We usually sit down to talk service time when complaining about teams manipulating rookies. Players are guaranteed to reach free agency after they reach six years of service time, which means teams can fight to keep players from accruing a full year in their first season so that they can push free agency back a year. Marcus Stroman reaching six years of service time just weeks into this season and then opting out was only possible because the Blue Jays waited until May to call him up in his rookie year, preventing him from earning a full year of service time despite him pitching 130 2/3 innings that year.
But after that service time clock ticks up from 5.172 to 6.000 (read that decimal as days — it takes 173 days to earn one year), players still have something to look forward to. After ten years of service time, players earn their full pension, which guarantees players a minimum of $63,000 a year and up to $220,000 if they wait until turning 62 to start collecting. This is part of what might be the most generous benefits plan in pro sports, including lifetime medical benefits after just one game and a partial pension starting after just 43 games.
But what makes the MLB’s full pension unique is that it marks a milestone worth looking forward to beyond its financial benefits. After earning his full pension in 2018, Pat Neshek explained exactly what it’s such a big deal in an interview with USA Today’s Jorge Ortiz: “The pension’s big, but I think it’s more of a respect thing. It’s like, ‘Hey, I put the time in, I had a little bit of success, I was a good teammate.’ If you do any of those things wrong, you’re not going to stick around.’’
35 players entered the year with that mark within reach, but after Buster Posey‘s opt out, only 34 are still mathematically capable of making it. Here’s how I’m classifying them:
- Passed: players who have already passed 10.000 years of service time
- Lock: players who, barring a suspension, are guaranteed to make it this year. This includes both players who are games away and those who aren’t as close but have no chance at being optioned to their teams’ alternate training sites
- On Pace: players who are on rosters and seem likely to make it this year, but have more than a month remaining
- In Question: players who have been optioned to their teams’ alternate training sites
- Free Agent/Retired: these speak for themselves, no?
Let’s take a look.
Cy Young Chasers
- Chris Sale (Lock): 1629 2/3 IP, 109–73, 2007 K, 3.03 ERA, 1.035 WHIP, 45.3 bWAR
- Madison Bumgarner (Passed): 1863 1/3 IP, 119–95, 1807 K, 3.19 ERA, 1.115 WHIP, 36.1 bWAR
- Stephen Strasburg (Passed): 1443 IP, 112–58, 1697 K, 3.19 ERA, 1.088 WHIP, 33.4 bWAR
- Aroldis Chapman (Lock): 535 2/3 IP, 273 SV, 883 K, 2.23 ERA, 1.023 WHIP, 17.3 bWAR
- Kenley Jansen (Lock): 618 2/3 IP, 305 SV, 910 K, 2.34 ERA, 0.905 WHIP, 16.2 bWAR
One of the things that stands out among this group is how different the timelines for these pitches have been. Stephen Strasburg‘s massive prospect hype, years lost to injury and then World Series win feel like they’ve been a decade in the making. But at the same time, Madison Bumgarner‘s epic 2014 postseason feels so long ago in large part because his major injury and weaker years since have given it some distance. And Chris Sale‘s very recent injury issue caps an incredible run of finishing in the top six of the AL Cy Young voting in every single season since he earned a rotation spot. As for Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, their consistently excellent records speak for themselves: both have earned both Cy Young and MVP votes at their best. The list of closers who can say the same isn’t particularly long.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the trio of starters is that none of the three have won the Cy Young. And none of their individual cases for the Hall of Fame are too convincing — only Sale even has a JAWS score in the top 200 all-time for starting pitchers so far, and neither Chapman nor Jansen have numbers that even sniff HOF-worthy. But they no doubt deserve the reputations they’ve earned for being among the best of the past decade, and they all still have to improve their odds. What’s not up for debate is that their six combined World Series rings are well-deserved.
