Hello, Twins fans — I'm Jay. Some of you may know me as one of the co-authors of Twinkie Town's sister site for Indians fans, Let's Go Tribe, or perhaps from my role as Joe the Policeman in the "What's Goin' Down" episode of That's My Mama. But before you throw anything, let me be clear: I'm not here to antagonize you as a bitter Indians fan — not today, anyway. Quite the contrary. I'm here in common cause with Twins fans, as a fellow fan of a small market club, of another organization that has to execute on every level and play every angle within the rules in order to be successful on the field.
My message to you is simple: Greg Genske is wrong about everything.
That is, Genske is wrong about everything — literally everything — having to do with Francisco Liriano's service time. Genske, as you know, has asked the MLB Players Association to look into whether the Twins have kept Liriano in the minors purely to suppress his service time, which would delay his becoming eligible for arbitration — and a raise in the neighborhood of $2 million — from the end of 2008 to the end of 2009. What he's hoping for, as far as anyone can tell, is that the union will "investigate" this and file a grievance, and then hold a hearing in front of an arbitration panel, and then that panel will award Liriano the extra service time he needs to be eligible for arbitration at the end of this season.
Here's what's really going on here. Liriano came out of nowhere to dominate as a rookie, and a multiyear deal was likely to be offered in the near future — a deal that would have netted Genske's agency upwards of half a million bucks. His injury delayed those expectations, but it didn't necessarily reduce them. Genske no doubt expected his client to recover and prosper in 2008, and to be eligible at the end of 2008 to have his 2009 salary set through arbitration.
Had Liriano finished this season healthy, dominant and already eligible for arbitration, then Genske would have been in a position to negotiate a very sizable multi-year deal. With Liriano not recovering fully until this month, and not eligible for arbitration, the value of that deal will now be much lower — if it happens this coming offseason at all. For players who have never reached arbitration (and weren't major bonus babies), the greatest leverage a team has in negotiations is the player's long-term financial security — sign the deal, get the security now. A player who already eligible for arbitration, however, is already a millionaire almost by definition, so security is not so much of an issue for the player and his family. The team's leverage is severely reduced.
Since that didn't happen, Genske is looking at a significantly smaller multi-year deal for his client this offseason, or at the same deal delayed for yet another year as Liriano's arbitration year and walk year have both been pushed back. Either way, Genske is looking at either a smaller commission or a year-long delay in his commission — and who knows what can happen in that year? So obviously Genske is pissed, and while he's not wrong to be pissed, he is wrong to be pissed at the Twins, because it's not their fault. He's wrong about that and pretty much everything else, but to understand fully why he's wrong, you might need to be the kind of person who would enjoy a long, dry esoteric article on the subject of baseball's contract rules. If that's not you, then you might want to just take my word for it — he's wrong about everything.
If that is you, however, then read on — and let us count the ways that Genske is wrong:
1. He's wrong that Liriano should have been promoted by now.
The Twins obviously wanted Liriano in the majors, as they gave him a brief tryout back in April with minimal reason for optimism. The results, as I'm sure you know, were disastrous: 13 ER allowed in 10.1 IP, over just three starts. Back in Triple-A, the results were better but still awful: 7 ER in 8.1 innings over two starts. Liriano obviously wasn't even close to ready.
Liriano allowed just eight runs total over his next four starts, but he's been unsteady since then, with total trainwreck performances on May 26, June 20 and June 25 — those last two within the last month — with mostly good games mixed in between. While ESPN reports mindlessly that Liriano is "7-0 with a 2.73 ERA in his past nine starts," it's probably more significant to note that just a few weeks ago, Liriano's ERA was 4.85 over his past six starts. He's been unsteady, that's all. He looks great at the moment, and maybe he's now fully healthy and effective, but so far, he hasn't gone more than four starts this season without coughing up a big hairball. You can't fault the Twins for wanting to see some real consistency before inserting him into a pennant race.
2. He's wrong that the Twins cost Liriano a year of arbitration.
So, just what would it have taken to get Liriano that arbitration? So glad you asked. Liriano entered the 2008 season with two years and 31 days of service time, often notated as "2.031." He got another 13 days in April, bringing his current total to 2.044.
At the end of the season, any player with three years or more of major league service time (and who doesn't already have a multi-year contract) is eligible for arbitration. When May 24 passed with Liriano still in the minors, it was clear that Liriano would miss the three year mark. (As an aside, that also meant that he won't be a free agent until after 2012, rather than after 2011.) But there's also a provision for players who are just a month or two shy of the three-year mark, and these are called Super Two players. The exact cutoff for Super Two status is determined by formula and is a little different every year, but it's always been more than 2.125 and less than 2.140.
So let's assume that Liriano would be called up on the day of his next regularly scheduled start, and let's further assume that once called up, he'd have stayed in the majors until the end of the season. Based on those assumptions, here's how many days of service time he'd have ended up with, had he been called up on the day of one of his last few starts.
June 25 — 2.140.
June 30 — 2.135.
July 5 — 2.130.
July 10 — 2.125.
July 17 — 2.118.
