josh-donaldson-1.png
Getty Images

The dust is still settling on former Mariners executive Kevin Mather’s comments that resulted in his resignation earlier this week, but the easy takeaway is that he did absolutely no one in any front office any favors. This was much more than the popular refrain of “saying the quiet part out loud.” Mather, in a Zoom call with a Seattle-area rotary club where he also insulted the language skills of foreign-born players, felt comfortable enough to discuss service-time manipulation in a public forum for an extended period of time. This wasn’t some rogue loose cannon from a front office spouting off. It goes to the accepted norm that has permeated the collective mindset of front offices throughout baseball. It’s laughable to even consider bringing up the best players if you are “rebuilding,” because the service-time clock trumps the on-field product. 

Everyone knew it. It wasn’t a secret. It had just been kind of a nudge-nudge-wink-wink thing for years. Mather put it out in the open for all to hear.

The players noticed. It wasn’t just relegated to the Pacific Northwest. Every single player in baseball noticed. Former AL MVP, three-time All-Star and 10-year veteran Josh Donaldson was among them…

Remember, the MLB collective bargaining agreement expires this coming winter, at which point the ownership side needs to hammer down details of a new one with the players union. As can be seen in Donaldson’s tweet, the players already have this on their minds. 

From Kris Bryant to Ronald Acuna to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., we’ve seen examples for years of MLB-ready prospects sent down to the minors to start the season for a few weeks in order to gain an extra year of team control — a practice Mather explicitly laid out during his rotary club chat. Examples of Opening Day promotions like Pete Alonso, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack are well known because they are the exception, not the rule. 

The MLB Players Association has several areas of contention with ownership heading toward this coming winter’s fight over a new CBA, but service-time manipulation is on the list. As Donaldson said, Mather just gave them extra ammo. 

Yankees ace Gerrit Cole spoke up as well, to The Athletic

“Every player should wake up and read the news on the guy with the Mariners,” Cole said. “Those conversations are being had in a lot of clubs, unfortunately. And that’s the kind of way a lot of clubs are acting. I don’t know if there’s a rule that’s going to be able to fix that, because somebody would just probably find a way around that rule. But like, as an industry, I’d like to just see us move, move past that. That’s just not productive. For anyone, it’s not productive for the product, you’re not putting the best players on the field for people to see.”

Cubs center fielder Ian Happ also weighed in (via the Chicago Sun-Times):  “I think that it’s a good thing that the fans can see some of the underbelly of the game and some of the issues that we have, especially leading into the end of this year and into a bargaining cycle,” Happ said. “It’s unfortunate that that is how a number of people think on the other side, and in and around baseball. I don’t think that’s an isolated incident, and I think that it’s very important that people understand that. I hope that both sides can work together to improve that because the system allows for it.

Keep in mind, top Mariners prospect Jarred Kelenic also said this week he believes he’s being punished by the team for not signing a contract extension before debuting in the majors. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list because lots of players are speaking out about the issue. This is a general gathering to illustrate the overarching point: The players are lining up their poker chips here in preparation to go all in this coming offseason. 

On the heels of a 60-game season with no fans in the stands, Major League Baseball can ill-afford a shutdown heading toward 2022 — fans have never wanted to hear a bunch of rich people arguing about money, but in the midst of the COVID-19 situation, the optics get even worse. Both sides know this, so leverage is even more key than in years past. Generally speaking, a majority of fans tend to side with ownership on these matters, but the players have scored some serious leverage here in light of Mather’s comments. All the pieces matter.