MVP Ballot Batters
- Giancarlo Stanton (Passed): .907 OPS, 311 HR, 792 RBI, 696 R, 42 SB, 41.0 bWAR
- Freddie Freeman (Lock): .883 OPS, 230 HR, 817 RBI, 814 R, 43 SB, 36.1 bWAR
- Carlos Santana (Passed): .816 OPS, 233 HR, 769 RBI, 774 R, 46 SB, 31.0 bWAR
- Michael Brantley (Passed): .793 OPS, 110 HR, 626 RBI, 641 R, 122 SB, 29.1 bWAR
- Justin Turner (Lock): .835 OPS, 121 HR, 484 RBI, 487 R, 34 SB, 28.4 bWAR
- Josh Reddick (Lock): .754 OPS, 141 HR, 537 RBI, 567 R, 60 SB, 25.3 bWAR
- Daniel Murphy (Lock): .802 OPS, 138 HR, 732 RBI, 706 R, 68 SB, 21.2 bWAR
Of course, your scoffing at the gap between the top two and everyone else is well-deserved. Giancarlo Stanton‘s 59 home runs during his 2017 MVP season are 9th all time, the most since Bonds’ 73 in 2001 (if you like to ignore the steroid era, most since Roger Maris’ 61 in ’61). It’s not that year alone that tells us he’s a class above everyone else, but still. 59? With half of his games in Miami? Ridiculous. Freddie Freeman hasn’t hit the highs that Stanton has — who has? — but his consistently elite floor with an MVP ballot ceiling has been incredible to see progress. After debuting at just 20, he’s also among the youngest players on this list and still has time to expand on his career-best 38 HR season last year. Talk about the happy fun ball all you want (and you’d be right! His 34 HR in 2016 is far more impressive in context), but his problem has long been elevation, not power.
As for the rest: yes, they’ve all had at least one season that landed them somewhere on the MVP ballot. Even Josh Reddick hit 32 home runs and won a Gold Glove while playing for Oakland in 2012. Of course, he never quite repeated that performance, but he came shockingly close five years later in Houston at age 30. And that’s the story of this group: they’ve all had flashes of All-Star or even MVP quality while holding down a starting job even when those flashes didn’t quite shine through.
Of all the players to pass 10.000 this year, Justin Turner‘s route is probably the most remarkable. He hadn’t recorded a 1 bWAR season until age 29, when he moved to the Dodgers put up a 4.1 win season. He’s since put up six straight seasons at 3.8 bWAR or higher, finished in the top-10 of the NL MVP voting twice times, and also managed to finished 14th while only playing 103 games. Make sure to let Mike Yastrzemski know that his career isn’t over just because he’s 30.
The Survivors: Pitchers
- Ivan Nova (On Pace): 1344 1/3 IP, 90–76, 962 K, 4.34 ERA, 1.357 WHIP, 12.4 bWAR
- Mark Melancon (Lock): 588 1/3 IP, 197 SV, 537 K, 2.83 ERA, 1.124 WHIP, 11.2 bWAR
- Yusmeiro Petit (On Pace): 813 IP, 6 SV, 720 K, 3.99 ERA, 1.159 WHIP, 6.5 bWAR
- Daniel Hudson (Lock): 699 IP, 20 SV, 625 K, 3.84 ERA, 1.252 WHIP, 6.2 bWAR
- Josh Tomlin (On Pace): 989 1/3 IP, 2 SV, 679 K, 4.65 ERA, 1.213 WHIP, 5.8 bWAR
- Jesse Chavez (Lock): 923 2/3 IP, 8 SV, 824 K, 4.49 ERA, 1.347 WHIP, 3.4 bWAR
Mark Melancon has held down a closer job recently enough and has been a three-time All-Star, but he’s still no Kenley Jansen. I made the call to throw him in with this group rather than the group of pitchers above because I just didn’t want him hanging out by himself. Melancon somehow earned Cy Young votes in 2015 in a year where he had put up 7.3 K/9, but hey, Porcello won the next year with a 7.63 K/9 mark. I think we’re smarter than that now.
