In professional soccer, it is common for a player to be “loaned out” to another team. This can occur within a league, or between teams in two different leagues. The way this system works, a player is under contract with Team A. For some reason, Team A does not have space for this player, but at the same time, they want to maintain control of this players’ rights in the future. Thus, they will loan the player to Team B. This loan period can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years, depending on the situation. Normally when a loan occurs, a big-name team (think Chelsea, Manchester United, or FC Barcelona) will have a young player that is on their roster as a bench player, but who is not quite good enough to start for the team yet. This higher-profile team will loan this player to a lesser team (someone like Bolton, Cardiff, etc.) in order for that player to gain experience as a first-team player. This case does not describe every single loan made, but it does make up a good majority of them. The player gets more playing time, the lesser-known team gets a talented player, and the big-name team gets a more finished product when it’s all said and done–at least in theory, everyone wins. Often, Team A even continues to pay the player’s contract, although the loan agreement could change that. Could a similar loan system work in Major League Baseball?
A loan system similar to soccer’s would be a major asset for teams with an excess of major league-quality players. For example, last year the Rays had Jake Odorizzi sitting at Triple-A for depth purposes. Odorizzi has largely proved himself in the minors, but the Rays did not have a roster spot for him most of the season. Instead of keeping him in Triple-A, the Rays could have loaned him to a team like the Nationals, who was a fringe contender that could have used one more starting pitcher. This would benefit both teams. Odorizzi would have the ability to get experience in the majors, but at the same time the Rays would not have to give him a roster spot in order to do so. The Nationals would gain a quality starter in order to help them try to slip into the playoffs. In this case, there would be little to no compensation going to the Rays, similar to soccer’s system. A system like this would have some drawbacks, however.
A big consideration with a loan system that worked in this sense would be service time. With the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Rays would have to question if the extra MLB experience for Odorizzi would be worth giving up one of his six years of service time. In all likelihood, if a loan system were to be in place in MLB, there would probably be a clause in the CBA to prevent service time issues. Major League Baseball could elect to increase team control to 7 years in such situations. They could also say that if a player spent all of the previous season in the minors, and is then loaned out to a MLB team, this year does not count against his 6 years under team control. For a player like Odorizzi, this would have worked out, as he accumulated little service time in 2013 anyways. Odorizzi would make the league minimum, and even though he wouldn’t gain year of service time, he would be making more money than if he played the whole season at Triple-A. Due to depth reasons, the Rays would not have wanted to loan Odorizzi for an entire year in the event he was needed on their roster, but could instead simply work out recurring short term loan periods.
Another way this system could transform the major leagues would be to loan established big leaguers. This would most likely occur around the trade deadline, and would allow teams to get more creative as both sellers and buyers. For example, at the trade deadline in 2013, the Seattle Mariners were pretty much out of the playoff race. Thus, they could have elected to loan a player like Kyle Seager to a contender in need of a third baseman. Obviously, the Mariners would not trade a player they view as a valuable member of their young core going forward unless they were blown away by an offer. However, a loan would allow a contender an upgrade at the deadline, and at the same time give the Mariners some compensation without losing out on Seager for good. This compensation could come in the form of money or a prospect. In this case, the Mariners would likely want a decent return, as they are not going to show fans they are giving up on the season for little return. I think a B- type prospect would be a fair deal for both sides in this scenario. With more stars available to be loaned out without risk of losing them for the long term, the trade deadline would be more exciting than ever.
This system would likely be the most controversial way a loan system could be used. Superstar players would be loaned from non-contenders to contenders in a frenzy. Non-contenders do not want to trade their young core away for the long run, but could be willing to in the short run in order to gain excess value. Thus a team could try to stockpile superstar talent for the stretch run without having to give up a substantial return. If this system were in place, Major League Baseball would have to limit the amount of loans that would happen in order to keep a team from stockpiling an entire team of superstars. A 1-2 loan limit would keep the deadline interesting, yet fair at the same time. Overall this is the least likely way that a loan system would be used in MLB, but it could provide a very interesting spin on playoff races and the trade deadline.
Another interesting way this system could be used is to loan players from league to league. We have all heard about the ineffectiveness of the posting agreement between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan for the last couple of years, which has culminated in a stalling of discussions this offseason while trying to implement a new system. However, a loan system could be the perfect fix. This would allow Japanese teams to loan their players in exchange for compensation, but also not have to give up on that player completely. This compensation would likely be in the form of cash, but for a loan of just a year or two, it would also mitigate risk on the part of MLB teams. Signing players from Japan is often a risk, as they have not played MLB quality competition on a consistent basis. These players also have to adjust to life in an English speaking country, which can often end poorly. Having a loan system would allow a player a “trial year” in the majors so that a MLB team would be able to see how that player reacts to better competition and a new home before making a long-term commitment to the player and compensating the Japanese team in full.
The system could also work with MLB teams loaning players to the NPB. We often see Quad-A type players leave the majors to try to establish themselves in Japan. However, when these players leave, their parent MLB team loses them for good unless they elect to resign them in the future. Sometimes for a player, it just takes one new team’s philosophy or a change of scenery in order for them to become a better player. One player who could have been affected by this is Adam Wilk. Wilk was largely regarded as one of the Detroit Tigers’ better pitching prospects prior to the 2012 season. After two very good seasons in Triple-A, the Tigers released Wilk so that he could pursue an opportunity in Korea. The Tigers did not have a roster spot for Wilk giving their stout pitching depth, so instead they lost his rights completely and made a return to MLB more complicated should Wilk desire one. If a loan system had been in place, Wilk could have been loaned overseas, with the Tigers retaining his rights in the future. This would have worked out better for the Tigers, and still would have given Wilk the opportunity in Korea that he was seeking. The ability to loan players from oversees could help these Quad-A type players turn into major league contributors without the player and team having to cut ties. With the loan system, a MLB team would be able to hold on to a player that could turn out to have some value without having to guarantee that player a roster spot.
Loaning could, though, have a negative impact on the Rule 5 Draft. Fringe major league players could be loaned from one team to another, bypassing the Rule 5 Draft entirely. For example, if Team A had a fringe player that they did not have a roster spot for, they could loan him to Team B, who is willing to give this player a shot in the big leagues. The original loan would likely be for little compensation. But, if that player establishes himself as a viable major league option after spring training or even a “test year”, then Team B could trade more significant compensation back to Team A in order to maintain the players’ rights. The way this works is similar to what happens in the Rule 5 Draft when a team wants to retain a player but send him to the minor leagues, but it could also be applied to players that are currently on the 40-man roster. It also allows the parent team to get a little more significant compensation, but the acquiring team would not be forced to keep the player on their 25-man roster the entire year. This would take away from the talent pool of the Rule 5 Draft, and could cause the draft to become irrelevant. That being said, the Rule 5 Draft has been moving towards irrelevance for some time, and loaning may in fact be a better system overall.
Overall, a loan system could become successful in Major League Baseball. There is even some precedent, as loaning has occurred in professional baseball in the distant past (check here under April, 1905 for one instance). Loaning would certainly have its drawbacks, which would have to be addressed in the next CBA, but it could become a practical system. It would give more deserving players the opportunity to play in the big leagues, invigorate the trade deadline, and foster a stronger relationship between Major League Baseball and foreign leagues. Loaning players will probably not happen in the near future in baseball, but it is fun to think about how the game we know and love could be impacted by a system such as this. Maybe in the future, a system like this will become conceivable and add another dimension to America’s Pastime.