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MLB Should Invoke the Franchise Tag



By Joseph Delgrippo ~ November 5th, 2011. Filed under: Business of Sports, Digest Contributors.

The MLB free agency period is now upon us and much speculation has been written where the Big Three free agents of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes will be headed next.

But should players who have played their entire careers with an organization be allowed to leave their respective teams this early in their careers? Especially while only playing for the team for only six seasons?

In the major league sports world, I believe major stars have an obligation to stay with the teams which drafted and developed them. This is an obligation to the teams’ management, their teammates, but especially the fan base in the respective city. This rings even more true when a player like Fielder has only played through his initial control period of six years.

I have stated this obligation many times in print and on the radio only to be hit with the “players deserve to make as much money as they can” argument, with the most popular argument that these players are employees and, once they become a free agent, are free to ply their trade anywhere they want.

That is true. Most employees in this country are free to work anywhere they want.

But when Ira the accountant changes from one CPA firm to another, that move does not affect legions of fans that follow his every move. No one but his current employer (and maybe his immediate family so he can keep his job) roots for Ira to produce at a high rate. There is no World Championship title to be won when Ira balances the books of a company. Ira may bring some clients with him when he changes firms, but the customers of those moving clients aren’t affected by Ira’s move, certainly not to the degree that sports fans are affected when a keystone player signs a free agent contract with another organization.

I am pretty sure Ira’s “fans” also don’t spend hard-earned dollars on copies of his Friday night bowling shirts, with Ira’s last name emblazoned across the back.

That being said, MLB players currently become free agents after six seasons of team control and these free agents are free to play anywhere. And most, but not all, free agents usually take the most money over the longest term contract.

Many people have complained that the big market clubs get most of the great players when they get too expensive, with small market teams unable to afford their best players at the time when those players are becoming a major force within the game. With the current CBA expiring December 2011, now is a great time to revamp the free agency rules for the betterment of baseball as a whole.

Pujols isn’t playing anywhere other than St. Louis, and even though he currently isn’t under contract with the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, he should be helping the team attract players to St. Louis for the next couple seasons. As witnessed by the recent World Series, except in July and August when the humidity is brutal, St. Louis is probably the best city to play major league baseball. Prince Albert is an icon in Redbird country and he would be the biggest idiot to even think about playing anywhere else.

That icon status while playing for a model franchise and loved by the greatest fans in the game is worth much more than a few extra million dollars a season.

However, the other big free agent first baseman is a virtual lock to move his big body across country to another team. A lot rides on Prince getting the highest contract possible, probably more important for the MLB Players Union and agent Scott Boras than Fielder himself.

The more cash Fielder and Boras can steal from his next employer will raise salaries everywhere, and not just free agent salaries. This pushes other (mostly middling) free agents to get more from other needy owners. This further drives up labor costs all over the majors.

It will also make Scott Boras demand more money from his future free agents, one being the young star first baseman from Kansas City, Eric Hosmer.

Fielder has played six solid years in Milwaukee, and forms a great one-two punch in the middle of the Brewers lineup with Ryan Braun. Combining that duo with a solid lineup surrounding them, a strong starting staff and management group dedicated to winning, the Brewers are set to be near or at the top of the NL Central for quite some time.

Thus, Fielder is not moving anywhere to “play for a winner.” The Brewers already are winners and with the same team next season, will likely challenge for the division title and another post season appearance.

Fielder is in it strictly for the cash, a topic for him which appears to have been the driving force his entire career. In 2007, after hitting 50 home runs with an OPS of 1.013 at the age of 23, Fielder and the Brewers could not agree on a long-term deal. Fielder’s contract for 2008 was renewed at $670,000.

After being renewed, Fielder stated, “I am not happy about it at all…but my time is going to come, and it’s going to come quick, too.” This tells me that Fielder is only concerned with getting as much money as possible.

Most likely under the advice of Agent Boras, Fielder never did sign a long term contract to buy out any free agency seasons, “settling” to sign one-year contracts.

