Hang it in the LouvreBrendan Gawlowskion January 14, 2021 at 3:00 pm

Last week, the Mariners Player Development twitter account posted a graphic of Julio Rodriguez.

Adorned in a full uniform and sunglasses, Rodriguez’s bat is cocked just beyond his head as he begins his stride toward the mound; the #SeaUsRise hashtag in the lower left corner suggests a metaphor is at work. “Hang it in the Louvre,” the Mariners tweeted approvingly.

Compliments to artist Trevor Milless aside, this tweet stuck with me, mostly because it’s kind of odd. There aren’t many teams that retweet artwork posted on the club’s player development account, in part because most franchises don’t even have a player development account.

This is part of a pattern in Seattle. The Mariners have been rebuilding for a couple seasons and they’re not shy about promoting their good work. The major league broadcasts feature regular updates on the farm system, and the club’s TV network has aired a few minor league games. Jerry Dipoto even joined one of the broadcasts. All teams are proud of their minor leaguers, of course, but as far as I know, the Mariners are the only team to give one of them a YouTube show.

In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with this. Vibin’ With JRod isn’t for me, but hey, he’s a good prospect and I’m no marketer.

Inevitably though, the club is marketing Julio, The Potential Savior as much as Julio, The Person. He’s not the first 20-year-old to appear in a team’s marketing materials, and it’s not like anyone is forcing him to film these awkward conversations. Still, that’s a lot to throw on a guy who hasn’t played a big league game. That kind of social media exposure also provides an early-career reminder of the often transactional relationship between fan and player, as partially evinced by a Tweet later in the “Louvre” thread where a fan offers, “Julio is machine not man. Is there anyway you have a kelenic graphic like this? I want to hang them in my cave.”

Rodriguez, like most athletes his age, is a confident person. His Twitter handle is “J_Rodshow,” and the content flows as you’d expect from there. He posts videos of his own homers and amusingly accompanied one of them with “Hungry and humble” as a caption. I don’t begrudge him for it; he’s a young guy, the game needs a bit more showmanship, and Julio is nothing if not authentic. He signs his baseball cards like this, and I wouldn’t want it any other way:

Things start to get uncomfortable when you consider where this is all going, though. Rodriguez is a great prospect, and having been billed by his own team as a building block in the club’s future, he has understandably bought into that vision. He’s good and he’s chomping at the bit to get to the major leagues — which leaves him vulnerable.

The obvious vulnerability is financial. As Eric Longenhagen’s fourth-ranked prospect last year, Rodriguez comfortably resides in the tier of farmhands who are good enough to have their service time manipulated. He’s probably not quite ready for showtime just yet, and who knows how labor strife and the pandemic will affect his development timetable. But somewhere down the line, it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll arrive at a crossroad: Door number one comes with an under-market contract extension through his 20s and a ticket to the big leagues; door number two leads to minor league marination until his next service time threshold. Maybe he’ll get lucky and avoid this pitfall altogether. Then again, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. probably thought the same thing.

The ethics of service time manipulation and low-dollar, long-term contract extensions have been discussed at length, and I’m not going to try to replicate the fine work Jeffrey Paternostro and others have done on this subject. Recent precedent and the financial incentives in the league’s salary structure all but eliminate the possibility of an equitable outcome for Rodriguez, and unfortunately that’s the way it is right now. The imbalance can’t meaningfully be addressed until young players either make a lot more money up front or reach free agency much sooner, and who knows when that will happen.

Rodriguez hasn’t reached Triple-A and won’t be competing for a big league job in spring training, and paradoxically that’s what makes this situation so frustrating. He’s so young, and yet the path forward is predictable, paved by years and years of service manipulation and team-friendly pacts throughout the league. Only in the last year or so have the Mariners graduated an impact farmhand during Dipoto’s tenure, and yet the organization already has one such deal under its belt, the potentially nine-year deal contract they gave to Evan White.

Worse though is that, even if everything goes perfectly, things may not actually go perfectly. To illustrate that, we can look at Kris Bryant, who is in the last of his pre-free agency years.

Not long after the Cubs drafted Bryant with the second pick of the 2013 draft, it became clear that they’d landed a superstar. Soon after, it was equally apparent that the Cubs first and foremost saw him an asset worth wringing for every last drop of value.

