Unlimited gum in MLB dugouts, by the way.
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Let’s do the first things first: barring catastrophic injury or equally catastrophic organizational cynicism, Ronald Acuña will be playing left field for the Atlanta Braves sometime fairly soon. This is because Ronald Acuña, who is the consensus top positional prospect in the minors, looks for all the world like a future star. At the age of 20 he has startlingly little left to prove at any level except the bigs; in 2017, he mercilessly pantsed three different minor league levels, finishing up at Triple-A with a .344/.393/.548 slash line in 54 games. He was 19 years old, the youngest player in the league and nearly eight years younger on average than the players he was roughing up; he was the youngest player in Double-A, too, and lit that league up just as viciously. Spring Training is Spring Training, but as a fan of hilarious three-digit numbers I would be untrue to myself if I didn’t mention that Acuña slashed .432/.519/.727 in 16 spring games, all of which numbers led the Grapefruit League. The Braves sent him down to their minor league camp on Monday, just as everyone expected.

It is not terribly novel or even really very surprising that a big league team would do this with an Acuña-grade prospect; because of the way that the service-time rules are written in baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, a few gratuitous but judiciously deployed weeks at Triple-A can give teams an extra year of contract control through the arbitration process and send players off in search of a free agency jackpot a year later. Because he’s such a prodigy, Acuña will still be fairly young when he hits free agency and, in absolute if not relative terms, will likely already have been made fairly rich through arbitration by the time he gets there. Because he’s such a prodigy, Atlanta knows that having Acuña for an extra year is a bigger priority than having him in the field on opening day for a team that is obviously and intentionally going nowhere this season. For all that’s unknown and unknowable about any 20-year-old baseball player’s future, all of the above is, at this point, very clearly understood.

But the team officials making these decisions can’t quite express the obvious reasons why they’re doing it. So they instead say things like, “One way or the other, we have to do what feels right, what’s the right path and right development path for the player...The more we talked about it from an organizational standpoint, having more development time—no one’s ever been hurt by that.” Instead of saying “if we called him up now he would cost us more later,” they serve up zero calorie execu-blither like, “we just want him to get into the flow, keep doing what he was doing and he’ll find his way back here, hopefully very soon.”

This is all terribly dishonest and obvious to the point of being actually insulting, but it’s the stilted, stagey fakery of it that registers most painfully. Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos has to say all that, even though it’s not anything that anyone is really even pretending to believe, because it is against the rules to manipulate service time like this. Or, anyway, if it’s not quite illegal, admitting to the actual reasons why the Braves are stashing Acuña in Triple-A for five weeks would reveal that the team is operating outside the good faith that is fundamental to every contract between labor and management. At this point, after this last offseason but also after these last few years, it is effectively impossible to believe that MLB owners are honoring that covenant. But unless and until they actually say as much, what we have is this—flow and development time, the faithless opacity of “what feels right” being sold as something more concrete. These are of course lies, but they’re the polite and pragmatic kind.

There are some elements of this shameless, shameful, shrinking offseason that are authentically new, but this is not one of them. The service-time juking is familiar, if no less cheesy and distasteful for that familiarity. It’s hard to say that it’s even more overt than it’s been in the past. The broader discussion that tends to surround it is, at this point, equally familiar. The teams are acting within their rights—they’re actually not, as it happens, but this bit of specious wised-up idiocy is now canon—and it’s a business—one grounded in and governed by specific and knowable rules and mores, which are what makes a business transaction distinct from a home-invasion robbery—and at any rate what are you going to do. Even if fans got upset about stuff like this—which they generally do not, if only because they believe it’s in both their interest and their team’s to have another year of control over Ronald Acuña or whoever is next in his spot—it’s a violation so fundamental that it sort of overloads the circuits. What could anyone do with a problem like this? For all that the MLB Players Association has fucked up and conceded during this last period of Labor Peace, this is not a problem that they can really solve. That union’s job is to negotiate an agreement that works best for the maximum number of members, but it doesn’t matter how good or bad that agreement is if the other party to it doesn’t bother adhering to it.

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And, now more than ever, teams are not bothering adhering to it. Every team does it, and everyone knows that every team does it; the Tampa Bay Rays’ otherwise hard-to-parse decision to open the season with a Um A Rotating Bullpen Dude Will Start This One slot in their rotation makes sense mostly as a move to save some time on Anthony Banda’s arbitration clock. Even and maybe especially if you don’t know who Anthony Banda is—and there’s no urgent reason why you should, he’s expected to be a back-end starter over the course of his career—you understand what it means. There’s an argument to be had about whether Acuña deserved to start the season with his team in 2018 any more or less than Kris Bryant deserved to start the season with his back in 2015, but honestly it’s a pretty bad argument. The decision has always been about what it was so transparently about: teams exploiting a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement to secure an advantage over players, and get more production for less money. What those players deserve or deserved transparently has nothing to do with what they got, and transparently had no real bearing on the decision. The windy and unconvincing explanations about what this actually was about, instead of what it obviously was about, become ritualistic; they’re not designed to convince, really. They’re gestural, mostly, a sort of nod to the way in which things were supposed to work.

This is how corruption works, and perpetuates itself. It becomes as inexorable and non-negotiable as the weather. In the broader experiential sense, and in the case of Acuña’s inevitable demotion, it’s also how corruption feels—the sense that powerful parties have simply chosen to ignore the rules, secure in the knowledge that they will face no real repercussions for any of it. Because this is not unique to baseball, and is in fact something like the defining condition of contemporary political life, it is easy not to notice this. It’s simpler, if not notably more satisfying, just to shift assumptions accordingly—to believe that everyone in a position to do so is looting shamelessly, that rules will be selectively and unsatisfyingly enforced if they’re enforced at all, that it’s a business is to be understood only in the most Hobbesian and amoral sense.

It seems important, now more than ever, not to do this. What the Braves are doing with Ronald Acuña is normal, by this point, but that does not mean there’s anything natural or just about it. There’s no reason to let the rotten broader context justify the unjustifiable. It’s true that there’s only so much to do about shit like this. One good place to start, it seems to me, is not passively accepting it as the way things work. It’s not. It’s the opposite.