With the 2020 season facing the possibility of cancellation, the issue of service time is going to be a tricky one to navigate. On Wednesday, Ken Rosenthal reported that “MLB has agreed to grant a full year of service time to players who remain active for the entire 2020 season regardless of how many games the schedule includes.”
In a scenario where no games are played in 2020, Mookie Betts would go into free agency while never suiting up in Dodger blue in regular season game, Trevor Bauer, who the Reds acquired last year for this year, wouldn’t get a full season in Cincinnati before becoming a free agent.
It was a peculiar concession by MLB to give a year a service time to players who wouldn’t play a game if the season were cancelled. Joel Sherman of the New York Post tweeted that “Service time is a lifeblood of the game determining arbitration, free agency and pension.”
He later asked, “Why relent?”
Aside from the reasons Sherman gave (optics, the hope that the season won’t be cancelled, and suppressed salaries in 2021), a major reason for why MLB was willing to give up so much service time is that it’s still possible to manipulate it for pre-arb players.
While most players will get a year of service time, those on the cusp stand to lose one. On Thursday, a handful of perfectly good major leaguers were optioned to Triple-A. The White Sox optioned Michael Kopech. The Rays optioned Trevor Richards and Nate Lowe. Cleveland sent down Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, and James Karinchak. Roster cuts are commonplace at the end of Spring Training, but every one of those players had a strong case for the Opening Day roster.
There’s also just enough plausible deniability for the teams. Kopech is coming back from Tommy John. Trevor Richards and Nate Lowe both project to be somewhere between replacement and average. Karinchak struck out 22 batters per nine innings(!) in the minors last year, but he has command issues. Civale and Plesac, however, appeared to be locks for the rotation with the injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Mike Clevinger. With the season delayed indefinitely, Cleveland doesn’t have to worry about putting either pitcher on the IL and can keep Plesac and Civale down.
There was no solution that would appease everyone. If no one accrued service time during a cancelled season, then every player would wind up losing out. Under the current agreement, the Dodgers, Reds, Phillies, and Mets all stand to lose out on the final year of players they traded for. This might not be the most egregious manipulation of service time we’ve seen. If Kris Bryant couldn’t win his grievance, Aaron Civale wouldn’t stand a chance. It’s still unfortunate that these young players are not only missing a chance to establish themselves as major leaguers but losing salary and autonomy.
Service time might not be at the forefront of most baseball fans minds, but it’s just another reason to hope the 2020 season can still happen safely.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.