This past season saw Fielder earn $15 million on a one-year contract.

Like Carlos Gonzalez last year in Colorado and Jered Weaver this season for the Los Angeles Angels, Boras couldn’t possibly have three young players sign below market extensions without testing the market. It would ruin his reputation.

Meanwhile, Reyes is in the same boat as the other two, playing his entire career for one organization. When this occurs at the production level Pujols, Fielder and Reyes have created; the organization has invested in the player (employee) via time and compensation, with the fan base investing much of its money and emotions on the player.

Reyes is similar to Fielder in that he will most likely sign a long term nine figure contract with another team. But Reyes is different than Fielder in that he already signed a multi-year contract with the Mets, allowing him to play for in New York for more than the minimum six years of team control.

Reyes signed a four-year, $22.75 million dollar contract extension during the 2006 season, which also had an $11 million option for 2011. This extension pushed Reyes’ Mets career to nine seasons. Reyes at $11 million had the second highest contract for a major league shortstop, second only to Derek Jeter.

But with a handful of teams willing to offer Reyes a six or seven year deal for $100 million or more, this type of money busts the Mets budget. The primary reason is the Mets simply cannot afford to push Reyes out that long with a contract for $15-20 million per season. The Mets are rightfully worried of Reyes’ injury history, and have already been burned on long term deals for Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, Jason Bay, all who have missed significant time with injuries, and Luis Castillo, who was basically ineffective.

But what if the Mets could keep Reyes for two more seasons? Wouldn’t that be good for the Mets, their fans and baseball in general?

In the NFL, free agency is much different. One of the main differences is the franchise tag, which allows teams to keep potential unrestricted free agents by tagging them as franchise players. This tag could be applied to any player on the squad, but was meant to keep high importance guys like a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning type player with their current team.

The franchise tag kept the player on that team for one season, which gave the team one more year of control and allowed the team more time to possibly structure a longer term deal. The salary for that one season would be the average of the top five salaries at their respective positions or 120% of their previous year’s salary, whichever is greater.

MLB as a whole would benefit from a franchise type tag on a player to keep that player on his original team for up to two franchised seasons. The idea is to keep players on their original teams for a longer period than six years, and would compensate those players at the highest salaries already in place.

All other rules regarding the current player system would remain in place. Young players would be under team control for six seasons, with arbitration beginning after three seasons, unless Super Two status is relevant. All the current rules for free agent compensation would remain, although I am not a big fan of the supplemental first round picks, and hope that process can be eliminated.

This franchise tag would only apply to players who came up through the organizations system, and not MLB players acquired via trades or free agency. Minor leaguers who are traded could also be franchised by their new organization provided they began their major league career with the new organization.

So, players like Fielder, who was drafted and developed with the Brewers could be franchised, but a guy like Josh Beckett would not be able to be franchised since he was acquired by the Red Sox via a trade. Also, Anthony Rizzo of the San Diego Padres could be franchised since he was traded to the Padres as a minor leaguer and made his debut with them. But Justin Smoak could not be franchised since he made his debut with the Texas Rangers, but was traded to the Seattle Mariners during his first season.

Like I said several times already, the idea is to keep a team’s “franchise” type players with the teams which developed them, and which they have been an important part of that organization for many years. I believe six years of control is too little for the time an organization puts into a player, especially a player who has become good enough to warrant a franchise designation.

However, there could be other factors into whether a player can be franchised. These could be age related factors such as no one age 30 or over can be franchised. Or a player who signed a contract extension during his first six seasons (the team control years) which eliminated two or more free agent seasons could not be franchised, unless that player was still under age 30.

A perfect example of this scenario would be the New York Yankees Robinson Cano, who signed a five year extension with two team options prior to the 2008 season. This extension included two team options which push Cano’s first free agency to after the 2013 season.

At that point, Cano would be 31 and would have played for the Yankees for nine seasons, three seasons which currently are considered his free agent seasons. The Yankees would NOT be able to franchise him for the 2014 season and Cano would be a true free agent.

