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Ronald Acuna’s demotion is a farce

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Late yesterday the Atlanta Braves sent Ronald Acuna to the minors. This despite the fact that he destroyed three levels of minor league pitching last year, despite the fact he was arguably the most dominant player in all of spring training year and despite the fact that he is quite clearly the best player the Braves have under contract to fill the left field position to start the season.

As Bill noted last night this was, transparently, a service time manipulation situation. By keeping Acuna down a couple of weeks the Braves can delay his free agency by a whole year. It’s a more extreme equivalent of your new boss having you start after the beginning of the fiscal year to keep you from having enough days in to get full vacation or health insurance or something.

The usual response to these situations is “hey, major league teams have the right to do this, and it’s totally sensible for them to do it.” But let me ask you: why do you buy that? Why do you buy the notion that MLB teams have the right to manipulate service time and why do you agree that it’s sensible? Let’s unpack that a bit, shall we?

A Team’s Right to Manipulate Service Time

Why do teams lie about sending down players who, by all appearances, are major league ready? Why did the Chicago Cubs say back in 2015 that Kris Bryant had to work on his defense? Why are the Braves saying that Acuna needs to work on his “flow,” whatever that means, and make broad references to “development?” Why don’t they simply say “hey, we want to control this player an extra year and put off having to either spend a lot on him or to replace him for as long as possible?” If doing so is within a team’s clear rights, they’d say it, yes?

They don’t because they are NOT totally within their rights to do this. While the CBA does not contain a framework for when a player can and should be called up, every contract — including labor contracts —  contain implied covenants requiring the parties to act in good faith. In the employment context in particular it is well-established that not everything that is not explicitly banned by the letter of the agreement is something the employer is permitted to do. The baseball CBA in particular is imbued with a history of the sides taking service time manipulation into account as a material concern (i.e. Super Two eligibility, established in 1990, is the direct result of players being mad about the Cubs messing with Mark Grace in 1988). If big league front offices were so sure of their legal footing in these situations they wouldn’t make up silly lies like this.

That they do so is a tell. They know, as all employers and employment lawyers know, that the way to get around duties to employees is to come up with pretexts for the employer’s action. A false reason that, if true, would be totally defensible but which is not, once all of the evidence is adduced, true.

I guess the biggest difference is that, unlike the traditional employment law situation, Major League Baseball’s employment dispute system is simple to beat. All you gotta do is lie to the public and the arbitrators and, as was the case with Kris Bryant, you’ll win. The lesson: you can get away with manipulating a player’s service time and materially harming a player’s earning potential, but don’t you dare say that’s what you’re doing. In contrast to the usual employment situation, pretext is rewarded in baseball. All that is kind of messed up, right? That falls on MLB, the Players Union and the arbitration system they’ve devised, and that should be addressed, but it’s still messed up.

Either way, maybe you’re cool with it. Maybe your ethical compass when it comes to business is “if you can get away with it, you can do it.” Maybe, like me, you’re not cool with it because you believe that people have moral and ethical duties to not screw people over even if they can get away with it. In no event, though, is it so simple a matter as to say “hey, they have the right to do it, so they do it.”

 

The Sensibleness of Manipulating Service Time

Given the grievance and arbitration system in place, it’s likely the Braves, like the Cubs before them, will not suffer any consequences for sending down Acuna. That leaves us with the wisdom of sending him down.

I will not dispute for one second that, if you are the Atlanta Braves, it makes sense to manipulate Acuna’s service time. If you are the general manager or the team president or the owner, you have every incentive to control the player for as long as possible and to pay him as little as possible. It’s in your best interests to do so. At least your best short term interests anyway. I mean, I can see a situation where a player gets so mad at what a team did to him as a rookie that he vows to never negotiate a long term deal with the club, but I’ll let that one go for now and allow that, if you’re the Braves, their treatment of Acuna is totally logical.

But you’re not the Braves. You’re a baseball fan. Why should the Braves’ financial concerns be your financial concerns? Why are you looking at all of this through the lens of the Braves’ front office and not the lens of a fan who wants to watch the best baseball players play on the biggest stage?

The response I normally get to this is “as a Braves fan, I want the Braves to have the best long term chances as possible, and if that means keeping the player down now in favor of having him later, so be it.” With the caveat that this takes the personal well-being of the player out of the equation and that it’s kind of crappy to do that (see the ethical point mentioned above), I do understand it. I’ve been reading and writing about team building and its philosophy for longer than most of you and I’m well-versed in the pros and cons of roster flexibility, team control of players, the implications of rising payroll and all of that stuff. I promise you, I get it.

