Dissecting the Service-Time Implications of the MLB, MLBPA Agreement
Early Wednesday morning both The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on the status of the negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA. Both reports indicated the league and the union had reached an agreement on the way service time, noted by Rosenthal as “the basis of baseball’s pay structure,” would be addressed for upcoming free agents such as Mookie Betts and Trevor Bauer. This was later confirmed by Passan on Thursday night, when he reported that the league and the union had struck a full-fledged agreement regarding service time and other issues.
Per the reports, players such as Betts and Bauer will receive credit for accruing a full year of service time, and thus reach free agency, if they remain on the roster for 100 percent of the season, no matter how long or short the season ends up being. This is a logical landing spot given the issues at hand, but actually getting to logical landing spots is never a sure thing in negotiations between these two parties.
Rosenthal later reported that in the worst-case scenario where a season doesn’t happen at all, players will be credited with the amount of service time they accrued the year prior. In the case of Betts or J.T. Realmuto or Marcus Stroman, this means they will be free agents. For rookies who got called up midseason, they’ll only be credited with another half-season. It appears the tradeoff for securing these terms was a truncated draft, not only in 2020, but 2021, as well. As with most agreements between the league and the union, there is a bias towards veterans in terms of the distribution of benefits—not unexpectedly, given how unions tend to operate.
For players with fewer than 100 percent of service time, the agreement dictates that they will receive the shortened season’s service time prorated out over the full 187-day season. In doing this, the shorter the potential season, the bigger impact each individual game in the minors has on those players. This will be especially relevant for 1) Players who might otherwise make an Opening Day roster, but won’t, 2) Players who are squeezed out of a roster spot due to depth, 3) Players with low amounts of service time in 2019, and 4) potential Super Two players.
Opening Day Types
Nate Pearson is probably the best representative of this class. Numerous evaluators see the big righty as major-league ready right now, but knowing how the Jays’ front office behaves, it’s highly unlikely Pearson would actually break camp with the team—no matter when camp breaks.
A regular major-league season consists of 187 days. A player is considered to have attained a full year of service with 172 service days. That’s why you generally see a player like Pearson (or Kris Bryant, back in the day) held down until sometime in mid-April, when the team can be sure they won’t exceed that 172-service day mark.
In a shortened season, with service days prorated out to 187 days, we could see players like Pearson up sooner in terms of missed service days than they otherwise would be. If the season is halved, for example, we might see 81 games over 94 overall service days, with 86 service days representing a full year of service. In this scenario, each game missed by an unpromoted prospect is worth two service days to the team. This could help teams that might be in a position to compete if they’re able to get a higher percentage of games in the shortened season from their talented rookies.
Squeezed Out of a Spot Types
Think of Clint Frazier here. He looked set to make the Opening Day roster as the Yankees dealt with injuries to Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton. Judge and Stanton look likely to be ready whenever a shortened season gets under way, and Hicks is back on a throwing program. Frazier, on the other hand, looks poised to miss out on weeks of potential service time, and he enters the year sitting just nine days shy of his second service year. Perhaps it’s unlikely given the track records, but if the Yankees outfield maintains its health and Frazier doesn’t see the majors in 2020 because of a shortened season, the team would gain another year of team control.
2019 Low Service Time Types
Under a prorated season, teams with a bunch of depth will find it much easier to game service time, even for guys who debuted in 2019. Take Gavin Lux and the Dodgers for example. He might be their best option to start most games at second base, but they’re not appreciably harmed by rolling with Enrique Hernandez or Chris Taylor or playing Muncy out of position, or or or. With just 28 days of service time under his belt, a half-season schedule as proposed above would mean optioning Lux for about a month would get the Dodgers an extra year of control over their talented young slugger.
These players are especially damaged by the agreement struck to duplicate service time from 2019 for 2020 in the event of a fully missed season. Rather than accrue meaningful time for what would have been nearly a full season spent on the roster, Lux or Brendan McKay will not come close to accruing their first full year of service.
Potential Super Two Types
The Super Two cutoff for 2019 was set at two years and 115 days of service time. For someone like Yonny Chirinos, on a team like the Rays that will aggressively churn their rotation/bullpen to provide fresh arms, this is a concern. Chirinos enters 2020 with one year and 137 days of service to his name. Assuming the same cutoff for Super Two as 2019 (it would be close), Chirinos would need to be on the major-league roster for a total of 150 days in 2020.
He might not have gotten there under ideal circumstances given the way the Rays operate, but in a shortened season, two trips to the minors would likely prevent him from qualifying for an additional year of arbitration. Given how much attention the Rays (and essentially every team) pay to their bottom line, it’s easy to imagine that would be a factor in how they swap out arms over the course of a shortened year.
It is undoubtedly a positive for the union that players like Betts and other impending free agents will be able to bank on reaching free agency heading into the 2021 season no matter what. Betts especially has taken seriously his responsibility for setting the bar for future classes, and if he had seen his free agency delayed a year, would rightfully be frustrated at the least.
Still, the price the union paid to secure the continuity of service time for both impending free agents, and even the prorated time that younger players will receive, was steep. There is no guarantee owners won’t cry poor this offseason, claiming the partial season cost them money and thus they have less to spend in free agency that the Players Association fought so hard to preserve. It will also further complicate what seemed like a growing consensus that young, productive players who were further off from free agency would be a core issue for the union heading into CBA talks.
These discussions aren’t analogous but can be taken as a window into how the post-2021 negotiations will go. The union’s willingness to sell off draft rights—rights of non-members—to secure a large concession from ownership for their members isn’t surprising. It might be shortsighted, though, of both the union and the league, to continually harm the pipeline of talent that feeds their ranks.
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