Those players who have not signed a contract extension during their team control seasons could be franchised up to two seasons if they have not yet turned 30.

What salaries would franchised players be able to command? In the NFL, it is the average of the top five at that position or 120% of a player’s current salary, whichever is greater. But in MLB, I would make the first franchised season equal to the highest salary from that position during the upcoming season or 150% of that players prior seasons salary, whichever is greater. If a player is eligible to be franchised a second time, that second salary would equal the highest salary in the game or 120% of that players prior year’s salary, whichever is greater.

If the organization wants to place the franchise tag, they will have to pay the player the highest salary out there, albeit for only one or two seasons.

Using these rules, the Brewers would be able to franchise Prince Fielder for two seasons, since he is currently 27 years old and would not be 30 until after those two franchised seasons. Fielder would be eligible in 2012 to earn either Mark Teixeira’s salary ($22.5M) or 150% of his current $15 million salary, which comes out to the same amount. Essentially Prince’s second franchise year would equal the new Pujols salary, probably around $25 million.

But, Jose Reyes could only be franchised for one year, even though he signed a contract extension which bought out several free agent seasons because he is not yet 30. His salary would be 150% of his current salary since the top salary at shortstop for 2012 is currently Jeter’s $16 million. So for the Mets to keep Reyes away from free agency for one more season, it would cost them $16.5 million, or the highest salary for any shortstop in the game.

And for those of you keeping score at home, since he is over 30, Albert Pujols would not be able to be franchised by the Cardinals.

To bullet point these rules:

1) A team can franchise one player per season

2) This player must have started his major league career with his current organization, and not acquired via a major league trade or as a free agent

3) The franchised player cannot be 30 years of age or older (ex: Albert Pujols)

4) If a player signs a contract extension during the “team control” term of the first six seasons, which buys out two or more free agent seasons, then the player can be franchised once if the player is under age 30. (ex: Jose Reyes)

5) If a player does not sign a contract extension during the team controlled first six seasons, then the player can be franchised up to two times, assuming he is still under age 30. (ex: Prince Fielder).

6) The salary for the first year franchised player would be equal to the highest salary in the game at that position or 150% of his prior seasons salary, whichever is greater

7) If a player is eligible for the franchise tag for a second season, then the players salary is only equal to the current highest salary at that position or 120% of his prior years salary, whichever is greater

This concept would keep young star players with their original teams for at least two more seasons. It would reward teams which draft and develop well as they can hold onto their young stars longer, but not under the duress of long term mega deals. Would the Tampa Bay Rays have franchised Carl Crawford before the 2011 season? Crawford would have made a boatload of money, but the Rays would not be on the hook for multi years and Crawford could still hit free agency a year later.

There would also be no need to trade top young talent in the middle of their arbitration years. Players like Matt Kemp, Joey Votto, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum could still be with their original teams for another year or two without the incessant talk of their teams “needing” to trade them to big market teams solely for financial reasons. Since Kemp did not sign a contract extension and is still only 27, the Dodgers could franchise him for two more seasons, but would have to pay him equal to the top salaries in the game.

But teams still might not even want their players for even that one or two franchise seasons. The Mets might decline to pay Reyes $16.5 million on a one year deal if they do not believe they will be contenders. But I bet the Brewers would franchise Fielder in a heartbeat and the Giants could franchise one of Cain or Lincecum and possibly sign the other long term.

Big name players would still be able to become free agents, but usually not until age 29 or 30, still within the age of production where they could get four, five or six year deals on the open market. Even though he wouldn’t be able to be franchised, CC Sabathia still essentially received a six year deal at age 31, and Cliff Lee received the same type deal at age 32.

And I believe the 31 year old Pujols might make a little bit of cash over the next six or seven seasons.

The details still could get tweaked a little here and there, possibly regarding the age requirements and salary details, but the best young players will still make great money down the road, but might have to stay with their original teams a year or two longer.