What I do not get, though, is why fans take front office’s talk about this stuff at face value. Heck, it’s not even the talk anymore. We’ve gotten to the point where we simply assume that a team has no choice but to keep payroll reined in in order to compete down the line. Why do we assume that, if not for this year’s service time manipulation, that the Braves cannot afford to keep Ronald Acuna six years from now? Why do we assume that he must be traded before he reaches free agency or that he will be too expensive to keep if allowed to reach free agency? Why do we assume that the Atlanta Braves cannot field a competitive team in 2024 0r 2025 if they have to pay Ronald Acuna the going rate for his services or else let him walk?

We assume it because front offices and pliant members of the media have conditioned us to believe it. We hear terms like “cost considerations” and “budget” and “small market” and “bad TV deal” from these folks but never ask them to justify it. This is not a salary cap league. The Braves play in one of the biggest cities in America, have a much bigger regional footprint and dedicated territory than most teams, are owned by a multi-billion dollar holding company and just saw their revenue increase by over a hundred million dollars because of the new stadium they were gifted by the taxpayers of Cobb County, Georgia. We know all of that yet we’re still supposed to assume that the best way for the team to be competitive in 2024 and beyond is by screwing a 20-year-old kid out of a few million bucks? That’s . . . less than plausible. If you believe that, it’s because you’ve bought the baloney that Major League Baseball and its clubs have a vested interest in selling.

At the same time, even with that service time manipulation, what is forcing the Braves to field a competitive team in 2024 or 2025? Nothing that I can see. They won 96 games in 2013, when all but one of their everyday players, three-fifths of their rotation and their all-world closer, Craig Kimbrel, was under 30. Within two years they blew it all up to rebuild. There are reasons they did that, some legit, some simply profit-driven, but they were not reasons anyone was discussing in 2013. They’re on their third general manager since that time and perpetrated an organizational-altering scandal in those years too. Stuff happens, but it also renders a team’s promise, implicit or otherwise, that they’ll be competitive — and competitive in just this way, with just these players — in 2024 or 2025 laughable. They cannot and should not be taken at their word that doing X now means Y later. Just look around Major League Baseball at how many teams aren’t trying at the moment and realize that there’s at least a 1 in 4 chance, and maybe greater, that they won’t be trying hard in 2024 or 2025.

Against that backdrop — a world in which teams know that what they’re doing is sketchy, a world in which a team’s financial interests are assumed to be paramount and a world in which those interests can and often do mean that they choose not to field competitive teams — I am not inclined to give the Atlanta Braves a pass when they say Ronald Acuna needs to “work on his flow.” I am not inclined to overlook the way they jerked around a guy and say it’s both fine and it’s all for the best, now and six or seven years from now.

I’m a baseball fan. Most of you are too. It should not be a subversive opinion to want to see the best and most exciting players playing the game. It should not be a dog-bites-man story when a team willingly removes one of its best players from the roster and makes the team worse for doing so. It should not be newsworthy when they actually decide to play him. It should not be unreasonable to expect a team to do everything it can to win every game now AND six years from now rather than presume such things are, by the laws of nature, mutually-exclusive concepts.

Don’t be a mark for team propaganda. If you’re a Braves fan, give the Braves some pushback here. If you’re the fan of another team, do the same when they do it to your next generational prospect. It’s better for baseball if the best baseball players play. It’s better for people if they’re not taken advantage of. Even if they’re baseball players.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Angels 8, Astros 7: Charlie Morton and Shohei Ohtani have been two of the most talked about pitchers to start the season and they faced off in this one. Not too stellar a faceoff, unfortunately, as Mike Trout homered off of the first pitch Morton threw him and Andrelton Simmons followed him in the act. The Angels would score two more off of him in the third and he wouldn’t last four. Meanwhile, Ohtani gave up four runs, including a homer to Derek Fisher and would see another run for which he was responsible score on a Brian McCann go-ahead blast. His night would end having given up four runs as well. Anaheim tied it back up on an Albert Pujols single and then Simmons would hit his second homer of the night — a three-run shot — to give the Angels a lead they would not surrender. Fun fact: Mike Scioscia ran out of mound visits in this one. Unless I missed one, he was the first manager to do so in a game since the mound visit rule was established.

Cubs 10, Indians 3🎶Kyle Schwarber came back to Ohio . . . and his city was gone . . . but the guy who wrote about it . . . was a Republican pawn . . . A, oh, way to go O-hi-o . . .🎶 Two homers for the best thing to come out of Middletown, Ohio over the past decade or so. A homer each for Willson Contreras and Ian Happ. Same result as Game 7 in 2016. Pretty much the same weather too. Unfit for man or beast or Josh Tomlin

Yankees 8, Twins 3: Gary Sanchez hit two homers and Aaron Judge and Didi Gregorius each went deep as well, with Sanchez and Gregorius each driving in three. Didi has been having such a fantastic year that, eventually, I’m assuming the people who run the ads at Yankee Stadium will spell his name right:

Mets 6, Cardinals 5: Jay Bruce‘s tenth inning homer gave the Mets a lead they’d hold on to for the win. Yoenis Cespedes hit a homer earlier that I’m pretty sure killed (a) a baseball; and (b) Luke Weaver:

463 feet, my man.

