The Mets’ decision not to include Peter Alonso among their September call-ups spurred the usual public discourse over a team’s ability to manipulate a player’s service time to their advantage. And while there is nothing in the collective-bargaining agreement to directly prevent clubs from engaging in that practice — other than risking a grievance — the minimum they should strive for is doing a better job of disguising those intentions.
The back of Alonso’s baseball card definitely warranted a taste of the bigs, as he finished the minor-league season tied for the home run lead (36) and was first with 119 RBIs. Fortunately for the Mets, they had a built-in excuse for delaying his promotion, citing a lack of available playing time at first base, given the auditions of Wilmer Flores, Jay Bruce and presumably, Dom Smith.
Where the team veered off the rails a bit, however, was assistant general manager John Ricco's statement that “it’s more beneficial for him to get some rest.” Days later, the Mets announced that Alonso, 23, is headed to the Arizona Fall League, which begins play on Oct. 9, and just this past week, revealed that he also will be part of the team’s new fall development camp right here in New York City.
The purpose of this camp? To introduce Mets minor-leaguers to life in the Big Apple, or as special assistant to the GM J.P. Ricciardi put it, “To get them assimilated to what being in New York is. What it’s like to be in New York, the media, what a day looks like at the major-league level, interaction with the major-league staff, hands-on work with the major-league staff.”
In other words, the things players typically get when they’re called up in September, yet without the costly financial implications for later down the line. Or the most important part of the whole thing — actually getting a chance to play in the majors. That’s almost taking the snub to another level: showing them the banquet table without allowing them to eat.
Maybe the Mets view this as magnanimous, but a handful of the other planned attendees, such as Double-A shortstop Andres Gimenez, 20, and 2018 first-rounder Jarred Kelenic, aren’t on the MLB doorstep like Alonso. To them, visiting Citi Field at this stage of their development is an early thrill. For Alonso, who slugged his way from Binghamton to Las Vegas — not to mention starred in the Futures Game during All-Star week — the opportunity to face next-level competition is the real prize, and he’s being denied that. As well as the service time, of course.
That’s primarily the team’s motivation when it comes to their most promising stars, and why you see these types held back at the start of every season, for at least two weeks or so. According to the CBA, an official season is now 187 days long — up from the previous 183 — but a player needs to be active for only 172 days to get full credit. Hence, the two-week-plus delay.
Even Kris Bryant was held back by the Cubs in 2015, not that it hurt them any. Bryant won Rookie of the Year, the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908, and the service-time grievance filed by agent Scott Boras remains in a perpetual holding pattern.
This September, Alonso has some pretty high-profile company. The White Sox pulled the same thing with their top prospect, Eloy Jimenez, who had a slash line of .337/.384/.577 and 22 homers split between two levels, including 55 games for Triple-A Charlotte. Jimenez’s agents fired back at the White Sox, just as Alonso’s reps did with the Mets, but those end up being merely PR punches, scoring points with their client.
This month’s biggest boo-boo, however, was committed by Twins GM Thad Levine, who let slip that service time was indeed a consideration in their refusal to call up Byron Buxton in September. Buxton, 24, already has played in the majors for parts of four seasons, totaling 306 games, but this mostly was a lost year because of injuries. Levine seemingly had sufficient cause without mentioning the one radioactive issue, but he did anyway, singling him out among his more wary fellow GMs.
“I think part of our job is we're supposed to be responsible to factoring service time into every decision we make," Levine told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I still feel pretty resolute in saying that the other three factors were more present for us in this decision-making process than that. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we weren't at least aware of service-time impacts on decisions we make.”
And still that remains the trip-wire in this whole combustible issue: You’re not supposed to say it. With the current CBA in place through the 2021 season, there can’t really be any changes to the salary structure until then. So this dance will continue for a while, and the debate seems to get more heated, and more public, each year.
WEINER SCHOLARSHIP TIME
The annual scholarship set up in honor of the late Michael Weiner, the former executive director of the Players Association, is now accepting applications through Nov. 12. Weiner, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 51 after a 15-month battle with brain cancer, not only was brilliant in the field of labor relations but an incredibly helpful and engaging voice in that role for the MLBPA.
As noted in the release, “the scholarship recognizes and supports the efforts of people who are passionate about and dedicated to improving the lives of workers — characteristics that were embodied by Weiner in his personal life, his studies and throughout his 25-year career with the Players Association.”
The Athletics had 18 pitchers on their roster for this past week’s critical series with the Yankees. Eighteen. Subtract four or so starters, and that still left manager Bob Melvin with slightly more than 1 1/2 pitchers available for each inning every night, a ridiculous scenario given the playoff implications in the weeks ahead.
Such is the magic of September, when rosters are allowed to swell way beyond the standard 25 used for the first five months of the season. Basically, the rules are changed for the most critical part of the year, when games carry the most meaning. Forget for a moment that MLB has two trade deadlines for postseason eligibility, allowing teams to seriously upgrade themselves as late as Aug. 31 despite playing 83 percent of the year without such personnel.
It’s a strange wrinkle, unique to this sport, and MLB certainly loves the attention that second deadline creates. As for the unregulated roster expansion, that runs contrary to common sense, leading to longer games and messing with the competitive balance of the first five months. Plus, the solution seems to be easy. Let teams call up as many players as they want, but make them choose only 25 or 26 or 28 to be active for each game. Decide on a manageable number.
That would seem to serve everyone’s best interest. Some young players get a taste of the majors while veterans can get a breather, but within reason, and the games would be more streamlined, just as the commissioner wants. And yet, although this complaint comes up every year, we’re still waiting for common sense to prevail.