This is a win for MLB in general as only the best franchise-type young players are able to stay with their original team longer, still making market value, while bringing more continuity to the game of baseball and its small market teams. All without the burden for a long term deal for the original team.

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Joseph Delgrippo is an aspiring sportswriter and TV baseball analyst. He played NCAA baseball, at tiny Marietta (OH) College, participating in the Division 3 World Series. In addition, he's coached baseball at the high school level. His knowledge of this game goes far beyond what is shown on television.

13 Responses to MLB Should Invoke the Franchise Tag

  1. Big Bubba

    If a player wants to leave, they should have the right to. If they hated a team/city and were literally forced to play there, how inspired do you think they would play?

  2. David Pallas

    How fitting… Someone from New York, the market of free-agent spending, wants a franchise-tag… Isn’t it funny when a player (Reyes) doesn’t want to play for their team, all of a sudden the rules are unfair.

  3. Stu B

    What’s the point of writing a piece like this?

    Players were obligated to play for, and only for, the team that drafted and developed them, or the team that owned their contracts, until 1975, when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that the reserve clause granted a team only one additional year of service from a player, putting an end to perpetual renewal right the clubs had claimed for so long.

    That ruling has never been reversed in any court or arbitration setting, so any kind of rule restricting free agency would need to be collectively bargained and not simply imposed because somebody like you thinks it should be so.

    “In the NFL, free agency is much different.” Well duh, and what’s so great about that? You fail to mention that the NFL players have much less power relative to the owners, which manifests itself in things like the franchise tag rule and the majority of players not even having guranteed contracts, meaning that a team can simply release a player and no longer be obligated to pay him WHEN HE RUINS HIS BODY WORKING FOR THAT TEAM!

    And NBA and NHL players have even less control over their destinies, as witnessed by the prolonged lockouts in those leagues which serve the purpose of making the players bend to the will of the owners.

    If, as you say, star players are obligated to their original teams, shouldn’t those teams also be obligated to not trade those players without their consent and to pay them the top market rate for their services? Loyalty and obligation are 2-way streets, and neither side is more obligated than the other.

    With all due respect, Mr. Delgrippo, this article is a long-winded bunch of hooey.

  4. Brien Jackson

    I *HATE* the franchise tag in the NFL, though I suspect it wouldn’t be nearly as pernicious in baseball, since careers are much longer, at least for the average player who reaches the point of being eligible for free agency.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that the player control period already functions as a pretty good approximation of the franchise tag, as it creates clear incentives for players to sign away some of their free agent years for more financial security during the player control period. Albert Pujols isn’t bolting for free agency at the first opportunity, he’s played 11 years in St. Louis. And far from getting a bum deal, the Cardinals got a decade of one of the best players ever at a well below market rate. That seems like a pretty good deal for everyone to me.

    In any case, the union would absolutely never agree to it, so there’s little point in arguing about it.

  5. Brien Jackson

    Also too:

    “There would also be no need to trade top young talent in the middle of their arbitration years. Players like Matt Kemp, Joey Votto, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum could still be with their original teams for another year or two without the incessant talk of their teams “needing” to trade them to big market teams solely for financial reasons”

    How do Los Angeles and San Francisco not count as big markets?

  6. Edgy DC

    I want Reyes retained too. But this is ridiculous.

    The right of American sports teams to control the labor market through salary caps, drafts, and reserve clauses is ridiculous, un-American, and unhealthy for sports.

    If a team wants a player for his whole career, they should pay him what he’s worth for his whole career.

    There is a point in arguing it, though. Because as long as this sentiment exists, the relative lack of rights that football players have is taken for granted.

    It’s just amazing that we project free market values to the rest of the world, but can’t explain to anyone why we let our professional sports teams operate as cartels.

  7. Joseph DelGrippo

    To those commenters who feel I am proposing this to keep Reyes on the Mets, that is completely inaccurate.

    First, I am not a Mets fan, but actually despise most that is the blue and orange.

