It is scientifically impossible to feel bad for a 22-year-old kid who just agreed to be paid $10 million over the next five years. You can try, but you're not going to be able to. That is, to state probably the most obvious point ever, a lot of money. You and I would, and should, take that in a heartbeat if it's ever offered to us... which, of course, it won't be.
It was, however, offered to Jonathan Singleton, a very good prospect in the Houston Astros system, along with a promise that he would be immediately promoted from Triple-A Oklahoma City (where he was hitting .267/.397/.544 in 54 games) to the parent club. Reportedly, if Singleton had not accepted, the Astros would have kept him down on the farm, just as they did to prospect George Springer earlier this year or the Pirates seem to be doing with Gregory Polanco right now. That, of course, is extortion. It's essentially the same as the Astros telling Singleton to pay them protection, because sometimes accidents happen to nice guys who own flower shops.
Singleton agreed to the deal, which (assuming Houston's projections are accurate) will pay him significantly less than he would be worth onmarket, and much less than his peers going through the arbitration system will make. Again, you won't feel sorry for Singleton. You probably shouldn't, and nobody expects you to. Singleton was fortunate to be born with a certain set of abilities, which he honed into a certain set of skills, which (like Liam Neeson) he has now leveraged into money he can use to protect his family (unlike Liam Neeson, who must garrotte strangers) in the event that he is hit by a bus tomorrow and shatters his leg.
So while you won't feel sorry for Singleton himself, that kind of underhanded abuse of people with limited recourse should make you angry. It's undeniable that Singleton was extorted and will be underpaid. It's undeniable Polanco, who was given a similar ultimatum, is needlessly at risk while the Pirates clearly thought and think he can help in the majors. They are essentially kids and are out there exposed. Whether millions of dollars are at stake or not, it's inherently unjust. After all, every athlete is just one severe injury from his career being over, or at least severely curtailed. As we learn more and more about the conditions minor league prospects have to play in, that feeling of an unequal power relationship should only be exacerbated.
It was to remedy situations like this that the Players Association was created, something implied by former Astro Bud Norris, who tweeted:
Sorry but this Singleton deal is terrible. Wish the Jon listened to the union and not his agent.— Bud Norris (@BudNorris25) June 3, 2014
That, of course, is easy for Bud Norris to say. Norris is in the midst of his fifth season and will be eligible for free agency after 2015. He has made just shy of $10 million himself during that stretch and will make even more next year as a decent back-end starter. Once you make your nut, it's easy to sit back and criticize the methods of others who want to make theirs.
That said, Norris has a point. The deal is likely to underpay Singleton, and it does set a bad precedent for teams who have similar leverage over their elite prospects. It rewards the Astros for their ethical dubiousness, and it very slightly lowers the earning potential of other major leaguers. Worse, the practice is on the rise. Assuming the tactic is successful in that the youngsters continue to reward the early investment, more teams will surely follow suit.
The good news is that if Norris and the rest of the MLB Players Association don't like the direction this is going, they can negotiate. The current joint agreement ends after 2016, but there is precedent for the league and the MLBPA to work together in the interim to find compromise, as they did on regulating performance enhancing substances. If the union wants to keep young players from signing long term deals, the solution is simple: don't let them. Negotiate with Major League Baseball to keep players on the 40-man roster (who, unlike minor leaguers, gain union membership) with less than one full year of service from signing long term deals.
George Springer (Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)
"Wait, wait," I hear you saying. "Isn't that taking rights away from minor league and young major league players, the very groups we're trying to protect?" First, it was rude for you to interrupt me; but second, yes, it does. However, it also prevents teams from extorting their young players by refusing to promote them until they sign on the dotted line, it keeps those young players from having to negotiate while over a barrel, and it gives most of those young players some additional leverage when they are promoted and demonstrate they can hold their own against other major leaguers. And if the clubs try to unfairly extort those players as they approach that one-year threshold, the good news is that they are represented by the union at that point, which can go to bat for them and protect their rights.
"But it's not fair for them to have fewer rights than their fellow players! You're just arbitrarily creating a special class of major league player!" Man, you're whiny, and super impolite, but yes. Yes, I am. Really, though, the arbitrary line I'm drawing is no different from the one that currently prevents players from reaching free agency until after their sixth year. It's no different from the line at which some players become super-twos, and some don't. It's no different than the line that gives some players 10-and-5 no trade rights. In truth, MLB and the MLB Players Association has already created several arbitrary groups of players with different rights within the whole of the league. I'm just adding one more.
This proposal, understandably, has a couple drawbacks. First and foremost is that it leaves players like Singleton, Polanco, and Springer exposed for a year. If they do, in fact, get hit by a bus and irreparably shatter their legs in a million places, they are at the mercy of the world without $10 million to fall back on. That is a risk, certainly, but a small one. Young position players don't suffer catastrophic injuries at nearly the rate of young pitchers, which is why most of these deals have been offered to hitters (Matt Moore of the Rays is a notable exception). Pitchers are generally too volatile and prone to injury to get these deals right out of the gate anyway.
The second drawback is that this new restriction would presumably require some kind of concession on the union's part. It's clear that clubs have embraced the idea of giving below-market deals to young players under their control, and they would be loathe to limit their options. Given the inflationary nature of arbitration, this is understandable. The MLBPA hasn't shown a lot of interest in protecting the rights of prospects and amateurs -- which is to say, as the union is currently structured, non-members -- in the past, but now that it threatens the earning potential of its members, it will be up to Tony Clark and his advisers whether it's worth going to the mattresses over.
Is it a perfect solution? Does it solve all of the league's problems? No, obviously not. I'm not convinced there is a perfect solution that would keep teams from extorting artificially low contract extensions out of their prospects. I'm convinced, however, given how few players with less than a year of service time are worth extending and their overall rate of success, that it would ultimately helps them more than it hurts. Clearly, the more they can do to protect players who don't have the resources to protect themselves the more the Association fulfills its main purpose.