Ahead of the shortened season, some of the game’s best prospects were added to their team’s 60 player pools. With the Minor League Baseball season officially canceled, there’s still a chance that Jarred Kelenic, Joey Bart, Nate Pearson and others get into games this year. Keeping these future stars off the field would likely arrest their development, but teams might find a reason to keep them on the taxi squad. No, it’s not to protect them from the health risks of playing during a pandemic. If a blue-chip NRI doesn’t get into a game this year it’s because his team doesn’t want to start his service time clock.
In a normal year, some of the game’s brightest stars are going to be dicked around in service time. Kris Bryant is the most famous example of this and he lost his grievance case against the Cubs. Bryant was kept in the minors to “work on his defense,” and because of that, he’ll reach free agency after the 2021 season instead of this year.
Service time manipulation unequivocally makes the game worse. Future stars are kept out of the game longer than they need to be. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was ready for the big leagues in 2018. If he needed time to adjust to major league pitching, he could have gotten that out of the way before the midpoint of last season.
To gain a year of service time, a player needs to be on the major league roster for 172 days out of 187. That’s 92 percent of the year, which is an absurdly high threshold. A player being denied a year of service time because they were on the roster for only 171 days is like a workplace offering health benefits for employees who work more than 30 hours a week and scheduling everyone for 29.
From a general manager’s standpoint, there’s no reason not to game service time (other than treating your workers well). In those two weeks, the difference between a top prospect and a replacement player is maybe a win on the high end. Kris Bryant was kept down for 8 games. By RE24, Bryant was worth 45 runs in 151 games in 2015. Prorated out, Bryant would have been worth 2.5 runs over those extra eight games or worth about a quarter of a win.
The 2015 Cubs finished a game behind the Pirates and settled for the second Wild Card spot. Maybe Bryant gets them the rest of the way there, but it’s still worth it for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to keep Bryant down. If Bryant was on the Opening Day roster, the Cubs are hoping for a rounding error to get them into the playoffs (or home field advantage for a one-game play-in). Since they kept him down, they get another year of his services. The 2021 Cubs need an entire season from Bryant more than the 2015 Cubs needed 8 games from him.
Something needs to change, and there are myriad ways to go about solving this issue for players. Dropping the threshold for a full year of service is the most obvious. Setting the mark somewhere around 75 percent of the year would be a fine enough middle ground. It’s long enough to keep contending teams from keeping their best players down, and long enough to feel like a full year. In 2019, Luke Voit played in the fewest games among qualified batters at 118 (72 percent of a 162-game season). If a player is on the roster long enough to qualify for the batting title, they should get a full year of service time.
The drawback is that this might not be enough for rebuilding teams to field their best players. In a normal year, 40 more games of Nate Pearson doesn’t turn the Blue Jays into a contender. It would certainly be more obvious when teams are gaming service time, but it’s obvious now and Bryant still lost his grievance.
There are also multiple ideas involving not tying free agency eligibility to service time. At Baseball Prospectus, Russell Carleton argued for age-based free agency back in 2018. Arbitration would also be tied to age, so this would incentivize teams to call up promising young players sooner. The Juan Sotos and Vlad Guerreros wind up losing a bit under this system. Soto, who debuted at 19, is on track to reach free agency after his age-25 season, so he would lose three years of autonomy and market value wages. Carleton’s proposal benefits players who debut at 24 or later, and every idea is going to create edge cases that lose out. Still, it’s worth exploring options that don’t hurt the game’s brightest stars.
Untying free agency from service time doesn’t mean arbitration needs to be untied as well. Arbitration eligibility could still function the same way: a player becomes eligible for arbitration after three years of service time or if they meet Super Two eligibility. Soto would still lose three years of getting to choose where he lives and works—which isn’t nothing—but he’d get another three years of arbitration wages. Any player who debuts before 23 would gain arbitration years and anyone who debuts after would lose out on arbitration but hit free agency sooner. Without doing the math, I’d guess that this would wind up costing teams much more, and if that’s the case, it’s unlikely they would agree to it at the collective bargaining table. Maybe I’m wrong and the amount of players who would lose years of arbitration by debuting too late would offset the Juan Sotos.
If age-based free agency makes arbitration too muddy, there’s the alternative of setting a maximum on team control. When an amateur signs with a team, they could sign for a maximum of eight years at which point they’ll become a free agent no matter their MLB experience. A 20-year-old college junior becomes a free agent going into his age-29 season no matter what. An 18-year-old high schooler enters free agency at 26. A player becomes eligible for arbitration in years six, seven, and eight.
Again, it’s hard to see teams agreeing to this. Perhaps eliminating Super Two eligibility is enough of a concession to get that earlier year of free agency for players who would otherwise have their service time gamed.
No option is perfect. Each proposal will benefit some players while harming others. Adjusting when players reach free agency will also have ripple effects on how amateurs are valued. Age-based free agency makes high schoolers more valuable while the eight-year plan makes them less valuable. Despite the drawbacks, any system would work better than what’s currently in place. Hopefully, 2021 will be the year service time manipulation dies.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.