kelenic might have made up those 2 games, and the Mariner players and fans would have tasted playoff baseball.

For the fans, it’s disappointing that a player they have been waiting to see perform, one that could help their team win games, is held back to save a year of his service time.

It appears obvious to me that service time and the arbitration system are in need of repair. As is, it incentivizes teams to not promote players to MLB rosters and keep them in the minor leagues longer than they need to be.

I doubt they want to, but believe they need to. In some cases, it’s an entire season of a prime player’s peak.

If a team truly wants to field the most effective and competitive roster possible, change is needed. This system allows teams the ability to maneuver and provides a mechanism to block teams from honestly doing so because of financial constraints.

To fix it, both sides will have to be reasonable. What are the odds on that?

As with everything else we are exposed to in life, follow the money.

Aaron Boone stated “I’m fortunate to be in an organization where we don’t do that. When guys are ready or we feel like they’re ready to impact the club, that’s that. Purposely holding a guy down, I don’t think it should have a place in our game.’’

He is right, he is fortunate and the Yankees really do not have to worry about that issue. But most of the league does.

For every Yankee or Dodger franchise, there are two or three Pirate or Royal franchises. Teams that are put in the awkward position of using every possible strategy and maneuver to save money and keep players as long as possible. The superstars in the league become unaffordable to many teams.

We just saw this unfold when the Indians traded Francisco Lindor and Cookie Carrasco to the Mets. Why? Lindor wants $300 million. I am sure Tito Francona would like to pencil Lindor and Carrasco’s name on his lineup card. I am also sure millions of Indian fans shed a tear when they read of the trade with the Mets. Lindor was loved in Cleveland.

When big money is at stake, people and businesses do (almost) anything to keep or save it. The Mariners are no different.

Each year we see the salaries increase at rates well above normal inflationary increase levels that the rest of us in the world have to live by. Just take a look at the consumer price index. The rate of escalation is so great, that more and more teams simply cannot keep their players, and trade them off before free agency.

The obvious goal is to delay it for as long as possible.

Trevor Bauer is going to be paid $40MM in 2021. Does that make any sense whatsoever? Is that good for the game? The guy is 75-64 with an ERA just south of 4.00.

All of the good feelings experienced last year in Tampa ended with their ace being traded. Imagine if after the 2009 World Series, the Yankees traded Andy Pettitte because he was going to be a free agent? That has to be hard on a fan base.

But the reality is, although they state otherwise, neither side cares much about the fans. Actions speak louder than words, and in this case it’s a Led Zeppelin concert!

For teams to survive in the current economic climate, they do what they have to do.

It’s gotten to the point in many cities of fans rooting for uniforms, not players because the players are gone in a few short years.

When did the Royals and Pirates turn into the Duke Blue Devils? That is what it is like throughout most of the league these days.

So who do we believe? The billionaire owners or the multi-millionaire players? And should we be sympathetic to either side?

Mather also insulted a couple players’ capacity to speak English and complained about having to pay for interpreters. He just kept digging his hole deeper.

His words won’t help in the CBA negotiations; that is for sure.

You can’t start a fire without a spark, and Mather just lit the fire.

It’s gonna get ugly, again.

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