The top ranked prospect in baseball, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is undoubtedly the biggest draw at the Blue Jays’ spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida. The teenager draws a huge crowd wherever he goes, with social media going crazy over him merely walking out a door.
Wait for it… pic.twitter.com/rAFF9qp4To
— Hazel Mae (@thehazelmae) February 16, 2019
So it would seem a given that he would start the season in Toronto, bringing some much needed excitement and anticipation to a team that will be sorely lacking in both.
Except, barring a huge turnaround from what Atkins has been saying, he won’t be.
#BlueJays GM Ross Atkins on Vladimir Guerrero Jr:
“There’s no firm timeline on when he arrives or when he is playing in Toronto for the first time, but we want to make sure he’s the best possible third baseman and the best possible hitter he can be.”
— Keegan Matheson (@KeeganMatheson) February 14, 2019
The 19-year-old is coming off a tremendous minor league season split between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo, that saw him hit for a .381 batting average with 20 home runs, 78 RBIs, and a .437 on-base percentage.
Quite clearly, he’s ready for the Majors.
But like when he wasn’t called up in September with expanded rosters, Guerrero will likely start the year in Buffalo. The reason? To manipulate his service time.
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A Major League regular season is 187 days, and each day spent on the active roster or injured list earns a player one day of service time.
A player will reach ‘one year’ of Major League service upon accruing 172 days in a given year. Once a player has reached six years of playing time, they become eligible for free agency. So preventing a player from accruing these 172 days pushes back their free agency, and ability to earn a larger contract.
Blithely slashing payroll while simultaneously raising ticket prices, dropping one clunky tone deaf soundbite after another, Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins implore the fanbase to trust the process, without ever explaining in words or deed, how the process is meant to make the team more competitive in the near term.
So openly manipulating Guerrero’s service time has nothing to do with competitiveness and everything to do with cost savings in the long term.
While technically the Jays are merely exploiting the loophole in baseball’s collective bargaining agreement that allows them to manipulate a player’s service time, it is certainly a contravention of the spirit of the rule. And it’s to the detriment of players and fans, the only benefit being to ownership, and their pocketbook.
They’re not even pretending to disguise their rationale anymore. This is not good. Fans deserve better. https://t.co/hG7F56LiFJ
— Collin McHugh (@Collin_McHugh) February 17, 2019
Other teams have been guilty of service time manipulation in the past, notably the Atlanta Braves with their young phenom Ronald Acuña and the Cubs with Kris Bryant, who filed a union grievance in response.
But none has been so egregious as the Blue Jays keeping the top-ranked prospect in baseball in Buffalo for months, while murmuring nonsense about ‘getting him ready’; simply to restrict his MLB playing time. This is only to buy themselves an extra year before arbitration and free agency by not paying him.
Blue Jays fans thinking I'm bashing Vlad Jr's service time manipulation simply because it's the Jays doing it and asking me, rhetorically, if I was mad when the Braves and Cubs, etc. did it in the past, suggest I need to be more loud and strident with my opinions.
— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) February 18, 2019
Both Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman have both publicly expressed their displeasure with the Blue Jays’ executive team, with Stroman openly criticizing the lack of veteran players in the clubhouse and questioning the desire to field a competitive team this season.
If you spend it, they will come
Jays fans have proven that if a good team is on the field, they will come out to support in record numbers. Attendance skyrocketed in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and only saw a sharp nosedive in 2018 when it became clear the team wasn’t going to make a postseason run, and likely wouldn’t again into the foreseeable future.
Despite this, there is more than enough money to put together a competitive roster. Make no mistake, the Blue Jays are not a small market team, and Rogers is a not small-time owner. They have the financial ability to offer long-term contracts, and potentially attract top-level players. They just don’t. And they have in place a front office executive team committed to the same.
This is not just a Blue Jays problem. Free agency has seen a significant decline over the last two years, and it’s clear that the owners and execs are forcibly lowering the market. And yet, instead of decrying this, many baseball fans support it.
Maybe this is because fans can more easily see themselves as baseball executives than players. You can play armchair GM in fantasy, picking up and dropping players, making trades to create a winning roster. With an over-reliance on analytics, you can imagine yourself crafting the perfect baseball team based on advanced stats and metrics that conveniently eliminate the human factor that makes sports both unpredictable and exciting.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred creates solutions to non-existent problems, like the length and pace of play, blaming the player’s union and media for creating negativity around baseball in order to avoid addressing the real problem – which is that distilled down, this is a labour relations issue. And one that is looking more and more likely to lead to another work stoppage.
The last baseball strike in 1994 was long and protracted, and it took the league years to recover. And yet, owners seem to be challenging the player’s union to either concede against its own best interests, or force them to be better through a labour dispute.
The Blue Jays’ thrilling run in August 2015 now feels like a lifetime ago. Even the most casual fan can tell you where they were when Bautista flipped his bat. Sports may be just entertainment, but they can unite people in a powerful way.
Baseball is a mess, and the Blue Jays are emblematic of it, asking you to trust that the basement foundation is solid while the house falls down around you.
Players want to win. Fans want their team to win. With the exception of a few, the owners want to ‘win’ in an abstract way that allows them to continue to line their pockets and spend as little as possible.
Guerrero will get called up within a few weeks of the season starting, and if he comes even close to his potential, he will be the most exciting Jays player in 2019. But it won’t completely erase the completely avoidable ugliness of the beginning of his Major League career.