MLB players become eligible for free agency after six years of MLB service, not six calendar years

One year of Major League service does not equal a calendar year.

Let's talk about contracts.

Contracts are agreements between parties. The parties to a contract are free to reach whatever bargain they want (within the limits of the law). They can mutually define the terms of their relationship however they desire. This includes when a union and a business enter into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). What the parties have reduced to writing controls their relations.

At Fangraphs yesterday, Dave Cameron wrote a post on a paragraph from the CBA between MLB and the MLBPA which sets forth when a player may become eligible for free agency. The CBA provision is Article XX(B), and it states:

Following the completion of the term of his Uniform Player’s Contract, any Player with 6 or more years of Major League service who has not executed a contract for the next succeeding season shall become a free agent, subject to and in accordance with the provisions of this Section B.

Cameron seizes on this language and writes:

Six or more years. The CBA does not say that a player is entitled to free agency after six years in the big leagues; it sets six years as a minimum for a player to be eligible for free agency. It explicitly states that players can have more than six of service before they are free agent eligible, but they cannot have fewer than six years. The six year line is a minimum, not a maximum, and nowhere in the CBA are players guaranteed free agency following their sixth calendar year in the Major Leagues.

The reality is that the rules, as they are written, give Major League teams control over a player’s rights for seven years, not six. And seven years of control is and has been the norm for nearly every player in MLB.

Plucking a lone paragraph from any contract is risky. That's because contracts frequently use key terms and phrases that are defined elsewhere within the document. Cameron's analysis of when a player qualifies for free agency is off base in part because he focuses on the "calendar year" (which I've emphasized with bold-face font). The problem with Cameron's analysis is that the common calendar year does not equal a "year" in "Major League service" under the terms of the CBA.

Article XXI of the CBA is entitled "Credited Major League Service." Subpart A explains how "Major League service" is calculated under the CBA. The time unit used is not the 12-month, 365-day calendar year. Rather, the CBA defines "year" to mean a total of 172 days of Major League service during a "championship season," which starts with the team's first game and ends with the team's last regular-season game. Put otherwise, players accrue Major League service only during the regular season and not during the offseason months.

During the season, Major league service accrues when a player is on the active roster, including when he's on the disabled list or serving a suspension. A player can earn 172 days if he spends an entire season on the 25-man roster. Under the CBA, a ballplayer can't notch more than 172 days of Major League service in one champion season.

Because of the way promotions and demotions between the majors and minors can work, this prevents some (and, according to Cameron's research, the vast majority of) players from becoming arbitration eligible even though they've spent parts of three calendar years in the majors. Sometimes this is because the team decides to wait a few weeks or a couple months to promote a player to the majors in order to ensure his arbitration clock doesn't start ticking (e.g., Evan Longoria). Other times, it occurs because a player is called up mid-season due to the team's legitimate and immediate roster needs (e.g., Jon Jay and Lance Lynn).

Because the vast majority of players do not notch their first day of Major League service on opening day, their Major League service accrual is not in sync with a calendar year. Players reaching MLB after the first two or three weeks of the season do not accrue three years of MLB service under the CBA within three calendar years. Likewise, players who are not promoted to MLB until two or so months into the season do not rack up the amount of Major League service necessary to qualify for "Super Two" status (which happens when a player has a certain amount more than two years of Major League service time but less than the three necessary to guarantee arbitration eligibility). The ultimate effect of a player not starting his MLB career in the season's opening weeks can also mean the team gets the player at a cost-controlled rate for seven calendar years because he has not accrued the six Major League service years, which delays his free-agency eligibility.

At least two current Cardinals have recently missed out on arbitration eligibility because they didn't have enough Major League service:

  • Jon Jay came up just short of becoming arbitration eligible after 2012 despite spending parts of 2010, 2011, and 2012 in the majors, so he had to wait until this offseason to get a pay raise via arbitration. The Cardinals got four calendar years of Jay while paying him something close to the league minimum because he did not accrue three years of Major League service until during his fourth calendar year in the big-leagues. If the Cardinals wish, they will have Jay under team control for seven calendar years (through 2016) because he won't amass the six years of Major League service necessary to qualify for free agency under the CBA.
  • Lance Lynn missed out on "Super Two" status this offseason because his call-ups and demotions in 2011 left him just shy of the Major League service necessary to qualify for early arbitration (this offseason, two years and 122 days of Major League service). As with Jay, the Cardinals might have Lynn under team control for seven calendar years before he amasses the six years of Major League service necessary to qualify for free agency.

Regarding situations such as Jay's and Lynn's, Cameron goes on to write:

If the MLBPA wants to negotiate an end to service time manipulation in the next CBA, it will almost certainly have to agree to codify the seventh year of team control in order to do so. Because that seventh year of control already exists, for all intents and purposes.

If one goes by calendar years, Cameron is correct. MLB teams effectively have seven calendar years of player control. But, if one goes by the CBA definition of a year, then teams don't have seven years of control. They control players for the equivalent of six years of Major League service regardless of the years that pass on the Gregorian calendar that Cameron, you, and I use in everyday life.

And that's what MLB and the MLBPA do. They go by the terms of the contract they negotiated. MLB clubs manipulating the CBA Major League service time provisions may very well be a problem worth addressing in the next round of collective bargaining, but not because of how many calendar years a club controls a player versus Major League service years.

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