    This was a piece mainly about Prince Fielder and his incessant haste to leave the only team he has known. This was based upon his petty anger over not getting a long term deal after his 50 HR season.

    And many teams I bet wouldn’t even franchise each season. Most of the NFL teams don’t have a franchise tag player each season. I wouldn’t franchise Reyes at that price, especially when the Mets aren’t going to compete in 2012. But if I ran the Brewers, franchising Fielder for two season is a no brainer.

    Now individually:

    Big Bubba – Players are “forced” to play in a city which drafted and developed them for six years, and it appears that Fielder was very inspired as he played there very well. If you don’t want players “forced” to play in a city they don’t like, then lets eliminate the draft and make every player a free agent when they graduate high school.

    David Pallas – if you have read anything from me on this site or other sites, or listened to me on various radio shows over the years, you will know I am not a big fan of my favorite team, the Yankees, in signing big money free agents. This is not about the New York market, but primarily about helping the smaller markets.

    StuB (your comments are in quotes)- First,if you think my article was a “long winded bunch of hooey, wait to finish this response to your comments.

    “What is the point of writing this piece?”

    I thought I was clear when I wrote that franchise type players who were developed by their current team should have to stay with that team at least another year or two, depending on their age and if they signed a contract during their initial 6 year control period.

    “That ruling has never been reversed in any court or arbitration setting, so any kind of rule restricting free agency would need to be collectively bargained and not simply imposed because somebody like you thinks it should be so.”

    Yes, it would be my desire to have the franchise tag, but I stated in the piece that with the CBA now up in December, this would be a good to change the rules on free agency. It would obviously HAVE to be collectively bargained, but if I was not clear enough, then my apologies.

    ‘“In the NFL, free agency is much different.” Well duh, and what’s so great about that?’

    The fact that NFL players don’t have guaranteed contracts has nothing to do with MLB players, who do have guaranteed contracts.

    If an MLB team decides to cut a player under contract, they still have to pay them (see Perez, Oliver and Castillo, Luis). In fact, I believe that once any contract is signed between two parties, then both parties are obligated to fulfill those requirements.

    Any NFL player can bargain for guaranteed money in their contract. It’s unfortunate that some NFL players can get hurt while under a non-guaranteed contract and then get cut, but they usually get an injury settlement, and most of those type deals are for younger players. But players who have contracts and are placed on IR (and technically out for the year), are paid for that entire season.

    Also, many players do have guaranteed money (and lots of it). Last season Elvis Dumervil of the Denver Broncos signed a 5 year $61 million contract but was hurt prior to the season and missed the entire year. He was paid and $45 million of his deal WAS guaranteed and he is back playing this season.

    “If, as you say, star players are obligated to their original teams, shouldn’t those teams also be obligated to not trade those players without their consent and to pay them the top market rate for their services?”

    So, under my idea, if the Mets decide to keep Reyes for that one franchise year and have to pay him $16.5 million, second most to Jeter’s $17 million, that dollar amount is not a top market rate?

    Wow, if that is not top rate to you, then I wish I had your job.

    If free agency and the ability to play anywhere the player wants is so important, then lets make every player a free agent after his first year in the majors. Then other teams would have had a chance to bid on Ike Davis after 2010, and teams could bid for Jesus Montero right now. Players would get paid based upon their potential rather than past production and the expectation for the same.

    Then if their current teams want to guarantee keeping them, these teams would have to sign rookies to long term deals right out of the minors. Sort of like Andrew Brackman type contracts for all rookies.

    Technically, teams trade players’ contracts, so if a player is under contract, he can be traded at any time, unless they bargain a no-trade clause in their contract. But if a player is not under contract, they can become a free agent at any time, even within their first six MLB years.

    True free agency. Then the big money team would become even more powerful. For example, unless the Brewers signed Prince long term when he came up, the Yankees could have signed Fielder after his 50 HR season, his second year in the majors.

