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How a year limit on rookie contracts could fix MLB free agency

When young players enter the league, they face long odds of a lucrative contract. By offering them the chance to hit the open market at a younger age, MLB could save its broken free agency system.

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MLB: 2019 Spring Training Media Days Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

At 25 years old, Trea Turner is one of the most exciting young players in baseball.

The Washington Nationals shortstop steals bases at a surreal 84 percent clip, which ranks third among active players with at least 100 career steals. Last season, he finished one homer shy of the 20/20 club and was one of just seven players to appear in all 162 games.

Turner will hit free agency in the winter of 2022-23, when he’s the ripe old age of 29. As a player whose value comes in large part from his speed, Turner and his representatives as CAA Sports will be tasked with assuring teams in negotiations that he won’t start slowing down midway through an extended contract. Given the already dire state of MLB free agency, that’s only one of many hesitations Turner may have about testing the open market.

There are many players across the league who already signed team-friendly extensions with their clubs to guarantee themselves a decent payday rather than take the risk of being a free agent when the aging curve comes into play. Just last offseason, Blake Snell, Aaron Nola, Luis Severino, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler — among many others — all signed multi-year deals for $50 million or less.

It’s no secret that the broken free agency system will be at the forefront of discussions for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2022.

Players enter the sport as young minor leaguers with hopes of signing mega-deals that secure the futures of both themselves and their families. Those hopes have been dashed by the free-agent freeze of the past two winters that’s left dozens of quality players either out of a job or relegated to minor-league deals.

In a budget-driven business that’s already seeing a declining fanbase, the league and its players’ union will need to come to an agreement that fixes free agency without costing team owners millions. It’s a difficult problem with no easy answer, but one possible solution starts with putting an emphasis on younger players.

One issue that’s irked the MLBPA for years is teams harboring young stars in the minors in order to gain an extra year of service time and push back their eventual free agency. Kris Bryant and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. both fell victim to this tactic by their parent organizations, forcing them to wait an extra year before they can solicit offers from other teams.

What if, instead of rookie deals being based on service time in the majors, they were structured with a set end date regardless of how long it takes them to move up through the minors? For example, if teams were only allowed to sign contracts of up to seven years, then players who entered the draft right out of high school would become free agents at 25.

Teams are more aware in 2019 of how devastating the age curve can be than they’ve ever been. Analytics departments consist of Ivy League products churning out statistics that scrutinize players down to every quantitative variable possible — and they’re only getting smarter. For free agents to start receiving contracts of their true value, they’re going to need to be younger for teams to feel justified in signing them to large deals.

This idea would also force clubs to prioritize developing their prospects into major leaguers as quickly as possible. As an entertainment-based company, MLB should want a system that ensures the best available players are on the field at any given time. Prospects’ service time would no longer be manipulated, and teams wouldn’t have to worry about upsetting their star players years before they even sniff free agency.

The league would also benefit from a greater influx of younger talent in the draft. Every year, many young high school stars forego the draft in favor of the NCAA, hoping to raise their stock and earn a better contract as a young professional player. Between the long bus rides, empty stadiums and light paychecks, the minor leagues are already a pretty unattractive option for young kids who’ve grown up imagining playing under the bright lights in front of thousands of screaming fans. Simply put, it takes an incredible passion for the game of baseball for a high school player to ditch college and go straight to the professional ranks.

But by offering the chance at a quicker path to the majors and better odds for a large contract, many of those high school players might think twice about spending their next 12 months in a dorm. Instead, they could be rising up prospect boards and finding themselves on the cusp of an MLB call-up. Not to mention that going to college would only push back their eventual free agency date.

The perfect illustration of this problem is Kyler Murray, who was the No. 9 overall pick by the Oakland Athletics in 2018. The Oklahoma outfielder went on to win the Heisman Trophy as the quarterback for the Sooners’ football program, eventually committing to the NFL over baseball and earning the No. 1 overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Murray would’ve been a brilliant ambassador for baseball, already accumulating a level of fame and recognition few MLB players could match. The league knew it needed him, so it allowed Oakland to offer Murray a major-league contract that would’ve added him to the 40-man roster despite the fact that he hadn’t even stepped onto a field in a professional game at any level.

Although he cited his passion for football as his reason for choosing the NFL over the MLB, the gridiron was clearly much more attractive in that it offered the chance for him to play on the big stage right away and guaranteed him a much higher salary. He signed with the Cardinals for four years and $35,158,645 million. That was over $16.5 million more than what he would’ve received from the A’s.

Murray wasn’t a high school player at the time, but the point still stands: The minor leagues just aren’t a very good-looking option for young players. Look at Carter Stewart, a 2018 first-round pick of the Atlanta Braves who didn’t sign out of high school and instead joined the college ranks for a year before signing a six-year, $7 million deal in May to play in Japan’s Pacific League. It’s just not that easy to tell an 18-year-old kid that he might have to wait until he’s 30 before he can cash in the big bucks — and oh yeah, it’s not even a guarantee he gets to the majors at all.

NFL players typically reach free agency four or five years into their contracts. In the NBA, first-round draft picks are signed to four-year deals, after which they’re either restricted free agents or playing on a one-year qualifying offer before hitting the market unrestricted. NHL rookies can only sign for a maximum of three years. All three systems allow players to have multiple free agency periods in which they can score big deals.

Baseball players often only get the chance at one lucrative free-agent contract. If they have a down season or suffer an injury during their walk year, they may never again have the chance to receive a contract for what they believe is their true value.

Finally, a set rookie contract year limit would also pay dividends in marketing the sport to younger fans. MLB has already taken several actions to make the game-watching experience more enjoyable by focusing on the pace of play — actions such as instituting pitch clocks, limiting mound visits, eliminating the four pitches needed for an intentional walk and requiring hitters to stay in the batter’s box during at-bats.

Yet these marginal changes (not to mention the supposedly juiced baseballs) haven’t contributed to a larger fan base, as team attendance is down for the fourth-straight year and young Americans have leaned toward basketball as their collective second-favorite sport. Instead of shaving a few minutes off a three-hour game, MLB could infuse a larger stream of younger, exciting talent, giving fans in their target demographic group more players to identify with and be eager to see.

There would still be plenty of kinks to iron out in this system. How would deals for international bonus pool-eligible players work? How many years of arbitration would the players have before free agency? Would the qualifying offer still exist? How would MLB accommodate the players already on rosters who are looking at bleak free agency prospects in the near future?

Turner is one of those players, looking at the next CBA as an opportunity for the league and players union to fix the problems with its free agency system before he gets his shot at the open market. As one of the most exciting young players in baseball, the Nationals’ shortstop is exactly the type of player the MLB should focus on promoting.

What kind of league does it want the next Turner to come into?