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Why MLB should draw inspiration from the NBA and implement Bird Rights

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Brett Gardner’s contract situation demonstrates why the league should institute tax exceptions.

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Going into spring training, two facts were abundantly clear. First, despite Clint Frazier being named the definitive starter in left field, the Yankees wanted Brett Gardner to serve as the team’s fourth outfielder and primary backup center fielder. Second, Brett Gardner wanted to continue his career in pinstripes. Despite the mutual interest, it took until last Friday, the third day of spring training, for the move to be made.

So, with both sides appearing to want the exact same thing, the question is obvious: what took so long? The answer, it turns out, is equally obvious: money.

Now, the Yankees’ apparent obsession with staying under the luxury tax this season has been well-documented, and I’m not going to tread back over territory that both Jake and Peter went over so well last month, and which has been a recurring theme throughout the work of all Pinstripe Alley writers this winter. Instead, I want to talk about something else: Bird Rights.

Compared to most other American professional sports leagues, the NBA has a soft salary cap, making it the closest model to Major League Baseball’s Competitive Balance Tax. NBA teams are allowed to exceed the salary cap much like MLB teams with the luxury tax, although the tax is the more forgiving of the two cap models. While baseball teams are simply penalized at various intervals — depending on how far over the tax they are — the NBA provides exceptions designed to permit teams to exceed the cap to re-sign their own players.

The most prominent of the NBA’s exceptions, and the one I want to talk about today, is the “qualifying veteran free agents” exception — more commonly known as Bird Rights, as Larry Bird was the first prominent free agent for whom the exception applied. In short, once a player has accumulated three consecutive seasons with one team, his club is allowed to go over the cap in order to keep him. There are other, “lesser” version of this exception, but in essence, they all have the same goal: to prevent the salary cap from splitting up teams and to incentivize continuity in an organization.

Making it easier for teams to re-sign their own players without having to worry about the luxury tax for do so would be nothing but a boon for baseball: imagine if the Red Sox did not feel compelled to trade Mookie Betts, or if the Dodgers did feel compelled to trade Cody Bellinger and Clayton Kershaw in order to skirt the tax implications. If the luxury tax is going to act as a soft cap, it makes sense to provide opportunities for exceptions such as this.

Of course, a direct adoption of Bird Rights would certainly not happen, as both the career and financial landscapes are different between the two sports; most significantly, MLB players tend to move around less than NBA players, and they receive longer contracts, too. Fortunately, baseball already has a player status similar to the NBA’s Bird Rights eligibility: 10/5 rights.

For anyone unfamiliar, 10/5 rights detail the ability to veto a trade that a player gains when he has both accumulated ten years of service time and has spent the last five years with the same team; notably in recent years, Adam Jones invoked these rights in 2018 to veto a trade from the Baltimore Orioles to the Philadelphia Phillies. By adding luxury tax exemption to them, it would make it easier for older players to remain with an organization that they spent a good chunk of their career with, particularly if that team is on the verge of or currently in contention and thus has other moves that the team needs to make.

Implementing Bird Rights for older veterans would not fix all the problems with the current luxury tax model, but it certainly would open up the market just a bit more. Perhaps most importantly, it would avoid the ridiculousness of an older, beloved player and a team clearly wanting a reunion, but unable to come to an agreement due to a soft salary cap. Professional basketball has already figured out how to do this; all MLB needs to do is copy the NBA’s homework.