    Brien – “it seems to me that the player control period already functions as a pretty good approximation of the franchise tag, as it creates clear incentives for players to sign away some of their free agent years for more financial security during the player control period.”

    And in my proposal, which would have to be collectively bargained, players who sign away a couple years of free agency (usually at below market rates to have quick financial security), would be limited in how long they could be franchised. Because he did sign a contract extension once already, Reyes would have one franchise year, but Fielder would have two because he did not sign one.

    Both Pujols (this year) and Robinson Cano (after 2013) would be free agents without an option to be franchised. With each player at age 31 when becoming a free agent, both would still command long term, big money contracts on the open markets.

    My idea would be to lengthen the time a major player would play for their original team.

    “How do Los Angeles and San Francisco not count as big markets?”

    I actually added Kemp at the last second and should have stated that part differently. My point about Los Angeles was that they are currently in a bad financial situation right now, and might need to trade their two biggest stars in Kemp and Kershaw. San Francisco is really not the big market New York, Chicago, LA (and even Dallas) are, but they also might have to make choices on which pitcher (Cain vs Lincecum) they sign long term, when under my plan, they likely would be able to keep both for at least another year each.

    EdgyDC – “The right of American sports teams to control the labor market through salary caps, drafts, and reserve clauses is ridiculous, un-American, and unhealthy for sports.”

    As I stated in my response to StuB, then lets eliminate the draft, and make every player a free agent once they graduate high school.

    Or, if the kids shows promise and “has projection”, let’s sign them right out of Little League. They could go on with their travel and prep careers, then the teams would have them under contract right away. I know a kid who played against my son in New Jersey. This kid is 13 and is an absolute stud. I would sign him tomorrow.

    But if you want to keep the draft (good idea), then have every player made a free agent who completes his first season in the majors. Unless a player is under a multi-year contract, the player would become a free agent after every season.

    Every player is a free agent after every season.

    Do you think the Blue Jays or Indians would be able to compete in that scenario? Neither do I.

    I am a total free market guy, but with professioanl sports teams, there are too many emotions involved with the fan base that true free agency would never work.

  8. Brien Jackson

    Actually, sign me up for getting rid of the Rule IV draft. Amateur player drafts are horribly overrated and very inefficient ways of allocating new talent amongst teams. Baseball’s version is probably the best, but that’s more a matter of circumstance than anything else. But I would absolutely sign up for a system where everyone is a free agent out of high school/college before signing their rights to the team of their choice.

  9. Stu B

    “Wow, if that is not top rate to you, then I wish I had your job.”

    I never put a number on it, but your proposal is to extend the team’s exclusive control over a player’s services, which in turn implies that team face no competition from other teams. In that scenario, it’s highly unlikely that the team would pay the market rate for that player’s services.

    @Brien: I think you mean the Rule 5 draft. There’s no such thing as a Rule 4 draft.

  10. Joseph DelGrippo

    StuB – In my proposal, there are minimums which would require the current team to pay the franchised player an amount equal to either the highest salary currently paid at that position OR 150% of the players prior year salary, whichever is greater. Even though their is no competition for the players services for that one season, the franchised player is guaranteed to make the highest salary at his position. But I feel my proposal would actually push teams and players to sign more long term contracts within the exclusive six year period.

  11. Brien Jackson

    The Rule IV draft is the technical name for the amateur player draft.

  12. Joseph DelGrippo

    And Stu – Brien’s Rule 4 draft reference is also known as the June amateur player draft.

  13. Brien Jackson

    “In my proposal, there are minimums which would require the current team to pay the franchised player an amount equal to either the highest salary currently paid at that position OR 150% of the players prior year salary, whichever is greater.”

    Then it won’t work. It works in the NFL, where the massive television contracts are split evenly amongst all the teams, but MLB has nothing like that, so the small market teams won’t be able to afford this. The Reds simply aren’t going to franchise Joey Votto and pay him $25 million+ for two seasons, the Rays can’t afford to do it with Price, etc.

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