MLB reportedly proposes universal free agency age

By , Audacy Sports

As we tick towards the Dec. 1 expiration date of Major League Baseball's current collective bargaining agreement, details continue to trickle out on negotiations between the league and MLB Players Association working towards a new CBA.

The latest piece of information comes from Joel Sherman of The New York Post, who says that the league has offered to make drastic changes to the structure of how players reach free agency, and how well they are paid in the years leading up to free agent eligibility.

MLB has proposed scrapping the current arbitration system, and instead using a $1 billion revenue pot to pay players who aren't yet eligible for free agency.

Perhaps the most noteworthy part of this proposal, though, is that the league has offered to set a universal free agent age of 29 1/2 years old. While this proposal would be beneficial to players who reach the major league level in their mid-20s or later, it would seemingly be a disastrous turn of events for players who make their major league debuts in their late teens or early 20s.

For example, Sherman notes that Aaron Judge -- who didn't play a full season at the major league level until his age-25 campaign -- would be eligible for free agency after this season under this proposal, because he turned 29 in April.

A bit more of a historic example would be Ryan Howard, who didn't use up his rookie eligibility until his age-25 season, because he had been blocked by future Hall of Famer Jim Thome in Philadelphia. However, Howard won the National League Rookie of the Year in 2005 and the NL MVP in 2006.

Ultimately, Howard hit 220 home runs between his age-25 and age-29 seasons. The slugging first baseman, though, couldn't become a free agent until after 2011 -- his age-31 season -- because of the current service time system requiring you to play six seasons before becoming a free agent. Howard made a boatload of money the arbitration system and ended up signing a five-year/$125 million deal with the Phillies to avoid free agency. But could he have made even more money if the threat of him reaching the open market after his age-29 season loomed? Probably.

But while this new proposal would help players like Judge and Howard, it would be an extremely unfortunate setup for those who have racked up years of service time before their mid-20s.

Juan Soto played 116 games for the Washington Nationals in his age-19 season, and is currently on track to become a free agent after 2024, his age-25 season. If this new proposal went into effect, Soto wouldn't be able to test free agency until after the 2028 season. The Nationals would have control over Soto then for 11 years before he could become a free agent.

Perhaps an even better example is Soto's former teammate, Bryce Harper. Like Soto, Harper debuted at age-19, which set him up to become a free agent before his age-26 season. Harper reached the free agent market after the 2018 campaign, signing a 13-year/$330 million deal with the Phillies. If this proposed system had been in place, Harper would have been under team control with the Nationals through his age-29 season, which is 2022. So the Nationals would have controlled Harper for 11 years before he could become a free agent.

None of this is to say that someone like Soto or Harper wouldn't be well compensated in their team controlled years. Certainly, though, they wouldn't have the long-term security that you earn in the current system by playing long enough to reach the free agent market.

Perhaps a fair compromise would be that players can become a free agent after their age-29 season or once they've accumulated six years of service time, whichever comes first. But for such a proposal to become reality, the MLBPA would likely need to make concessions elsewhere.

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