Ivan Nova sort of sticks out here as the only starter, and were it not for the fact that the Detroit Tigers would rather keep better pitchers than him in the minors, he probably wouldn’t reach 10.000 this year. But he only needs another month on their main roster, and considering that he’s only 33, I feel comfortable guessing he’ll make it this year. Nova actually led the majors in games started last year with 34, and his 2.3 bWAR was better than I remembered, at least.
The rest of the bunch are a bundle of middle-relievers who have stuck around long enough to cross the mark without necessarily becoming household names. They’re truly the reason for this column. Daniel Hudson and Jesse Chavez both have just games remaining before they cross the line, Yusmeiro Petit has been an essential piece for the Oakland bullpen since signing with them in 2018, and Josh Tomlin has started the year hot on a Braves pitching staff starved for capable arms at the moment. I expect the latter two to stick on through the season. The bigger takeaway for this group has to be that being a good clubhouse presence can pay off. All four pitchers will deserve the innings they’ll receive this year, but so too do dozens of other pitchers who don’t get new contracts in their mid-30s.
The Survivors: Hitters
- Neil Walker (Passed): .766 OPS, 149 HR, 606 RBI, 608 R, 32 SB, 20.0 bWAR
- Starlin Castro (Passed): .734 OPS, 135 HR, 640 RBI, 673 R, 89 SB, 17.7 bWAR
- Wilson Ramos (Passed): .755 OPS, 124 HR, 503 RBI, 338 R, 1 SB, 15.6 bWAR
- Francisco Cervelli (Passed): .740 OPS, 41 HR, 275 RBI, 279 R, 17 SB, 13.7 bWAR
- Jon Jay (Passed): .723 OPS, 36 HR, 337 RBI, 527 R, 55 SB, 12.7 bWAR
- Jason Castro (Lock): .705 OPS, 88 HR, 297 RBI, 336 R, 5 SB, 12.2 bWAR
- Mitch Moreland (Lock): .767 OPS, 172 HR, 571 RBI, 484 R, 11 SB, 9.8 bWAR
- Justin Smoak (Lock): .742 OPS, 193 HR, 559 RBI, 497 R, 3 SB, 6.3 bWAR
- Daniel Descalso (On Pace): .683 OPS, 48 HR, 294 RBI, 326 R, 26 SB, 0.7 bWAR
Want to last in the league? It looks like catching has a leg up. Wilson Ramos might be the biggest name of the bunch — you may or may not be able to thank the Mets’ front office for that — but Francisco Cervelli and Jason Castro have both stuck around just as long and contributed comparable amounts to their clubs. This makes a good deal of sense: more so than almost any other position, catchers play an integral part in helping their teammates get better. The rub? None of the three have been positive framers over the past several years, even if they’ve been decent at the plate.
Starlin Castro is something of a misfit in this group, entering the league at just 20 and just reaching his age-30 season. But it’s not inconceivable that the rest of his career could look similar to Neil Walker‘s. Walker put up his last starter-caliber season at age 30, but has hung on as a utility glove who could hit around league average. Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso have also hung on as utility players, but in their cases, there were never really any starter-caliber seasons. It’s really hard to explain their continued ability to find jobs in baseball without adding in some off-the-field factor. But Jay is already over the hump, and Descalso will likely be on the 45-day IL long enough to earn his full pension.
Justin Smoak and Mitch Moreland, lefty first basemen who were both coincidentally drafted by the Rangers, show a different path toward sticking around. First base is typically a position that players move toward as they age, but neither has more than a handful of starts at any other position. Instead, they started as defensive liabilities and just continued to hit their way into lineups. But because they’ve never relied on their defense or speed, father time hasn’t yet truly come for them. Smoak in particular demonstrates one way to not let your body fail you: his 15.8% walk rate was among the best in the league. Moreland hasn’t gotten exactly the same treatment while hitting in a stacked Red Sox lineup, but he’s been no slouch either, and neither have had huge issues with strikeouts in the past few years. Combine those with power that hasn’t really left, and the two have deserved the platoon roles they’ve held over the past several years.
