Service Time and What it Means for Top Prospects
(Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire)
So around this time of year in the fantasy baseball calendar, you begin hearing a lot of talk of “September Call-ups” and how there may be some minor league prospects that can come up to the majors and potentially be difference makers for your fantasy team. Now this happens because upon the calendar turning to September, MLB teams are allowed to expand their roster from 25-players all the way up to 40-players. So again, for the first 5-months of the MLB season, teams are limited to 25 active players on their roster, but in September and October, that number becomes 40 which gives opportunities to minor league players without having to cut a player from the active major league roster.
Now, in theory, MLB teams can call up any player that they wish from their own farm system, but there are a number of factors that play into the decision(s) on which prospects to call up and that’s what I wanted to talk about in this article. Let’s get started!
Service time is simply the number of days that a player has spent on the active major league roster and it’s important as service time is used to determine when MLB players are eligible for arbitration as well as free agency. Starting in 2018, each Major League regular season now consists of 187 days (typically 183 days in previous years), and each day spent on the active roster or Major League disabled list earns a player one day of service time. Interestingly, a player is deemed to have reached “one year” of Major League service upon accruing 172 days in a given season which is obviously less than the 187 day MLB calendar. This comes into play as a Major League Baseball player is granted Free Agency once they have accrued 6 full years of service time at the major league level. That 6 years of service time is a threshold that they have to cross, so hypothetically a player could have finished their 6th MLB season but only have 5.168 years (rolls over at 5.172) of service time and they would not be eligible for free agency yet. That would result in the organization retaining another year of team control on the player, and the player having to be on the active roster for another season before becoming eligible for free agency.
This is the big point about service time, particularly with big-name hitting prospects as MLB teams often strategically delay calling up a player to maximize the amount of team control over the player. Now notice the 15-day difference between what MLB deems “one year” of Major League service time and the entire MLB calendar above (187-172=15). Those 15 days are what separates an extra year of team control, and the result is that a major league team would need to find at least 16 days over the course of the standard 6 years of team control in which a prospect is not on the active roster to ensure that the organization gains an extra year of team control (essentially becomes 7 years instead of 6). Now it’s generally easier to find those 16 days at the beginning of the prospect’s career, and it also maximizes the impact the player can have on a given season if the player is called up 16 days into the MLB season and so that’s what MLB teams often do.
This cutoff mostly applies to elite prospects that are ready for the majors come Spring Training, and notably, it’s almost entirely hitters that get impacted as just two pitchers, Jordan Zimmermann (2009) and Phil Hughes (2007), have been called up shortly after the cutoff. The most notable examples of this in recent memory are 3B Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs in 2015 and OF Ronald Acuna of the Atlanta Braves just this past year. In Bryant’s case, he paced both leagues in Home Runs that Spring Training and was clearly ready to handle the big leagues and yet he did not travel to Chicago with the rest of the team for Opening Day. Instead, he was optioned to AAA and the Cubs played 8 games without him before he was promoted to the big league club on April 17th, just after the service time deadline. In Acuna’s case, he did not make the opening day roster either despite dazzling in spring training to the tune of .432/.519/.727 with 4 HRs and 4 SBs over 44 ABs. He ended up receiving the call on April 25th from AAA.
The other factor that relates to service time is salary arbitration. Similar to the cutoff for free agency, there is a cutoff for when a player is eligible for salary arbitration instead of the league minimum salary (worth just over $500,000 each year for the player). While free agency requires six full years, arbitration requires between two and three years of service time. Teams can plan callups around cutoff points to delay salary arbitration and something called “Super Two.” Super Two is all about money and how their salary structure breaks down during their initial period of team control and has nothing to do with a player’s years of team control/when they reach free agency.
The CBA broadly dictates that players begin their arbitration process after 3 years of service time, but the Super Two rule gathers up all the 2nd year players and takes the top 22% when it comes to service time and designates them as “Super Two” players. The result is those top 22% of the service time 2nd-year players get to go to arbitration four times instead of three which improves their salary earning potential. MLB teams obviously try and avoid paying their players more than they have to and so they often try and avoid calling up a prospect before the Super Two cutoff when possible.
The interesting part is that the Super Two cutoff (the point at which you can safely assume a player will not achieve Super Two status) varies based on the call-up decisions of every club. That means that the date at which you can bring a player up is a range. Broadly speaking, the cutoff has historically occurred in early to mid-June, roughly 65 service days into the season give or take. So while the benefit to the organization of delaying a call-up for a prospect to after the Super Two cutoff is cost savings, the downside of waiting until the Super Two cutoff has passed is that holding a prospect back that far typically means the organization sacrifices two months of playing time rather than just a couple of weeks which can be the difference in competing for a playoff spot or not. This cutoff generally applies to pitchers more than the years of control cutoff, and it also applies to hitters that prove ready at AAA post-spring training. Some examples from last year and this year include Sean Newcomb, Josh Hader, Lewis Brinson, Matt Chapman, Rafael Devers, Amed Rosario, Ozzie Albies, Jake Bauers, Kyle Tucker, and Kolby Allard.
