Service Time: Fixing What Is Clearly Broken
Image courtesy of © Allan Henry-USA TODAY SportsMather, inexplicably, shared unspoken but well-known secrets about how teams… well, his team, specifically, will keep MLB-ready players in the minors to prolong team control for an additional season.
This isn’t new and certainly isn’t a secret. The Cubs did it to Kris Bryant. The Blue Jays did it to Vlad, Jr. The Twins, who never played service time games under Terry Ryan, did it to Byron Buxton in 2018 by not bringing him back for September, while healthy, to leave him 12 days short of achieving a “service year.” Because of that, Buxton will enter his last year of arbitration after this season, instead of becoming a free agent.
Some might argue that manipulating service time after winning a Gold Glove and receiving MVP votes is an even worse look than doing it before a player’s major league career begins, but I digress. That is not the point of this article.
This is an idea of how to fix the problem. It’s just an idea. It’s not designed to solve all the problems; however, it is designed to eliminate “service time manipulation.” (Ultimately, teams and agents will continue to look for loopholes to best serve the side they are on.)
Currently, players need to be on a major league roster for 172 days to get credit for a full year. There are exceptions, for example, if you’re on the 40-man roster and start the season on an optional assignment and get recalled within the first 20 days of the season, you get credit for those service days.
Kris Bryant was not on the 40-man, so the Cubs simply held him down until 171 days were left in the season, selected his contract and knew that, no matter what, they’d have his service for almost seven full seasons instead of six.
One solution would be to handle free agency the same way as Super-2 status and award the top group (for arbitration it’s 17%) of players with 5+ years of service time free agency at the conclusion of the season. I wouldn’t love it and teams would likely never agree to it. Could you imagine going into a trade deadline and not knowing if your best pitcher is going to be a free agent after this season or next season?
Another solution would be to make all players free agent-eligible after three years of arbitration, which would essentially let Super-2 players hit free agency one year sooner. It would be simple enough, but teams would still control this and could potentially hold players down longer to miss the Super-2 threshold, thus extending team control for a year. (The advantage would be that the “threshold” isn’t known until the end of the season and that free agency is still three (or four) seasons away.)
The problem with both ideas and the current method is they are both based on service time and clubs hold all the control over that. Therein lies the rub.
So let’s peel this back even further, to when teams first acquire player’s rights.
Without getting into all the minutiae of how everything works from initial player acquisition to free agency, the basic timeline goes like this:
- Players are drafted (typically as high school seniors or third-year college players) or signed internationally (at 16 years old).
- Teams sign players to a minor-league contract that can be renewed up to six times.
- After four or five years (depending on how old the player was when acquired), teams must protect the player on the 40-man roster or risk losing him.
- Once a player is on the 40-man roster, he can be held in the minor leagues for three (or four) years on “optional assignments.”
- When a player reaches three years of MLB service (or if you’re a Super-2), you enter your three (or four) arbitration years.
- Once a player reaches six years of service, he finally becomes a free agent.
More likely, though, players are added to the 40-man when they’d be Rule 5 eligible (after four or five years), bounce up and down for a year or two and then are major leagues, hitting free agency 10-13 years after being drafted or initially signed.
For reference, Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios were drafted in 2012 and will be free agent-eligible after the 2022 season. Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler were signed in 2009. While all three have signed extensions, Sano would reach free agent-eligible service time after the 2021 season, while Polanco and Kepler are likely to do it after the 2022 season. Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis, two of the fastest moving prospects, would hit free agency 10 years after becoming professionals.
So let’s eliminate “service time” all together from free agent eligibility as it seems to all balance itself out over time anyway.
Here’s the idea:
If you’re signed at 19 or older, teams get 11 seasons of control.
If you’re signed at 17 or 18, teams get 12 seasons of control.
If you’re signed at 16, teams get 13 seasons of control.
If you miss a significant amount of any season (“significant” can be negotiated or defined by someone independent… but I’m thinking Tommy John surgery), add one year of control.
After your third season accumulating service time in the Major League, you’re eligible for arbitration. (If you are on the roster for one day or every day, it counts towards the three seasons.) Every season from the fourth season until free agency, you are eligible for arbitration.
If you win League MVP or Cy Young at any point before your last two years of control, the last season of control becomes a player option at a price to be determined and accepted or declined prior to the last season of control.
The motivation for everyone now becomes getting your best players to the show quicker. For teams, it is more seasons of your player; For players, it is more chances to make money.
What do you think? Is it time to abolish the current rules and start over? Or do we simply adopt the rules laid out above?
Are the 11, 12 and 13 years of control the right lengths? I don’t know, but it’s a start. And it’s close.
Whenever I say “arbitration,” I’m talking about a process that helps determine salaries. I think the current process is garbage, but how to fix arbitration is a story for another day.
Does the ability to reduce control have to be tied to winning MVP or Cy Young? Absolutely not. Not specifically those awards nor only those awards. Could an independent metric like WAR be a factor? Yes! All told, this would be a great thing to negotiate in the CBA. I just don’t want it to have anything to do with the amount of days a player has spent in the major leagues.
I used Soto and Tatis as examples and, as such, they would basically spend three extra years in the majors before free agency, which theoretically seems like a not great deal for them. Players could and would still sign big deals like Tatis did. On the flip side of that, Soto *could* go through the arbitration process six times. Could you imagine how much money he would stand to make in those final three years? He could be the highest paid player in baseball.
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