From the “fun thought experiment on a slow news day” file comes an article from Nathaniel Grow over at FanGraphs. Though it’s not purely a thought experiment because it’s based on a fair reading that Grow, a lawyer, makes of California labor law. The upshot, though I encourage you to read the entire article because there are a lot of twists and turns to it, is that a statute exists in California which, theoretically, could allow Mike Trout to declare himself a free agent right now, despite the fact that he’s under contract with the Angels through 2020.
The idea is that in California you can only be forced to stay in an employment contract for seven years, even if the terms are longer. You can keep your contract if you want, but you can opt-out once you get to seven years. Trout hasn’t been under his current deal for seven years, but as Grow notes, at least one California court has held that the time includes being under the employer’s control prior to the current contract or renewal. When you include Trout’ time in the minors and as a big-leaguer with no right of free agency, we’re past seven years already.
Trout isn’t the only one who could be affected by this — there are a handful of players on California teams who have been under team control for at least seven years — but he’s the most notable. Others would include Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey.
Where this becomes a true thought experiment, as opposed to something that would happen, is when you think about it practically. As Grow notes, any effort by a player to invoke this California law would likely be met by legal action from his team and Major League Baseball. It would quickly become a big, big deal and a big, big distraction. A guy like Mike Trout — who is already making over a hundred million dollars and stands to make hundreds of millions more — simply doesn’t have the incentive to do such a thing. Yes, a couple of hundred million is at stake, but so too is Trout’s legacy, which I assume he’d prefer to be about baseball rather than a labor precedent that (a) wouldn’t really impact too many people; (b) would likely be ended via legislation at some point anyway; and (c) would complicate his life for a good long while.
Even more practically, any player who tried to invoke the law would probably be traded out of California immediately, due to the team’s fear that they could wind up with nothing. Whether the trade would be held to be valid is an open question — a court could say the player immediately became a free agent upon opting out — but it just adds more layers of muck to the legal process. And could risk the player having to sit out for a good long while. Just a total mess.
So, no, I doubt this California law ever comes into play in baseball. But I do still think it’s interesting, if for no other reason than as a reminder that ballplayers don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of the labor force just like anyone else and they work in different states and are subject to different laws just like any other employees from different states are. At some point we’ll see some implications of this beyond the day-to-day stuff like tax rates and what have you.