What Does it Mean For Current Top Prospects?
|Player||Team||Level||Service Time Accrued||Extra Year of Team Control||* Super 2||ETA|
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||Toronto Blue Jays||AAA||0.000||227 Days||269||Apr. 12th|
|Eloy Jimenez||Chicago White Sox||AAA||0.000||227 Days||269||Apr. 12th|
|Francisco Mejia||San Diego Padres||AAA||0.033||258 Days||300||Sept. 1st|
|Justus Sheffield||New York Yankees||AAA||0.000||227 Days||269||Sept. 1st|
|Luiz Gohara||Atlanta Braves||AAA||0.067||294 Days||336||Sept. 1st|
Here are some examples above! The “extra year of team control” and “Super 2” columns are the number of calendar days in a year from today’s date until that beneficial cutoff. I want to remind people that the Super Two cutoff is a range meaning it varies year to year. I ended up using 65 days from Opening Day which has been roughly the average cutoff point, and that worked out to May 24th, 2019 as the MLB season is starting earlier than ever before next year. I also want to point out that the ETA is a best guess given the circumstances. I’ll break down each player’s ETA in slightly more detail below.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – Everything is ready for a call-up. The only thing to wait for is the service time, which is perfectly acceptable given the state of the rest of the roster. Had the Toronto Blue Jays been in a hypothetical race for the second wild card (somehow without Josh Donaldson), there’s a decent chance that he would have been up. On a team that is going nowhere, there is no incentive for the organization to call him up and waste service time this year when they can essentially get 7 years and control his contract rights until 2025. The team won’t come out and say it, but the reality is that Guerrero Jr. is being held back in the minors due to service time concerns and he will likely be on the Kris Bryant/Ronald Acuna timeline whereby they got called up a few weeks into the season which secured their organizations an extra year of control over the player.
Eloy Jimenez – This is the hard one as realistically, the Chicago White Sox are in the same situation as the Toronto Blue Jays with little to play for in 2018 while in the midst of losing seasons. So in theory, wasting service time now on a player of Jimenez’s caliber doesn’t make a ton of sense when the organization can retain his contract rights an extra year going forward. The recent call-up of Michael Kopech along with Jimenez’s amazing performance at AAA including a 188 wRC+ has added fuel to the rumors of Jimenz receiving the call though come September and the White Sox haven’t done an amazing job of downplaying a call-up for Jimenez this year. Kopech’s situation was a little different from Jimenez though. First, there’s increased injury risk with pitchers, especially ones that throw as hard as consistently as Kopech does, and so delaying his ETA could mean less overall innings and value from him in the majors. Second, he’s also spent all year at AAA and deserved to be rewarded for figuring out his command and dominating over his last 44 IP of AAA ball. I am genuinely unsure if Jimenez will get called up this year, but I think he’s a must own asset for when he does as his power and contact skills are rare.
Francisco Mejia – The former Indians catcher prospect acquired by the San Diego Padres as part of the Brad Hand deal, Mejia has seen time at the majors last year in September and this year for two separate 1-day MLB stints. He has accrued 33 days of MLB service time already, and since he has proven close to ready for the majors in AAA, the Padres are unlikely to delay his service time further to hit beneficial cutoffs. It likely is more beneficial to the organization to let him learn at the MLB level and split duties behind the plate with Austin Hedges to better prepare for next year and beyond. I expect him to get called up by the Padres on September 1st and contribute both behind the plate and occasionally in the OF to keep his bat in the lineup.
Justus Sheffield – This is a case where the New York Yankees are competing and clearly see Sheffield as more of a help in the bullpen than in the starting rotation as Sheffield was recently assigned to the AAA bullpen in preparation of a September call-up. Sheffield likely will be returned to AAA to start next year and the service time that he accrues this year will likely cause the Yankees to delay his call-up next year to achieve those beneficial cutoffs. The Yankees should be able to afford to delay his call-up next year given the pitching depth in the organization.
Luiz Gohara – Gohara has seen time both last year and this year in the majors, and with 67 days of service time already on his resume, the Braves are very likely not going to delay his call-up time as he can help now down the stretch and into next year in multiple roles. I expect him to get called up on September 1st and contribute as a lefty out of the Braves bullpen.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!