MLB Teams Manipulating Player Service Time Is An Old Problem, Says Gene Orza, The Former Union Official

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Gene Orza

Gene Orza, the former Major League Baseball Players Association chief operating officer, who worked ... [+] for the union for 26 years.


Former Seattle Mariners executive Kevin Mather’s incendiary and cringeworthy remarks to a Seattle-area Rotary Club earlier this month — including his admission that the team manipulated the service time of top outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic — continue to reverberate throughout the baseball landscape, even after Mather’s resignation was made official Monday.

Kelenic, 21, told USA Today Sports, “Money shouldn’t determine when a player is called up to the big leagues.” And the Major League Baseball Players Association blasted ownership, saying in a statement that Mather’s remarks offered “an unfiltered look into Club thinking. It is offensive, and it is not surprising that fans and others around the game are offended as well.”

The union also hinted that the issue of player service time may be at the forefront of the upcoming collective-bargaining negotiations later this year, when the current CBA is set to expire after the season. “Players remain committed to confronting these issues at the bargaining table and elsewhere,” the MLBPA’s statement said.

But one former union official said the Players Association would be wise to “send Mather a big fruit basket for letting the cat out of the bag” and making public one of the sport’s festering problems.

“It’s been around a very long time,” said Gene Orza, the former MLBPA chief operating officer, referring to major league clubs manipulating players’ service time. “Clubs have taken very different positions on it, and they do it knowing it’s not fair. But the temptation is so great because the money is so great.”

In the now infamous video of Mather talking to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club members, he said the Mariners would keep Kelenic in the minors “for a month” to start 2021 — “probably Triple-A Tacoma” — and then elevate the outfielder. Major league clubs control players for six years before they become free agents, but Mather’s comments underscore how clubs will exert control over when a player’s major league service time begins, a tactic that, at its core, is financially-motivated.

“Imagine having to pay Mike Trout one less year of free agency,” Orza said.

In the Basic Agreement negotiated by the union and ownership, there is no clause or rule that allows for teams to manipulate service time. A player earns one year of major league service by accruing 172 days — either in one season, or across multiple seasons. A typical regular season (the 2020 truncated campaign due to the coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding) is 187 days and each day a player is on an active roster, or is on the injured list, counts toward service time earned.

“It’s not right for teams to manipulate service time,” said Orza. “What that tells fans is that for the sake of money, we won’t put a player of major league quality on the field. It’s almost like a mini Black Sox scandal. What Kevin (Mather) was saying is that clubs do this based upon need. But the money is there, and as a result, clubs deny the truth of what is happening.”

Orza said service time manipulation and similar types of malfeasance in the game have been going on as far back as when he first started working for the union, in 1984.

“Where clubs get into trouble is when they deny it,” said Orza.

In a recent example of a team exerting its power over a player, the Chicago Cubs demoted star third baseman Kris Bryant during spring training of 2015. Bryant made his debut April 17 that season, which pushed back his free agency one year. Orza recalled how Bryant was called up to the major league team the morning of a home game at Wrigley Field, and after an off day.

“Bryant would have had one more day of service. That morning (against the San Diego Padres) the Cubs batted him fourth, in the cleanup spot, and he struck out three times,” said Orza. “In a game the Cubs lost by one run. He missed (one year of service time) by one day!”

After Bryant filed a grievance, the Cubs reportedly won in the arbitration battle last year, and Bryant remains under contract with the Cubs through the 2021 season. 

Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson, a former MVP, tweeted his approval of Mather’s comments earlier this week, saying the remarks give the MLBPA ammunition for the future. “Thank you Kevin Mather. I sincerely mean it. You just said what everyone already knew, but now we @MLB_PLAYERS have official evidence that is going to help a lot of players. Again, thank you!! Bravo,” read Donaldson’s post, which included a clapping hands emoji.

But will the players and union executive director Tony Clark use that evidence and fight for change once the CBA negotiations begin?

“Collective bargaining is the search for authenticity. I think it depends on if the players have the strength to strive for change,” said Orza. “The sport can’t go anywhere without the quality of players on the field — without them, the sport dies. You need to fill rosters. But this issue will make bargaining more difficult.

“The question is, how committed are the players?”

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