Pro Baseball Might Have A Fun Little Labor Nightmare Brewing

Are baseball stars being held to illegal contracts? Literally yes.
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The hypothetical application of California labor law by Nathaniel Grow in his Fangraphs article this week, "How Mike Trout Could Legally Become A Free Agent" invites a glorious dreamscape of chaos.

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Trout, the best player in baseball, was drafted and signed by the Angels in 2009 and debuted in the major leagues in 2011. The reigning American League MVP is signed through 2020. Yet, under Section 2855 of the California labor code, which caps employment contracts at seven years, allowing workers (but not employers) to void deals after that amount of time, Trout technically could opt out of his deal and become a free agent right now. He's worked for the Angels for seven and a half years now, and never had the freedom to seek work elsewhere in the field of professional baseball.

The chances of Trout doing this, of course, are approximately the same as the chances of me replacing him as the Angels' center fielder. Trout has a little more than $122 million due to him over the next four seasons, and to give that up would not only be out of character, but preposterously risky given the legal battle over Section 2855 that would be sure to follow.

Trout - in the best-case scenario - would get to be a free agent, wind up with a contending team, and probably set a record for his new contract, taking him from never-work-again money to outright FU money. That's not good enough when the worst-case scenario is going to court, losing, being forced back to Anaheim with lost wages during the legal process, getting hurt at some point, and then being unable to find a new team in 2020 because he's a pariah to the league.

If somebody is going to challenge baseball labor practices through an obscure section of California law, it's not going to a well-compensated superstar at the top of his game, with lots of earning potential in his future. It has to be someone with much less to lose.

The right answer, if there is one, is a pitcher set to miss a full year after Tommy John surgery. This pitcher, already sidelined, would ideally be someone who climbed the minor league ladder over four or five years, then got a couple of years in the majors before surgery, right as arbitration raises were kicking into effect. The move would be a way to hit free agency two or three years in advance, right as the pitcher was getting healthy again.

The minor league aspect of the scenario is a place that baseball could fight back, because MLB's stance in paying minor leaguers below minimum wage is that they are not employees, but rather "short term seasonal apprentices." If that argument holds water, then Section 2855 would only apply to players with seven or more years of service time, continuous with one team, and the whole thing is pretty much moot except for a few select players on long-term deals, because major leaguers are eligible for free agency after six seasons.

But let's go back to our legal-wrangling pitcher. His obvious risk would be not getting signed by a new team, though if he had a good pre-surgery track record and recovered well from what has become a common procedure, the ensuing collusion case would be relatively easy. The less obvious risk is for the players who follow, whose teams might go to greater lengths to steer injured guys away from surgery with an extensive recovery time that could lead to an opt-out.

If it all worked out, though, this pitcher would become a legend in baseball labor history, upending the system in which players can be bound to an organization with no rights to go elsewhere for as many as 13 years.

What the ownership side probably would not realize in fighting against this is that blowing up that system is one of the best business moves they could make.

As it stands, free agents tend to be on the wrong side of 30, and wind up getting paid the most money during the decline phase of their careers. Opening up free agency to younger players would mean more money spent on players in their primes, paying for what they will do rather than what they have done. There's already been some smartening up on this around the sport, as evidenced by Jose Bautista's ongoing free agency and the certainty that the 36-year-old fading star won't come close to the nine-figure deal he once expected.

The idea of free agency for younger players, though, has always been anathema to management, with the exception of the late Charles O. Finley, the maverick owner of the Oakland A's. Finley wanted universal free agency, something the nascent MLB Players Association under Marvin Miller feared because it would mean flooding the market with talent, thereby depressing salaries.

That's the other reason for both Trout and our imaginary pitcher not to try anything with Section 2855. An idea that sounds great might lead to the exact opposite of what you really want.

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