Fans seem to have little interest in baseball labor issues. They watch the sport to escape workplace issues, not to discuss them.
This year might be different. A number of fans appear to be interested in the negotiations for the Collective Bargaining Agreement because some of the issues could be relevant to the Orioles.
There’s talk that the Orioles might send catcher Adley Rutschman, the overall top pick in 2019, back to the minors to begin the 2022 season. A short time at Triple-A Norfolk could buy the Orioles an extra year of Rutschman in the majors before he’s eligible for arbitration.
However, the timetable for free agency, which requires six years of service time, is likely to change, and I hope it does. Not only does the current system give teams the incentive to needlessly hold players down in the minor leagues, but it’s unfair to older players.
There’s been talk of a proposal that would grant all players free agency at age 29 ½. That’s not likely to fly with the players.
Young superstars who arrive in the majors at a young age — Ronald Acuña, Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis and Mike Trout, for example — can become free agents at age 26 or 27. A player like the 23-year-old Rutschman, who went to college, might have to wait until he was 30 or 31 before free agency.
One of the good things about baseball is that players arrive in the majors at different ages. The Orioles’ second-oldest player on the 40-man roster is reliever Cole Sulser.
Sulser graduated from Dartmouth and was drafted in the 25th round in 2013, when he was 23. It took Sulser until 2019, when he pitched in seven games for Tampa Bay, to make the majors.
After two seasons with the Orioles, Sulser is 31, and he’s still a year away from being eligible for arbitration — another practice that could change in the negotiations — and four years away from free agency.
Sulser had a solid year in 2021, but under the current system, he couldn’t cash in until just before he turns 36 in March 2026. It would be unlikely that there would be much of a market for a 36-year-old relief pitcher in free agency, but because of the six-year rule, Sulser might never be eligible for big money.
If Rutschman began the 2022 season at Norfolk, just for a few weeks, the Orioles would have to carry two catchers, one of whom would be let go as soon as Rutschman arrives. It will be difficult enough to find one accomplished catcher who’ll embrace the role as the backup/mentor for Rutschman, but if the Orioles decide they need two new catchers to begin 2022, that would be a waste of a 40-man roster spot.
Even without the roster-time argument, there were good reasons not to promote Rutschman at the end of the 2021 season. Having him play an entire season in the minors, his first, helped prepare him for the majors. Because of the canceled minor league season of 2020, Rutschman skipped High-A and began the season at Double-A Bowie.
Promoting Rutschman at the end of the 2021 season wouldn’t have created nearly as much interest as having him around for the start or the bulk of 2022 season would.
In 2009, Andy MacPhail, who ran the Orioles’ baseball operations, decided to send Matt Wieters to Norfolk at the beginning of the season. When he was brought to the Orioles in late May, attendance spiked and interest was created.
That delay enabled the Orioles to keep Wieters around through the 2015 season before he was eligible for free agency. After he accepted their qualifying offer, Wieters remained with the team another year, through 2016.
Two other issues relevant to Oriole fans are the so-called “tanking” process and a minimum payroll.
The NBA has tried to eliminate tanking with mixed success by instituting a draft lottery and adding an additional layer of playoffs. Both could happen in baseball.
The Orioles will have the first draft pick for the second time in four years in 2022. Although executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias is confident in his ability to draft well regardless of position, the idea that a team doesn’t have an incentive to win is still pervasive among fans.
A minimum payroll is trickier because it would probably mean a maximum payroll, too, something that the Players Association has long fought.
There’s one new proposal that could be gaining traction, and it’s one that has been championed by Hall of Fame baseball writer Jayson Stark of The Athletic. Stark first heard of the idea last year from Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black.
It has been long thought that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement would contain a universal designated hitter, but Black came up with the idea of tying the starting pitcher to the DH. If a manager removes the starting pitcher from the game, then the team loses its DH.
It adds a layer of strategy and could help keep starting pitchers in the game longer. This year’s postseason has featured teams using openers and a series of relievers instead of a starter.
Fans enjoy watching great starters, and it’s been rare this postseason to see starters work past five or six innings.
The current CBA expires on December 1st, and there’s been little talk from either side, though that’s likely to change after the World Series. There is hope that a new agreement can be negotiated without a work stoppage, and that it will contain improvements that the sport needs.
Note: Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins and first baseman/designated hitter Trey Mancini are finalists for American League Comeback Player in the Players’ Choice awards. First baseman Ryan Mountcastle is a finalist for American League Rookie of the Year. The votes are cast by major league players.