Michael Conforto’s Wrist and the Language of the CBA

On Saturday, the New York Mets announced that the team was demoting struggling outfielder Michael Conforto, optioning him to Triple-A Las Vegas. On one hand, the Mets’ decision to send Conforto to the minors wasn’t particularly surprising, as the second-year player had been in the midst of a deep slump, hitting just .148/.217/.303 since May 1.

On the other hand, however, the timing of Conforto’s demotion was potentially a bit controversial in a different respect. As ESPN’s Keith Law noted on Saturday:

Indeed, Conforto reportedly was given a cortisone shot on Tuesday, June 14 to treat strained cartilage in his ailing left wrist.

This is potentially significant because Article XIX(C)(1) of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement forbids teams from sending injured major-league players to the minor leagues. As the provision clearly states, “Players who are injured and not able to play may not be assigned to a Minor League club.” Instead, the CBA requires clubs to place injured major-league players on the major-league disabled list.

So it’s certainly possible that Conforto could file a grievance over his demotion, contending that he should have been placed on the disabled list given the state of his wrist injury. Indeed, the decision to send Conforto to the minor leagues has potentially significant financial ramifications for the young player.

Had he been placed on the disabled list, Conforto would not only have continued to receive a major-league salary — as opposed to the much lower minimum salary for players on a team’s 40-man roster who have been assigned to a minor-league affiliate (a difference of more than $2,000 per day) — but he also would have continued to accrue MLB service time while rehabilitating his injury. Thus, by demoting Conforto instead of placing him on the disabled list, the Mets are potentially delaying his free agency.

All that having been said, Conforto’s immediate reaction to being optioned to the minors did not suggest that any grievance is forthcoming. Instead, he appeared to accept responsibility for the demotion while promising to work hard to earn a return trip to the majors as soon as possible.

Even if Conforto were to challenge his demotion, however, it’s not at all clear that he would win. As Article XIX of the CBA notes, teams are only restricted from sending major-league players “who are injured and not able to play” to the minor leagues. The second half of that phrase is particularly relevant here, as it serves to differentiate those cases in which a player is physically unable to perform from those in which a player may have a less serious, nagging injury that he is nevertheless able to play through.

Under the CBA, teams are prohibited from sending players in the former category to the minors, but may demote those in the latter group. Indeed, if any ailment or injury — no matter how slight — were enough to trigger the protections in Article XIX of the CBA, then practically anyone demoted to the minor leagues could file a grievance, as most players are at least a little dinged up by this point in the season.

This distinction is especially important in Conforto’s case. While his wrist may very well be injured, it did not prevent Conforto from appearing in each of the Mets’ last eight games before his demotion. So the team could defend itself in any grievance by arguing that Conforto, while potentially injured, is physically capable of playing, and thus was eligible to be sent to the minor leagues under the CBA provision above. This argument would only be strengthened if Conforto reports to Triple-A and begins playing immediately for Las Vegas. (Update: Conforto did indeed report to Las Vegas and played in his first game for the team yesterday.)

In order to successfully challenge his demotion, then, Conforto would have to persuade an arbitrator that his wrist injury was severe enough that he should not be playing at all, thus warranting a trip to the disabled list. Along these lines, his grievance would undoubtedly rely heavily on doctors’ assessments of the state of his wrist. Relatedly, the Major League Baseball Players Association would likely try to gather evidence showing that players in the past with similar injuries have routinely been placed on the disabled list, rather than being optioned to the minors.

Ultimately, however, given the fact that Conforto has continued to play through his wrist injury, he’d likely face an uphill battle in persuading an arbitrator that the Mets violated the CBA by sending him to Triple-A.

As a result, Conforto’s case would appear to be much weaker than another recent, successful grievance filed by an injured player wrongly assigned to the minors. Back in 2012, the Indians’ Nick Hagadone injured his pitching hand when he punched a door following a poor outing against Tampa Bay. Shortly thereafter, Cleveland optioned Hagadone to Triple-A Columbus, before ultimately placing him on the minor-league disqualified list (a classification typically reserved for players who have somehow violated the terms of their contract). As a result, not only did Hagadone fail to accrue MLB service time during his recovery, but he also was not entitled to receive any pay at all throughout his rehabilitation.

The MLBPA filed a grievance on Hagadone’s behalf, arguing that because he could not physically perform, and because his injury was work-related, the Indians were prohibited from sending him to the minor leagues under the CBA. Along these lines, the union cited a series of prior precedents in which arbitrators had ruled that injuries sustained by players who struck objects in the heat of the moment after leaving a game were, in fact, work-related, and thus covered by the CBA.

The two sides ultimately settled their dispute in 2014. Under the terms of the settlement, Hagadone was awarded back pay and credited with an additional 94 days of MLB service time for the time he spent on the disqualified list.

Hagadone’s case clearly presented much stronger grounds for a grievance than does Conforto’s. Unlike Conforto, Hagadone was more clearly unable to play given his hand injury. Moreover, the Indians did not just option Hagadone to the minors, but placed him on the disqualified list, effectively contending that his decision to punch a door constituted a breach of his playing contract. Both of these factors made the decision to file a grievance in Hagadone’s case a no-brainer for the union.

In contrast, unless the state of Conforto’s wrist injury is much worse than he has let on publicly thus far, any grievance filed on his behalf would appear to have relatively low odds of success. Thus, it would seem rather unlikely that Conforto will elect to challenge his demotion in this case.

Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics and the Yormark Family Director of the Sports Industry Workshop at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.

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7 years ago

The Mets faced a very similar situation last year at the end of spring training – they placed former OF prospect Cesar Puello on outright waivers, he cleared, and was sent to the minors. Puello contested the outright assignment because of a stress fracture in his back sustained during the end of spring training. Because the injury occurred late in spring training, the Mets had to rescind the outright and place Puello on the MLB disabled list, despite the fact that he had not yet made his MLB debut. Puello remained on the Mets MLB salary till August, when they released him following his DL stint.