On June 25, Liriano was coming off four quality starts since his last trainwreck, and he been called up that day, he'd have been a lock for Super Two status. Instead, he stayed in Rochester and produced two of his worst starts of the season on June 25 and 30, allowing 10 ER in 10.1 IP — and most troubling, giving up four home runs in those two games. Had the Twins called up Liriano for his next start on July 5, he still would have had a good chance to reach Super Two status — but what team calls up a pitcher after two straight trainwrecks in the minors? Only a team desperate for starting pitching, which the Twins obviously were not. Liriano bounced back with a solid start on July 5, and another on July 10, but by then it was already too late. Even had the Twins promoted him to start on July 10 — following his one good start after the two trainwrecks — he still would have ended the season with at most 2.125 days of service time, almost certainly under the Super Two threshold.
Oddly enough, Genske waited until after Liriano took the mound for Rochester on July 17 — denied the callup "yet again" — in order to lodge his complaint. But as you can see from the numbers above, it was already too late at that point. What Genske really needed was for Liriano to be called up by July 5 — but on that date, Liriano was coming off his very worst two minor league starts of the year. Obviously, Genske would have looked pretty ridiculous complaining at that point. No wonder he's frustrated.
3. He's wrong that Twins don't have the right to do whatever they want.
Liriano is not on the Disabled List, entitled to return as soon as he's healthy. He's on optional assignment. Like all players on the 40-man roster, he's on a major league contract, but during a player's option years, the organization is entitled to "optionally assign" him to a minor league club — a right the teams have held onto through decades of Collective Bargaining Agreements. Most of you know this already, but I'm stating it using the official terms to emphasis the plain meaning of these words. The team literally has the option to assign those players either to the majors or to the minors — according to the team's needs, not the players'.
As fans, we tend to obsess over individual roster moves as they pertain to one player, but teams make these decisions based on all the available options among their players under contract. In another organization, or in another season, Liriano might have already been in the majors, even if he wasn't ready. In this organization and in this season, however, the big-league club enjoys a well stocked rotation and has no need to rush Liriano. The only starter not doing all that well is Livan Hernandez, and as a veteran, he can't be optionally assigned to the minors — he can only be released or traded or moved to the bullpen. Some players have options remaining and some don't, and every player and agent understands that roster decisions are always affected by the differing contract situations of different players.
Having said that, even if the Twins didn't have good reason to keep Liriano in the minors — even if they came right out and said, "We're doing it to save the money" — it doesn't appear that there would be anything that Genske or the union could do about it. The last time a minor leaguer made headlines with this complaint was another Twin, Delmon Young, then with the Devil Rays. At then end of 2005, he complained bitterly to the media that he was being held back in Triple-A purely to suppress his service time. Although his complaints got a lot of media coverage, they weren't at all well founded — he'd had a very fine three months in Double-A, but he'd spent only two months in Triple-A, where he posted an uninspiring 750 OPS. He was also a few days away from his 20th birthday.
On the one hand, Young's comments seemed to have had little effect, as no action was ever taken and he spent most of 2006 in the minors. On the other hand, his eventual callup was conspicuously devoid of service-time considerations — the Rays could have reserved a whole extra year of Young's services by keeping him in the minors just five weeks longer. Young's bitter comments at that time no doubt played a part in the Rays' eventual decision to trade Young (and not some other young player) for other talent. That points up the one and only deterrent that teams have from suppressing time: the possibility of damaging the club's relationship with a talented young player.
While Young was off-base about his own promotion situation, he was absolutely right about B.J. Upton's. A the end of 2005, Upton had spent 218 career games in Triple-A with an OPS just under 900, and yet he too was denied a September callup that year, and in fact he didn't see the majors again until the following August. Because he was kept off the major league roster for those five months, Upton will finish the 2008 season with 2.126 service time — probably just a few days short of Super Two status. His handling is as blunt of a purely materialist denial of service time as we're ever likely to see, and yet no corrective action was ever taken or even seriously attempted by the union. Teams have every right to do this under the CBA, and there simply is no precedent for a player having the right to be promoted based on the quality of his play.
4. He's wrong to portray this as some kind of injustice.
An arbitrated salary is a right possessed only by players who have served three years (or just short of that) in the major leagues. Liriano may come close to that point by the end of this season, but he'll only do so because of a technicality — specifically, because of the rule that says that when a player who is on the 25-man roster goes on the Disabled List, he accrues major league service time for his entire stay on the DL, regardless of his option status. The CBA explicitly prohibits teams from optionally assigning a player who is on the DIsabled List to a minor league team, which would halt his service time clock.
The reality is, Liriano hasn't spent anything close to three years on the active roster — he's barely spent one year on it so far, and even if he's called up tomorrow and stays in the majors until the end of the year, he'll still have spent only 1.5 seasons as an active, contributing member of the Twins, from his 2005 debut through the end of 2008. In other words, most of his service time was accrued while he sat on the Disabled List. Now, this is all well and good — it is his right under the CBA, and in fact he couldn't refuse the service time if he wanted to — and he shouldn't want to — and it's not like he actually wanted to be on the DL.
Still, here's Genske, complaining about his client's service time, when that client has spent more time on the DL than on the active roster — more time rehabbing than actually contributing to the major league club. How's that going to play with his teammates — after all, everybody has to wait their turn — or with the organization, or with the fans? I think it's in incredibly poor taste, and Genske's public whining isn't going to impress anyone, and it's not going to help his client. The whole thing is, frankly, just dumb.
So you see, Genske is just wrong. About everything.