In other news, Matt Harvey entered in the top of the fifth inning of this one for his first relief appearance since his demotion to the pen. It didn’t go great. He gave up a run on back-to-back two-out doubles and left after throwing 35 pitches, only 20 of which were strikes. In still other news, the Cardinals initiated a replay challenge after Bruce’s homer, claiming he missed first base. He didn’t miss first base and it wasn’t even particularly close, so I have no idea what the Cardinals were doing there. La Russa may be gone but part of his essence still lingers, I suppose.

Rockies 8, Padres 0: Eight runs in Colorado — seven of them coming in the first two innings — isn’t news, but seven shutout innings from a starting pitcher is. That’s what Kyle Freeland did for the Rockies, striking out eight and grabbing the win. Trevor Story hit a grand slam. There was a scary moment when Freeland was hit by a comebacker, but he stayed in the game. Rockies manager Bud Black said it may have helped: “It smoothed him out. He didn’t overthrow. His focus might have been more heightened, because he was in a little bit of discomfort.” Sources say that Black plans to kick Freeland square in the beans just before he takes the mound for his next start on Sunday.

Giants 4, Nationals 3: Mac Williamson hit his second big homer in as many nights and once again helped the Giants to a win, with his sixth inning solo shot putting San Francisco up for good. The Giants other three runs came via a Brandon Belt two-run homer and a first inning wild pitch from Tanner Roark. Williamson credited the adrenalin from running into a wall the previous half inning for his homer. In light of that, sources say that Bruce Bochy plans to kick Williamson square in the beans just before his first at bat in his next game this afternoon.

Mariners 1, White Sox 0: Marco Gonzales (6 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 8K) and four M’s relievers combine for a five-hit shutout and Mitch Haniger‘s RBI single in the fourth was all the scoring. Chris Volstad got the start for the White Sox. He did pretty good considering, you know, he isn’t really a starter. The White Sox are off to their worst start in 68 years. I wonder how they’d be doing if they, you know, tried.

Reds 9, Braves 7: Cincy took a 5-0 lead behind some dominant pitching from Tyler Mahle, no-hitting the Braves until the seventh inning, but the Braves finally figured him out and crushed the first couple of relievers who followed him, eventually tying things up with four runs in the ninth. Scooter Gennett put an end to Atlanta’s comeback-win delusions, however, launching a two-run walkoff homer in the 12th. That was Gennett’s second homer of the night and his third and fourth RBI. Freddie Freeman went deep twice for Atlanta, both solo shots.

Diamondbacks 8, Phillies 4: Alex Avila went deep and had three hits and Daniel Descalso and Jarrod Dyson also homered. Dbacks starter Robbie Ray struck out 11 Philly batters but couldn’t escape the fifth inning. I imagine Philly fans either didn’t care or didn’t notice since the Sixers were playing. This is a good time of year for baseball teams in hockey and basketball towns to fly under the radar for a bit.

Blue Jays 4, Red Sox 3: Curtis Granderson threw out the potential go-ahead run at the plate in the top of the ninth inning and then hit a walk-off homer in the 10th — off of Craig Kimbrel no less — to give the Jays the win in the team’s first game since Monday’s deadly terrorist attack killed ten in the city. The Sox lose their third straight game and suffer their first loss to the Jays in Rogers Centre in their last eight meetups.

Athletics 3, Rangers 2: Andrew Triggs allowed only one run over six innings while scattering for hits and punching out six. Mark Canha homered and Jed Lowrie and Matt Olson each doubled in a run to help Oakland to their fourth straight win. Worse news for Texas than the loss was Adrian Beltre straining his left hamstring. No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, but it’s kind of ridiculous that, 25 games into the season, three of the club’s four Opening Day infielders are hurt and the fourth one is playing left field.

Brewers 5, Royals 2: Lorenzo Cain homered against his old team, but that was just late gravy. Earlier Travis Shaw hit a three-run shot that put the game away in the third inning. Sal Perez made his first appearance of 2018 after coming off the disabled list and hit a solo shot. Zach Davies picked up the win after allowing two over six.

Marlins 3, Dodgers 2: L.A. took a 2-1 lead into the eighth but Starlin Castro doubled in the tying run that inning and Cameron Maybin doubled in the go-ahead run in the ninth. The Fish snap their five-game losing streak.

Rays vs. Orioles; Tigers vs. Pirates — POSTPONED: The 27th and 28th rainouts of the year so far. So it seems appropriate . . .

28 days of rain
Flash floods in February
Back in our boats again
Bath water and the baby
What am I gonna do?
There’s been a lot of drinking
Looking at ghosts of you
While all the world is sinking

10.000 miles into the atmosphere
My body shakes
Is there a welcome here?

Closest thing to heaven
How do you do it?
Closest thing to heaven, heaven