As we enter draft season, discussion will undoubtedly involve top prospects and when they will debut in the majors. In theory, players such as Jo Adell should be on the major league rosters for their respective teams to start 2020, and if the decision was purely one based on talent, perhaps they would be. But as we all know, it doesn’t exactly work that way in real life. In this article, I’ll go in depth on service time, and its impact on players, as well as how some teams are bucking the trend.
Before explaining what service time is, I’d like to take a moment to discuss why we care about it. A player obtains free agency once they have accrued six full years of service time, during which time they are under what we call “team control,” i.e., the player can only move teams if they are traded, released, or waived (basically, if the team does something). Generally, for the first three years, the contract is renewable by the team, and then the player gets three years of salary arbitration, which we’ll discuss in more detail below.
Service time is a measure of the amount of time a player has spent on the active major league roster. It is displayed as a decimal with seasons first, followed by the amount of days the player has accrued toward the next season. For example, Mookie Betts enters 2020 having accrued 5.070 years of service time; put another way, he has accrued five seasons and 70 days toward his sixth season. So how is a year defined? Does it have to be April to October?
A major league season consists of 187 days, and a player accrues time for any day spent on either the 26-man active roster or on the injured list. However, a “year” of service time is not 187 days; rather, it is 172 days, meaning a player needs to achieve 5.172 years of service time—effectively five years and 172 days. Thus, a player who ends a season at 5.171 years of service time, although he has effectively played six seasons, would not be granted free agency and would remain under team control for a seventh season. This leaves the door open for team manipulation with respect to top prospects.
Let’s flash back to 2018. Ronald Acuna Jr. has just finished tearing up the minor leagues to the tune of a 159 wRC+ in 57 games at Double-A and 162 wRC+ in 54 games at Triple-A. Clearly he’s ready for the majors. However, the team reassigned him to minor league camp on March 19, with GM Alex Anthopoulos citing Acuna’s developmental needs. The Cubs did the same with Kris Bryant back in 2015. Acuna was called up April 25, 2018; Bryant on April 17, 2015. Clearly both players were part of the team’s plans for the season, so why not promote them immediately? Looking back at the prior paragraph, an MLB season has 187 days, whereas a player needs 172 to accrue a season of service time. Therefore, if a team waits approximately 16 days to promote a prospect, it is impossible for them to accrue a full season of service time that year, and the player will be under team control for seven years, not six. A quick distinction must be made—players who are on the 40-man roster to start the season must be delayed 20 days to start a season, as opposed to 16 because anything less than 20 days in the minors doesn’t count as an optional assignment and the player will get service time retroactively. This affected the call-up of Gleyber Torres in 2018.
In case you’re afraid this is a very small issue that has only affected two or three players, here’s a list of other players who have been affected by service-time manipulation, either in April or as a Super Two, discussed below: Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado, Jacob deGrom, George Springer, Francisco Lindor, Betts, Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Gary Sanchez, Keston Hiura, Brendan Rodgers, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Torres (as mentioned above), and Juan Soto (though you could argue he was forced up by injuries)…just to name a few.
As it stands, this seems like a system easily designed to unfairly control players with no detriment to the team. However, this is Episode VI: The Players Strike Back. Generally, once a player has accrued three years of service time, he is granted “salary arbitration.” As opposed to getting essentially the league minimum as he has in prior years, now the player gets to go before a panel of arbitrators to make their case for what salary they should receive. The values generally start small, because the process involves comparisons against other players in a similar position, and then get higher over the years. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) creates a special designation of players, however, known as Super Two players. They are in the top 22% of players, ranked by service time, between two and three years of service time, and they get salary arbitration prior to collecting their third year of service time. So the closer a player is to three years of service time without actually getting to three years by the end of the season, the likelier they are to receive Super Two designation. In addition to their three succeeding years, this creates a total of four years of arbitration, meaning they’ll earn more money than they otherwise would have in their seven controlled seasons. But how does this relate to prospect call-ups?
