Picking up where we left off last week, today’s Quickie will discuss the rules for free agency in the major leagues.
Readers of this space will recall that the reserve clause era ended at the conclusion of the 1975 baseball season. But that did not result in unrestricted free agency where a player could immediately go seek the highest pay he could find at the end of his contract year. Instead, the owners negotiated with the player’s union for new rules that would strike a balance between the owner’s desire for control versus a player’s right to sell his services at the highest price the market will bear.
The owner’s control begins with the amateur draft. When a player is drafted in the amateur draft, his team gains control for 3 years. He can be sent anywhere in the organization without restriction for three years.
If, at the end of three years, he is not on the 40 man major league roster, then he can be drafted by another team in the Rule 5 draft. There is a cost to the team that drafts him. Namely, the player must remain on the drafting team’s 25 man roster for the entire season following the draft or he must be returned to the team from whence he was drafted.
If, on the other hand, he is on the 40 man major league roster, then he will begin to earn major league service time toward free agency. (Note that it is possible to earn free agency through minor league service time too, but I will not address minor league service time rules here.) Once a player is placed on the 40 man major league roster, he may not be removed from that roster without his consent. Still, for the next three seasons, he continues to be controlled by his team. For the next three seasons, he can be optioned to the minors without restriction and his contract will be renewed automatically each year with his existing team.
After 3 years on the 40 man major league roster, a player qualifies for salary arbitration. After six years of major league service time, a player qualifies for free agency. (Fans of Kris Bryant know that he was held back in the minors for a short period at the beginning of the 2015 season for the apparent purpose of forestalling Kris’ eligibility for arbitration and, ultimately, free agency. That could pay off big for the Cubs, though it is more likely that Bryant’s grievance over this will be settled and rolled into a negotiated multi-year contract before Kris qualifies for free agency.) There usually is a catch for the team signing a free agent. That is that the former team will qualify for a draft pick in the next Rule 5 draft, assuming it had offered salary arbitration to the player before he signed with his new team. That Rule 5 draft pick comes from the team that signs the free agent. For example, the Cubs gave up a draft pick as compensation to the Cardinals for signing Jason Heyward last winter.
There are other perks that ball players earn through service time. The most important is the so-called 10/5 benefit. When a player has ten years of major league service and five years with his current team, then he earns the right to reject any trade involving him. Cubs fans saw an example of that with Ryan Dempster a few years ago when he would not approve a trade that would have sent him to the Braves. He had earned that right through accumulating the required service time under the deal the owners had negotiated with the players.