For whom the ball rolls

In case you missed it…baseball is back with a vengeance!

After a month of silence, scattered negotiations, fictitious deadlines, postponements, a game of hot potato with the blame of stopping the American pastime on its tracks, players and owners finally came up with a deal on the new CBA, just in time to allow for a delayed Opening Day without losing an inning on the usual 162 season.

If you followed the hell baseball Twitter was in the past 30 days or so, you know all the intricacies that a side ballooned on the other, with new terms coming out of the blue to casually make previous agreements moot, and most of the details pertaining the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

That’s not to say baseball media was any good in following the negotiations: reporters broke in two sides, one doing their job of reporting actual figures, conditions and struggles, the other a mere detachement of a party’s opinions, resounding biased declarations and distorting numbers to fool a less instructed and/or involved public into taking a stand against their opponent.

For a Eugene Freedman, constantly pointing out flaws and clarifying the difficulties of reaching common points in many aspects of the deal, there was a Mark Feinsand, official MLB paid spokeperson limiting his activity to a series of pre-set tweets with clear inclinations; for a reliable Evan Drellich there was notoriously mistake-prone and easily exploitable Bo(o)b Nightengale; for a steady, albeit hacked, Jeff Passan there was Scott Boras and owners’ best friend Jon Heyman.

Rarely I’ve seen such a bad job done by what should have been among the best in the business, a rollercoaster of pessimism and player-blaming by individuals that should be impartial as per their calling: if anything, we finally know why certain news break out at certain times by certain reporters, although that’s quite a bad look.

Anyway, I’m not here to sound out on specific people, rather I want to point out 3 changes on the CBA regarding rules of baseball as a game in its entirety that could really make a difference come the blessed time sun shines again and a non-Joe West umpire screams “Play Ball” out loud.

They may seem like small stuff compared to heightened salary minimums and CBT thresholds, they don’t have the same appeal as a pre-arb pool and they are not as clear as finally introducing the universal DH, but they could subtly change the way things are run by GMs and front offices.

Let’s get started!

1) Minor league demotions are limited to 5 per player

One of the most unsung yet crucial changes introduced by the new CBA is a limit on the number of times a player can be put on the Majors-Minors shuttle and vice versa, with 5 being the maximum number of trips doable before having to either keep the player on the 25 man roster, in the Minor Leagues or designate him for assignment and free a spot for another player.

Five may seem like a lot, yet tell it to Louis Head and his 13 ups and downs from Durham to Tampa Bay, which is also the team who’s well known to deploy the shuttle in full force when it comes to churning pieces of the bullpen in and out, revolving doors alike.

Before this new limitation, a team was allowed to demote/promote a player, already in the 40 man roster or not if the latter had space, as much as wanted and that was well exploited by teams to keep certain areas of the roster “fresh”, primary middle relievers. The only caveat was that each player had, and still has, a total of 3 Minor League options, one being used per year at that player’s first demotion, and after those ran out he had to be DFA’d and put on waivers, for every other team to get, before being allowed to be demoted.

With 40 players and 162 regular season games to cover, injuries and all, this is yet another challenge, for GMs in terms of roster construction and managers in terms of bullpen usage: what if you exhausted 4/5 demotions and have to decide whether to use a certain arm or not? Is that reliever worth the spot if given a steady amount of innings? And if not, is he good enough such that he could be stolen for free by another franchise if put on waivers?

Not to mention, this should improve the conditions of those players perennialy on the ML/MiL cusp: while everyone would love to be a part of a Major League roster, there’s value in knowing where your job’s at and not having to live with your bags always ready to be packed and your car always well fueled.

Come the dog days of August and September, look out for the foreseeable deluge of bullpen pieces in the waiver wire: I’ve always been a hater of trading for a reliever, even if he is a proven shutdown arm such as Craig Kimbrel because of the sheer amount of variance related to a RP’s performance and small inning sample sizes, and this upcoming change only strenghtens my belief.

Note: another interesting addition has come up! Waiver wire selection, usually settled from worst to best record, remains BUT if a team plucks a player from waivers it automatically jumps down last in the prelation order…no more snip snaps of players between same teams or DFAd hording!

2) The first six draft picks are subjected to a lottery

At long last, MLB has finally introduced some mobility regarding the draft!

Lacking the instability, and fun, that comes with a lottery such as in NBA, where the worst team could come up having to pick 4th, and not having the possibility to trade those picks as in both NBA and NFL, MLB has been stagnant with a draft based on W/L record and no way out of it if not for the oh so rare compensation pick, the only instance in which a selection can be traded in baseball.

