Reports from late last week indicated that the uncertainty surrounding the Collective Bargaining Agreement between owners and the MLB Player’s Association could lead to a flurry of free agent signings this month. But since you’re reading this post on an Orioles blog you know full well that your favorite team is unlikely to be major players in that regard. Instead, the O’s could be on the opposite side of things, needing to wait until the CBA is settled before getting into gear.
The Orioles may sign a major league free agent this winter. It may even be likely considering the desperate state of the rotation and Mike Elias’s annual tradition of adding a veteran shortstop to the mix. But those sorts of moves will not make up the majority of the team’s offseason action. Unless something drastic changes, this team will be more familiar with the waiver wire than anything else. But it is entirely possible that something drastic does change.
Service time manipulation has been a point of contention between players and the league for years. Perhaps the most high-profile case to this point was Kris Bryant, whom the Chicago Cubs kept in the minor leagues just long enough to prevent him from accumulating a full year of service time in 2015, delaying his free agency by a season and likely limiting the amount of money he will make in his career.
The Orioles are going to be faced with a similar situation on Adley Rutschman in the upcoming season, and they aren’t exactly setting themselves up for a believable case when it comes to keeping him in Norfolk by the time Opening Day rolls around.
Rutschman is widely considered the top prospect in baseball. He will turn 24 in February, has already spent time in Triple-A, and has tools that are considered major league quality across the board. Plus, he may already be at the very top of the organization’s catcher depth chart. The team’s 40-man roster is without a backstop following the outrights of Pedro Severino, Austin Wynns, and Nick Ciuffo.
Even still, as things stand with the current service time rules, there is little incentive for the Orioles to start Rutschman in Baltimore this year. He would receive a full year of service time before the team is really ready to win, and it would get him to free agency sooner, shortening the club’s prospective window of contention. Their goals would be better served to leave him in Norfolk for a couple of weeks to gain that additional season of control.
Of course, they could opt for what the Chicago White Sox did this past season with Andrew Vaughn. Taken third overall in the same draft that Rutschman went first, Vaughn made Chicago’s Opening Day roster, earning a full year of service time. Obviously, the White Sox and Orioles are in very different situations, and Vaughn struggled as a rookie. But it was nice to see a team prioritize winning and give a player that was clearly ready for the show an opportunity to play.
It’s not entirely clear if service time will be addressed in CBA talks. After all, prospects largely are not part of the Player’s Association, so their needs take a backseat to those of veterans. But the noise surrounding it has been great enough that a possible “solution” has been discussed.
A proposal from September noted that all players would reach free agency at the age of 29.5. This wouldn’t change things much for Rutschman as he is a bit older at this point, but it could alter the math on someone like Grayson Rodriguez, who will only be 22 on Opening Day. If the O’s were to promote him ASAP, they could keep him in orange and black for eight years prior to him hitting free agency.
From a fan’s perspective, something like that could be awesome for your enjoyment. It incentivizes getting good players to the majors as soon as possible to maximize their impact. The Orioles could have many of their big-name prospects in Baltimore sooner rather than later. But you can also understand why some of the players, like 22-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (who already has over two years of service time) wouldn’t want to wait a decade to test the open market. The likelihood that this exact proposal gets implemented is basically zero.
But it sure sounds like something will change, and the ultimate decision on this point could have the biggest impact of any on the Orioles’ offseason plans. Rutschman is ready for the big leagues. Rodriguez and a healthy D.L. Hall are close. It’s realistic to think that players like Jordan Westburg, Kyle Stowers, and even Gunnar Henderson could show enough in 2022 to be worthy of a call-up as well. If the service time hurdles are lowered, that could make the upcoming season more interesting in Baltimore than originally expected, and possibly change how those prospects are supported with an injection of external talent.
It’s a domino effect from there. There still isn’t enough there to think the Orioles could make a playoff run in 2022, but it could give us “The Next Good Orioles Team” a season or two sooner.