Recognizing that both Steve Mancuso and Jason Linden have weighed in on whether Nick Senzel should start for the Louisville Bats or the Cincinnati Reds on Opening Day respectively, I would like to posit a slightly different, more urgent take. Nick Senzel should absolutely start for the Reds on Opening Day because everything sucks and we might as well enjoy the nice things we have while we have them as early and often as we can.
Yes, this is the amoral, selfish baseball fan’s argument for starting Senzel. And yes, it makes sense from a business, logical and moral perspective too.
Before diving in, two givens regarding the Reds top prospect and the state of baseball that must be established:
- Nick Senzel is good enough to play at the highest level right now. Both Steve and Jason agree on this. Pretty much everyone in baseball agrees on this. Nick Senzel is a major leaguer.
- Baseball, by many accounts, currently hurtles toward a work stoppage in 2021. Adam Wainwright explicitly said as much last Friday.
— Tim McKernan (@tmckernan) February 15, 2019
It’s not just Wainwright either. Dodgers’ closer Kenley Jansen, at Dodgers Fan Fest last year, said: “Maybe we have to go on strike, to be honest with you.” Jameson Taillon, the Pirates MLBPA representative, was more vague in his assessment but said: “The game is built on free agency, and if those guys aren’t getting rewarded, something has to change.” His teammate Chad Kuhl, currently rehabbing from Tommy John, also mentioned the possibility: “A work stoppage could be a very real possibility right as I come back.”
On Twitter, Justin Verlander, Collin McHugh, Whit Merrifield, and Jake Arrieta have pointed out the glaring labor manipulations. In a survey last summer by USA Today, 17 of 26 players said that baseball needed a strike with 37 players declining to answer the question. Veteran agent Jeff Berry circulated a memo advocating for a “work-to-rule,” in short a work stoppage without the stoppage. And lastly, the MLBPA has hired Bruce Meyer, the premiere sports law attorney, as its chief negotiator.
A strike itself may not be guaranteed, but a new, and likely radically different, CBA is.
The crux of Steve’s argument for keeping Nick Senzel off the Opening Day roster rests on service time manipulation. By having Senzel in the minors for another two weeks, the Reds suppress his service-time clock. That would allow them to gain another year of player control before he hits free agency. 162 games is greater than 13 after all. Logically, that tracks. But with the uncertainty of the new CBA, it just doesn’t matter.
The inherent assumption in Steve’s piece says that when the players and owners negotiate a new CBA, they’ll leave service-time considerations well enough alone. This offseason however, players have been making more and more noise about the service-time manipulation games ownership has played. Whether it be Kris Bryant years ago or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. this year, no one is happy that players’ future are being toyed with.
Previously, these kinds of decisions were accepted because if a player was a good enough to have his service time suppressed, he’d still likely make enough money in free agency to make up for it. No longer.
Bryce Harper and Manny Machado’s odyssey offseasons prove that front offices don’t care about production. They only care about production per dollar. Players have realized that the current CBA will screw them out of making what they are worth. Whether that’s at the beginning, middle, or end of their career. A re-evaluation of free agency, service time, and perhaps even salary arbitration is not simply expected, it’s imminent.
And when that change does occur, do not assume Nick Senzel will be grandfathered in.
Since free agency was first established in 1976, the service-time requirement to become a free agent was six years. Jason did the math a couple of years ago and showed that free agency has delayed the debut date of most prospects. Yet the six-year requirement has never been re-evaluated. Baseball has trended younger and younger in recent years. With more research about aging curves available, debut dates have trended higher and higher. It’s not hard to see that math, either. The window for a major league player to make their big money has shrunk on both ends.
When the players and owners do negotiate a new CBA in 2021 that six-year number will be amended. As I see it, there are four probable changes:
- The service-time requirement for free agency is lowered to five or even four years. This seems like a given.
- In addition to a lowering of the service-time requirement, the definition of days required on a major league roster to record a season’s worth of days is also lowered. It currently stands at 172, a number which allows for the service-time games in the first place. I would not be surprised to see it reduced to 150, 130 or even less than 100. It could depend on how aggressive the MLBPA wants to be.
- Arbitration returns to its original service-time requirement of two years, not three. This number was initially increased in 1987, but with players realizing they need to get paid earlier, I can envision them advocating for a return to the original policy.
- The idea of service time disappears entirely. One potential scenario: Imagine a team is given four years of control of a player drafted from college and seven of one drafted from high school. To put numbers to it, a college player drafted in 2020 would be with the drafting team until the end of 2024. At the end of that period, if the player is on the major league roster, he enters free agency. If he’s on a minor league roster, he enters the Rule 5 draft.
If the definition of a season is reduced (option 2) or service time is eliminated (option 4), the Reds would hurt themselves for no benefit by keeping Nick Senzel down for the first two weeks. In either option 1 or option 3, playing for that extra year of control makes sense.
These options are neither exhaustive nor guaranteed, but the illustration holds. It’s an absolute toss-up as to whether service-time manipulation will even matter six years from now. If the changes are made retroactively to include those like Senzel and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. depends on the actual negotiations. Given the players’ vocal frustration with the system, two years out from the actual discussions, I would not be surprised at all to see that anger manifest into demanding a retroactive agreement.
It’s easy to say the Reds should game the current system. You can’t predict what you don’t know obviously, but it’s also wrongheaded, backward-looking logic. What we know is that the current rules will change — the players have made that clear. What we know is that no matter what, that sixth year of Senzel service time will occur after the 2021 re-negotiation. What we know is that Nick Senzel is ready for the major leagues.
If we’re going to traffic in the maybes that enough of the current CBA will hold to make keeping Senzel down worth it, I’d like to posit some maybes of my own:
- Maybe the Reds win an extra game because of him and sneak into the Wild Card with one game to spare.
- Perhaps letting Senzel take the reins now endears him to the organization and the fans so when he does hit free agency he’s more inclined to stay because he’s still a human and humans tend to remember kindnesses done for them against another party’s better judgment.
- Maybe he’s actually bad and nothing matters anyway.
The Reds could emerge from the 2021 CBA with another year of Senzel control earned from service-time games. Or perhaps the Reds could lose that gamble. No one but Nostradamus knows.
Morally, I agree with Jason Linden that Senzel should be promoted because it’s the right thing to do. Logically, I agree with Steve Mancuso on the business practicality of keeping him down. But selfishly, there’s so much we don’t know about what 2021 holds. So mostly I just want to watch Senzel play with Joey Votto and Yasiel Puig and Eugenio Suarez as soon as possible. After all, when I wake up in the morning and begin my trudge through the day, I don’t think to myself: “Dang, I’m so glad the Reds are going to have slightly more payroll flexibility six years from now.”
Instead, I think: “I get to watch baseball today.” And that thought makes me happy. No maybes about that.