The new system is close to the NBA one: every non-playoff team has now a chance at the 1st pick according to a set of probabilities, interestingly enough with the three worst teams having the same shot at 1/1; after the 6th pick the selection order is based on reverse order of records, so that the worst remaining team, one that hasn’t picked 1–6, picks 7th and so on until the best team goes last.

While this is sure to add a ton of fun to an otherwise sleeper agent of a process, it’s not that big of a deal thanks to the absurd yet flat amount of talent a rather classic MLB draft has: most of the first 10 picks hover around the 50–55 Future Value range as per prospect rankings, and to that follow a ton of 45+, 45 and 40.

MLB is one of the tougher sports to break into for a draftee: you usually need good seasoning in the Minors, unless you are a Mike Leake or Chris Sale, and that means years of abysmal pay, something that hopefully won’t be a problem if you’d been given a sweet signing bonus by the team that drafted you. Moreover, maintaining your true talent level if not improving is hard as hell: even the most gifted hitters can fall down to Earth and pitching…that is the definition of injury risk.

Cases of a pretenatural, 70 talent, the kind of Chosen One every team tanks for as in good old NBA fashion, are more unique than rare: in baseball the closest comparison has been Bryce Harper and his legendary batting practices, or later now #1 MLB prospect Adley Rutschman, a switch hitting C bound to be an Oriole come the season, but that’s almost it.

Lately the first pick has been used as much as a “saving” tool than to pick the best available talent: Houston gambled on Puerto Rican SS Carlos Correa in 2012, the Phillies went for solid but unspectacular Mickey Moniak in 2016 and in 2021 Pittsburgh cut an underslot deal for standout C Henry Davis. Why did they do this? To use the remaining money, slot minus signing bonus that is, for HS college-bound athletes and harder signings in later rounds: the Astros capitalized with Lance McCullers Jr as a comp pick and Pittsburgh snatched highly regarded SP Anthony Solometo in the 2nd round.

That’s to say this change may not be that tangible in a team’s destiny, at least for a couple of years or so, but it was a much needed addition in an archaic system that left no room for surprise nor tension, and boy does this sport need some right now.

Note: draft and follow could also be back, a real blast from the past!

3) Teams are awarded draft picks if one of their rookies places for awards

Namely: if a prospect is added to the Opening Day roster and plays so well he places in the top 3 for Rookie of the Year or top 5 for MVP/Cy Young come the end of the year, the team that prospect plays for gains an additional pick in the next draft.

Now, I don’t actually know the value of the pick, if they are all clustered together in the same comp round or in scaling rounds depending on results, but what I know is that I can’t have enough picks to save my life and no, I’m not Daryl Morey.

Imagine if Baltimore promotes Rutschman to the ML before Opening Day, sets him as the regular backstop and he performs as expected, which means quite highly according to most projections: he’s a landslide ROY and the Orioles could potentially have a comp pick at the end of the 1st round, a possible chance at nabbing a 45 if not 50 talent out of the draft pool that comes from actually improving your team through talent itself!

This ouroboros, value breeding value in the form of prospects, is a good start to solve the obnoxious, infinite issue that is service time manipulation, or the Kris Bryant special if I may: GMs now have to calculate what brings more value between a) keeping your talented star in the making in the Minors to get +1 year of control or b) pushing him into ML duty come April and have a chance at a decent if not high comp pick.

Will this change the way major prospects are handled entirely? I don’t think so, but at the same time I can see some GMs gambling on their window of competition and see if their prospects can not only bring them up the Playoffs ladder but also net a couple of draft selections in the meantime.

What if Mike Elias wakes up tomorrow and decides to promote Rutschman and #1 MLB pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez straight to Baltimore, and maybe sign a SS too (Correa anyone?!), to see whether Camden can finally enjoy a better view AND if there’s also a chance for more FV in 2023? A man can dream…

Note: rookies that place well into those awards do also get some money out of the newly founded pre-arbitration pool…never too late to finally pay our young talents!

Luckily I waited Spring for something, and even if later than usual, baseball will be back in full force.

Now there’ll be one of the messiest couple of weeks ever in terms of trades and FA signings: more than 300 players are left searching for a new home, Correa and should-be-Brave Freddie Freeman among them, and with Spring Training coming up there’s close to no time to fill a roster’s gaps and prepare for the season to come.

It has been an atrocious month or so, not even this baseball edition of March Madness makes the thing called lockout worth it, but in the end all is good, sun shines again and an ump will indeed shout “Play ball” again, is it in Minute Maid, Petco or Fenway.

Just as it was about to stop once for all, the ball rolls again. For me, there’s not much better than that.

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Alessandro Zilio

Alessandro Zilio

Italian baseball stathead. I’ll write about MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball and Korean dramas/shows. A lot of graphs, Astros related content and references.