Twenty-two year old Bryant tore through Double-A and Triple-A, hitting .325/.438/.661 with 43 homers across the two levels. That didn’t persuade the brass to call him up to a dreadful Cubs team down the stretch in 2014, nor did a torrid spring training the following year. The Cubs trotted out the now-familiar bad faith rhetoric about him needing to work on his defense, but gave the game away by recalling him 12 days into the season — exactly the amount of time required to ensure they’d get seven years of Bryant’s services instead of six.

Bryant himself was gutted to miss Opening Day. “I really wanted my performance this spring to matter,” he said at the time. “I just felt it didn’t matter as much (to them) as it did to me.” In that reflection on his demotion to minor league camp, he somewhat ominously added “I learned a lot about the game and the business. I think I’ll learn from it.”

Commonplace as this seems now, the move raised eyebrows at the time; teams had manipulated service time plenty often before, but never so brazenly with such a visible and obviously ready player. As we’ve all learned these past few years though, raised eyebrows and terse newspaper columns are not always a match for bad behavior, and the Cubs faced no meaningful consequences at the time. If anything, the Bryant episode might have done more than anything else to normalize this sort of behavior around the league.

But even though the Cubs succeeded on the field and the relationship between player and team remained cordial on the surface, the lines Chicago crossed during Bryant’s minor league tenure foreclosed any possibility of an iconic partnership. Bryant won the Rookie of the Year in 2015, and an MVP the following season, when the Cubs snapped their 108-year-long title drought. In a happier world, a Troutian contract between one of the game’s flagship franchises and premier players would have made all the sense in the world.

Bryant didn’t want to give his employer any more pre-free agency seasons though, and who could blame him? With Super-2 status and a $7 million signing bonus stored away, Bryant had no incentive to play it safe and the Cubs had no good will to bargain with. With no long-term contract in the works, the Cubs still got their title and Bryant got his hardware. Perhaps that was enough for both parties, but from a distance, the arrangement felt disappointingly business-like. Six years on from that fateful spring training, the team and Bryant have accomplished everything imaginable, and yet their time together won’t end with a standing ovation but with a whimper amidst rumors that he was nearly non-tendered. Like the Cubs’ almost-dynasty itself, this all could have been so much more.

Bryant’s experience demonstrates the potential folly of starting a long-term relationship on the wrong foot, which brings us back to Rodriguez. As likely as the prospect of service time quackery or an Ozzie Albies-like deal seems, there is another path forward. Morally dubious contracts are a choice, not an imperative.

If there is a way out of the efficiency trap, it lies in two virtues in short supply these days: competitiveness and decency. The value of the former should be self-explanatory, and there is some recent precedent. In 2019, the Padres broke camp with uberprospect Fernando Tatis Jr. in the lineup. Tatis was just 19 then, and valid concerns about strikeouts and his defense at short would have given San Diego legitimate cover if they’d returned him to the minor leagues. And yet they didn’t, in part to send a signal that the Friars intended to compete right away, but also simply because Tatis was the best shortstop on the team, and the best players get to play.

If for some reason competitiveness isn’t a sufficiently enticing reason to avoid these shenanigans though, perhaps decency can carry the day. As that relates to a club’s relations with an employee, that means playing someone when they’re ready and paying them what their production is worth. Every player deserves this kind of grace, none more so than someone like Rodriguez. The Mariners, of all franchises, should know the value of a team icon. With precious little success to hang their hat on, the Mariners most meaningful connection to their customers stems from the enduring links between the fans and stars like Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Felix Hernandez.

In Seattle, Rodriguez is simultaneously unlikely to attain those lofty heights and more likely to reach them than anyone else in professional baseball. “Hang it in the Louvre” implies as much, and acknowledges the potential for a special bond; nobody has suggested that Braden Bishop’s likeness belongs in a museum.

It takes two to form that kind of enduring partnership though, and if Rodriguez must play well to fulfill his end of the bargain, then Seattle can at least show their respect by not bilking away his earnings potential. Whether you think the Mariners deserve the benefit in the interim is a matter of perspective. For now, the gulf between the carefully crafted image of Rodriguez as a potential franchise player and the financial contracts players of his ilk have signed recently remains uncomfortably vast.
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