Many of you have probably heard about teams waiting for the “Super Two deadline” to pass in roughly June because they don’t want to go to arbitration with a player four times. However, the truth is there is no “deadline.” Rather, each team makes an educated guess at when they can comfortably call a player up while ensuring he is not in that top 22%. Historically, that cutoff has come at some point in June so teams have a decision to make: a) start the player in the majors on Opening Day; b) wait a few weeks to call the player up and gain a seventh year of control; or c) wait a few months, saving potentially millions, but losing out on months of MLB production in the process. Financially, dismissing the first option and going with the second has been easy; it is not hard to stomach losing two to three weeks of production from a top prospect when it means having them for an additional season. The last option is a bit harder to digest, but if you think of it as getting a player for 6.5 years instead of six if they chose option a), it’s still a very acceptable decision. For the last several years, teams have been choosing between the latter two options. However, in 2019, we surprisingly saw a few teams deviate toward option a).
Bucking the Trend
It’s been some time since we saw top prospects start the year on the MLB roster, as you can see from the list of names above. However, we started to see deviation from this practice in 2019 by three teams: the New York Mets, the San Diego Padres, and the Chicago White Sox. The Mets decided that it wasn’t worth running Dominic Smith out at first for two weeks when Pete Alonso was ready. The Padres chose not only to start Chris Paddack in the rotation, but also name Fernando Tatis Jr. their starting shortstop out of camp. The Tatis decision was particularly surprising because the Padres had a very legitimate reason to not promote Tatis to the MLB roster: He had yet to play a single game above Double-A ball. Had they started Tatis in Triple-A, none of us would have batted an eye. The White Sox meanwhile have taken a slightly different path; they have promoted two elite prospects, Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, to the majors to start the season but did not do so until they had signed each to a six-year contract, ensuring cost control throughout the process.
It’s about this time that you may be asking, “Why would a team not manipulate service time? Why would the Padres not manipulate Tatis’ service time to gain at least an additional year?” The answer to that is not particularly clear. The best guess is twofold: first, the Padres want their team to appear more desirable as a free-agent destination, and second, they see the labor issue that service-time manipulation causes ahead of the looming expiration of the CBA. To the first point, which is the simpler point, the Padres feel that if they show free agents that they will respect the financial freedom of minor leaguers, those free agents will see the Padres as a player-first organization. I don’t find that argument particularly compelling because they’ve already landed big free agents such as Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado and have roughly $85 million committed to 2022 already. The Mets fall into a similar basket, despite only retaining Robinson Cano and deGrom after 2021, but they don’t seem to be chasing the top free agents. The second point is the bigger one to me; the current CBA will expire after the 2021 season and the players are NOT happy. Bryant, via the MLB Players’ Association, filed a grievance against the Cubs for manipulating his service time. It’s not just young players who are angry either; over the last few offseasons, free agents have been spurned because it is so cheap to control young players. To that end, I feel the Padres and Mets are trying to do their part to keep the players happy.
So is the problem of service-time manipulation fixed? Well, no. While these three were promoted to MLB roles out of the gate, Guerrero toiled at Triple-A and Eloy and Robert both would have also had they not signed a six-year, $43 million and a six-year, $48 million contract, respectively, prior to the start of the season.
Application + Conclusion
All of this information raises a question: How does service time affect a player’s draft stock? It’s a tricky question, but I’ll do my best to give my answer:
Players who start the year in the majors take no draft hit whatsoever, which makes sense considering they will miss zero time. Draft them where you’re comfortable projecting their value.
Players who are expected to be called up in April (Bryant, Acuna, etc) should be treated almost the same as those who start the year at the majors. At the end of the day, losing three weeks of production shouldn’t scare you away from elite talent. Draft a serviceable replacement in the middle to late rounds who can hold you over in the interim and you’ll be fine.
Players who are more ambiguous should be left for the last half to last third of drafts (assuming 12-team leagues). While three weeks is very digestible, it’s not worth risking three months of zero production when you could be targeting someone who will provide your team with significant production in the interim. This changes based on 1) if you have an NA spot where you can stash the player and 2) the quality of the prospect; if you do have an NA spot, I would push closer to the last-half side if it’s someone with decent pedigree like Adell. Without the spot, I’m looking at him closer to the last five rounds or so.
As you can see from those descriptions, there is often not a ton of clarity surrounding player call-ups. When in doubt, I would suggest you research the trends of the team that each prospect plays for to see how the team is most likely to approach call-ups. There are a few things you can do to help along the way, the biggest of which is to set Twitter alerts for top prospects. Doing this will not only tell you when a player is called up, but will also alert you to the call-up indicators: the player being scratched from the lineup at Triple-A or the player agreeing to a contract with the big league club.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)