On February 9th, commissioner Rob Manfred announced that former Mets GM Billy Eppler would be suspended from Major League Baseball for one year. This came on the heels of a rather hush-hush investigation into violations of the league’s injured list policies, which commenced in October following an anonymous letter sent to the commissioner’s office. The details of this letter in their totality (beyond the Mets “illegally” stashing players on the IL), and its sender, remain unknown as of this writing. As a huge fan of Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, I am quite interested in the conspiratorial aspects of this situation, but that is not why this piece is being published.
Rather, as an attorney fascinated by the history of collective bargaining in the sport, I have read the current CBA cover-to-cover for something approximating fun. In doing so, I have a good bit of familiarity with the injured list process, and can surmise what Eppler and the Mets were likely to have done, the reasons why they would do so, and the reasons why both MLB and the MLBPA would not be too thrilled with it — meaning that the anonymous letter could have come from most anyone.
Before digging in, though, it is worth noting that the so-called “phantom IL” has been a thing for nearly as long as there has been a formal injury reserve for players unable to take the field. A player would get moved to the IL with some sort of ill-defined malady to allow them a breather, or time to work on something (which could be done with the big-league staff), but without simply parking them on the bench, thereby leaving a precious roster spot wasted. I would call it an open secret that teams did this, but there’s really no semblance of secrecy. And the fact that most players likely are working through some kind of strain or sprain or stub or spasm or stress reaction makes it quite easy.
Lest we forget, Clay Holmes nearly laughed about this on camera:
Clay Holmes is dealing with an issue in his back and appears he will be headed to the IL— Yankees Videos (@snyyankees) August 17, 2022
"The best way to go about it was to just try to give it a break" pic.twitter.com/b72XOuStvE
Nevertheless, folks do not like it. MLB sees it as anti-competitive, with teams avoiding having to use a player option or the waiver wire to clear the roster spot, or fill it once vacated. As for the players, they are competitive monsters, and they want to play. The end of the roster sorts would also likely be interested in testing the waiver wire, should they be out of options.
With that out of the way, what does sending a player to the IL entail?
A team does not simply send a player to the IL; rather, they have to formally apply to the league office for permission. To do so, a team must have a certified athletic trainer complete the Standard Form of Diagnosis (found on page 191 of the CBA), which has a fairly extensive list of injuries broken down by body part, as well as some illnesses. That form must then be signed by the club physician. In the event that a player on the 7-, 10-, or 15-day IL needs to recuperate beyond those windows, the trainer and physician must recertify the injury by doing it all over again. Recertification is not needed for the 60-day IL. And the league office can always request more information.
Each team has to maintain a list of specialists that its players may go to for a further diagnosis or a second opinion. The list is broken down into specialties and geographic region, and each specialty within each geographic region requires two physicians. Those physicians have to be board-certified in that specialty as well, though there can be overlap among specialties. The player is expected to go to a specialist within the team’s region, but they can travel further as long as they are not away from the club for an “unreasonable” amount of time.
A player can choose to see a physician that is not on the team’s list. However, a written agreement must first be made between the player and the team. In said agreement, the player and team sort out who will be responsible for what expenses, including, but not limited to, the costs of the doctor, the travel, and the room and board. The CBA only provides for “reasonable medical expenses,” which is quite vague.
It is, altogether, a fairly simple process. It is also clear how easily this could be gamed, given the vagaries of terms like inflammation, and the fact that things like “heel pain” and “muscle injury” and “sciatic nerve irritation” are included, and would not show up on all basic imaging. This ignores the fact that “sleep” and “psychological” disorders are also reasons for an IL stint. And, again, what player in this marathon of a season is not dealing with at least one of these problems?
My suspicion here is that the Eppler/Mets situation represented a perfect storm for Manfred and the league office, who have been increasing the pressure on teams to stop using the phantom IL for several years. A Met, or ex-Met, or Mets and ex-Mets, or some combination thereof reached out, and while there is no smoking gun, there have been plenty of grumblings about a dysfunctional clubhouse being the norm. Factor in the high-profile nature of the owner, the big market locale, and Eppler not currently being employed, and the league struck.
Were the Mets the worst offender? It’s tough to say without knowing more. After all, they were not at or near the top of the list in players on the IL or days lost to injury in 2022 or 2023. Could this be a situation like the Astros and the trash cans or the John Coppolella Era Braves and pre-IFA signing period deals, where other teams were doing a diet version of the cheating? Perhaps. Or given the well-known dysfunction, maybe the complaints from Flushing were just the loudest.