When writers and analysts discuss MLB service time it’s most often in the context of young players and prospects held down in the minors so teams can extract an additional year of control over the player.
It’s a multi-year story when a player like Kris Bryant is held in the minors for the obvious reason that his team wishes to keep him under team-control for an additional year. But even when it seems abundantly clear to us that is the reason Chicago failed to call him up in the 2014 season, there doesn’t seem to be enough objective evidence for a grievance to change anything. Bryant did indeed file a grievance with the Cubs, but he eventually lost the battle, and will become a free agent after the 2021 season rather than this winter.
Unfortunately, service time manipulation is becoming more and more common in today’s game. Last year Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote a scathing article describing the ubiquity of service time manipulation practice, pointing to numerous stars who had their debuts delayed in order for teams to gain that one additional (but not inconsequential) season of control.
The practice is not limited to any specific team, or specific type of player, as the practice afflicts draftees and international amateurs alike.
Regardless of whether a player’s service time is manipulated, or accrued in a just and equitable manner, the ten-year mark for Major Leaguers is the goal of every player. MLB undoubtedly has the most generous pension program in all the major American sports.
An MLB player needs just 43 days of service time to qualify for a pension benefit, and even just one day on an active roster qualifies him for comprehensive medical benefits.
With a minimum of 172 days on an active roster or injured list, a player is fully-vested in their pension that starts at around $70,000 a year for players who draw at age 45, and scales up to over $200,000 if they wait until 62. The payout is not only for players, as coaches, trainers, and managers are also included in the pension plan.
With the current crisis and a ban on large-scale gatherings with no end in sight, the union and Major League Baseball agreed that regardless of how many games are played in 2020, the season will count as a year of service-time for any rostered player.
Once these players are veterans, we rarely talk about the ramifications of service-time manipulation after-the-fact, but as is the current case with Neil Walker, every day is precious, and every day is one day closer to the full benefits bargained and negotiated by the MLBPA. Walker came up with the Pirates in 2009, and was seemingly not a victim of service time manipulation, but his situation is worth noting due to the pretty far-reaching impact of playing games with service time.
Walker described the current situation in an interview with Pittsburgh’s 93.7, The Fan. At about the 4.5 minute mark, he mentions he’s six days shy of the 10-year service time milestone, and as a non-roster veteran, got caught in the middle of the agreed upon plan. As a non-rostered invitee to Phillies camp, he’s viewed as a minor leaguer. It’s probably likely he would have made the team, and a week later, would have been entitled to all the benefits of a 10-year veteran.
Walker received a spring training invite from the Phillies in a non-rostered capacity. He will not benefit from the $170 million agreed upon COVID fund even though he’s played over ten MLB seasons. Being caught in the middle however, he will receive $50,000, as well as the $400 weekly stipend allocated for all MiLB players.
Regardless of whether or not MLB is back in 2020, the union and the owners will have to renegotiate a collective bargaining agreement for the future. This topic should come up, and parameters should be put in place to ensure players are getting a fair shake when they’re ready to make their MLB debut, but it’s probably far more likely the player’s union will again bargain away future union members’ benefits at the request of current members.