High-profile agent Scott Boras said Tuesday he envisions big changes with how Major League Baseball teams promote top prospects following recent comments by Mariners CEO and president Kevin Mather that cost him his job.
Boras said Mather’s seeming admissions about manipulating player service time — one of several controversial items discussed during a Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club speech/Q&A this month that led to his resignation Monday — undoubtedly sent tremors throughout MLB front offices ahead of upcoming collective bargaining agreement (CBA) talks.
Boras said the MLB Players’ Association had already mulled pushing for a grading system to enable top prospects to earn a year’s service time for any pre-September usage and added that Mather’s comments provided justification for that demand.
“This is an admission of what we know the ills of our game are,” Boras said. “We have now been exposed to the disease. Now we have to find the cure.”
MLB for years said players could file grievances when they suspected service time was being manipulated. But Boras said Mather’s comments show players lack real protections against teams abusing the system.
“This is the notice that this conduct and this intent is prevalent, it’s operative and it’s done without any form of retribution.”
MLB teams control players at a relatively low cost for six major-league seasons before they become eligible for free agency. But the definition of a season played is being on a major-league roster for 172 days out of a possible 187 — meaning teams can gain an extra year of control by holding top minor-leaguers back a few weeks rather than calling them up for opening day.
Though service-time manipulation is an MLB-wide open secret, it’s nearly impossible to prove. Teams use subjective reasoning — such as players needing additional minor-league at-bats — to justify delayed promotions. Players, agents, union officials and many fans view it as bad faith.
“All fans now know the best players of the organization are not on the field,” Boras said. “This is a manipulation of the game. They have to be protective of the integrity of it all.”
Boras said the grading idea would see an independent panel classify prospects based on minor-league performance and accomplishments. Top “A grade” prospects judged “capable of playing in the major leagues” would gain a full year of service time for even one day with a big-league team before the September expansion of rosters.
Teams would be incentivized, he said, to maximize top prospect usage by promoting them right away.
“When you are the best (prospect) player, your service time will begin.”
Service time was already an acrimonious topic ahead of CBA talks in December that are expected to be contentious. Teams rarely discuss the issue as openly as Mather did in his Rotary Club comments from Feb. 5, which were posted online Friday and hit social media Sunday.
Mather said of top prospect Jarred Kelenic: “He’s a very good player, and quite frankly we think he’s going to be a superstar. We control his major-league career for six years, and after six years he’ll be a free agent. We’d like him to get a few more at-bats in the minor leagues, probably at Triple-A for a month, then he will likely be in left field at T-Mobile part of the next six or seven years, then he’ll be a free agent.”
On Mariners pitching prospect Logan Gilbert, Mather said: “You won’t see him on April 1, but by mid-April you’ll see a young man named Logan Gilbert. He’s the real deal.”
Mather also said the Mariners took a risk last summer by putting 15 prospects on the team’s Tacoma-based emergency “taxi squad” of replacement players in the event major-leaguers were sidelined by COVID-19.
The idea was to give the prospects higher-end instruction, but Mather said “there was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park. We weren’t going to put them on the 40-man roster, we weren’t going to start the service-time clock … if we had an injury problem or COVID outbreak, you might’ve seen my big tummy out there in left field.”
Arguably the highest-profile service-time case involved Boras client Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs, universally regarded as the game’s top prospect in 2015 spring training. But the eventual NL Rookie of the Year that season didn’t debut until April 17 and spent just 171 days on the roster — one shy of the minimum to start his six-year clock to free agency.
Bryant’s wasn’t credited a full year of service time until 2016 and now must wait until next winter for a free-agent payday. And the Cubs now control Bryant this additional year for a significantly lower cost than his consensus market value.
Boras filed a grievance in December 2015, but the Bryant case dragged until January 2020 when an MLB arbitrator ruled in the Cubs’ favor. That ruling, given how talented Bryant clearly was by 2015, effectively insulated teams from further service-time challenges and made changing the rule a union priority.
Mather also made disparaging comments about Latino and Japanese players on language proficiency, societal adaptability and use of translators.
Monday, the MLBPA issued a statement calling Mather’s remarks “a highly disturbing yet critically important window into how Players are genuinely viewed by management” and “an unfiltered view into Club thinking.”
It added: “Players remain committed to confronting these issues at the bargaining table and elsewhere.”
Boras’ Mariners clients include Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi and starting pitcher James Paxton, who signed a one-year, $8.5 million deal this month that was below his anticipated market value. Mather’s Rotary speech discussed then-ongoing Paxton negotiations and how he expected the pitcher to settle for less than his asking price.
Boras wasn’t thrilled about negotiations being leaked and called Mather’s comments in general an “embarrassment” for the Mariners. But the one-time minor-leaguer said he has seen plenty of baseball executives who never played professionally “buy their way into the game, and then they have this thought process that is about an economic principle rather than the integrity of the game.”
Though Boras espoused more favorable views of Mariners principal owner John Stanton and general manager Jerry Dipoto, he said Mather being CEO and owning a stake in the team means he wasn’t simply an errant employee gone rogue.
“That’s the part to me is where there’s been an extreme violation,” he said. “This guy’s an owner — it’s a different standard.”