Need Some Help
- Jhoulys Chacin (In Question): 1324 IP, 78–87, 1067 K, 4.04 ERA, 1.332 WHIP, 19.9 bWAR
- Andrew Cashner (Free Agent): 1196 IP, 57–87, 901 K, 4.10 ERA, 1.356 WHIP, 11.8 bWAR
- Jeremy Hellickson (Retired): 1269 1/3 IP, 76–75, 929 K, 4.13 ERA, 1.253 WHIP, 11.7 bWAR
- Brett Cecil (Free Agent): 756 IP, 12 SV, 670 K, 4.29 ERA, 1.357 WHIP, 6.6 bWAR
- Jonathan Lucroy (In Question): .751 OPS, 108 HR, 545 RBI, 481 R, 30 SB, 17.8 bWAR
- Mark Trumbo (Free Agent): .761 OPS, 218 HR, 629 RBI, 532 R, 23 SB, 9.5 bWAR
- Gordon Beckham (Free Agent): .667 OPS, 80 HR, 351 RBI, 420 R, 35 SB, 5.4 bWAR
It’s a cruel road to the finish line, and this group needs some help.
I think Jhoulys Chacin and Jonathan Lucroy should make it. Both have been optioned after signing minor league deals this offseason, but Lucroy only needs another week in the majors this year to cross the line, and Atlanta could run out of healthy arms better than Chacin this year. If either misses the cut, I’ll be devastated for them. They more than deserve it, and simply being on the roster for teams competing for the expanded playoffs doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be on MLB rosters. Lucroy could at the very least be an improvement over Tony Wolters (who had fewer barrels last year than German Marquez) should the Rockies continue to chase the playoffs.
They aren’t the only ones who could be useful MLB players this year. Given the rash of pitcher injuries, Andrew Cashner could be an improvement over TBD and Bullpen Game for some clubs, namely the Mets and Red Sox. And while Brett Cecil‘s sudden command issues last year definitely explain his release by the Cardinals, the Phillies only have four bullpen arms who have performed better so far than he did last year. It’s not inconceivable that he could be worth rostering for the week it would take for him to get over the hump.
That’s largely the story for this crew. I’m less confident that Gordon Beckham has the skills to still be a viable major-leauge player, or that either Mark Trumbo or Jeremy Hellickson are healthy enough to be. All told, the difference in pension money is going to be pretty small — 9 years and 130 games still gets pro-rated to a healthy amount. It’s more about the implicit respect earned from doing a full ten years. These guys are on the doorstep of something rare. If they’re able to do the job, I’d love to see them get the chance.
Where do we go from here?
This has been a strange year to be a veteran. Had Buster Posey not opted out, the potential Hall-of-Famer would likely be the marquee man in this class of vets to reach 10.000; instead, he’ll have to wait until next year. Given that he’ll almost undoubtedly play for a few more years if he wants to, there’s no reason to worry about the when. The bigger questions don’t really revolve around players like him — they’re far more interesting for players like Spencer Torkelson, the top pick from this year’s MLB draft and one of the biggest names we’ll likely see get called up after the current CBA expires at the end of the 2021 season.
It’s tough to parse what affect service time issues have had on the number of 10-year vets. Over the past decade, the number of them in the league is relatively flat; please don’t ask me why there’s a huge spike in 2011.
If anything, I’m curious about whether better scouting and development will mean that more players can enter the league before they reach 23, giving them a much better chance at taking the path that Starlin Castro did. Giving fans a better chance to fall in love with the game’s best players seems like a better outcome than promoting prospects at 25 when the team is ready to compete.
But for now, all those discussions can wait. This year’s class of vets to cross the line won’t get to be honored in front of fans for their achievement, so the least we can do is recognize them ourselves. Here’s hoping they’ll get the chance next year,