Major league baseball is at its best when the game’s most talented players are able to showcase their skills at the sport’s highest level. Anything that serves to limit these displays is to baseball’s detriment. Of course, sometimes, fate intervenes. The game’s best players are susceptible to injury, and though major league organizations and the players themselves take great care to try to stay on the field, seasons are lost to tweaked knees and torn elbow ligaments. Some obstacles are impossible to avoid fully. But other absences are the result of careful, intentional planning. Take the example of service time manipulation.
Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. is generally considered to be the best prospect in baseball. He probably earned a callup last season when he was destroying minor league pitching. Right now, Steamer projects the younger Guerrero to put up 4.6 WAR in 545 plate appearances. That’s the 13th-best projection among position players, right behind Nolan Arenado and just ahead of Jose Altuve. He’s not a player who needs to spend more time in the minors, and yet yesterday, Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins said that, “I just don’t see him as a major league player. He’s 19.” To start with, Guerrero is older than Juan Soto was when the latter debuted last year, and will turn 20 before Opening Day. Atkins assertion that Guerrero isn’t ready is belied by his minor league performance and industry consensus, and it is hard to interpret the GM’s comments as anything other than an attempt to provide some public, baseball-related justification for keeping Guerrero in the minors so that he can stay under team control through 2025 instead of hitting free agency after the 2024 campaign. That’s service time manipulation.
The practice isn’t unique to Toronto. Kris Bryant was famously held down at the beginning of 2015; he won’t be a free agent until after the 2021 season instead of in 2020. Last season, Ronald Acuña didn’t start the season with the Braves. The White Sox’s Eloy Jimenez is likely to spend time cooling his heels in Charlotte despite being much better than the players ahead of him on the depth chart. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. is ready now, and the Blue Jays will be worse for every game that Guerrero spends in Buffalo, but that is exactly where he figures to begin this season.
The incentives for teams are obvious, but they are deliberately choosing not to field their best roster, depriving the sport of its best possible product, and delaying deserving players from fulfilling life-long dreams and obtaining market contracts. The easiest solution would be for teams to simply call up players when they are capable of meaningfully contributing, but given that teams could easily do that right now and don’t, another solution is likely necessary. Others have offered solutions to this issue in the past. In 2015 in response to the Cubs’ treatment of Bryant, FanGraphs alum Mike Petriello proposed changing the a full year of service to time to 100 days on the major league roster. Erstwhile Baseball Prospectus scribe Russell Carleton proposed an age-based free agency model as a means of curtailing the practice. Sheryl Ring proposed that a player accrue a year of service if he spends the majority of the league year on the major league roster. And while a solution might not even be possible until the players and owners negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2021, I’d like to put forth my own proposal to eliminate service time manipulation. The problem is fairly straightforward, but as most potential solutions have unintended consequences, this one is a multi-parter.
First, a player’s first year of service time will be reached with 90 days of MLB service. This is a fairly direct solution, but unfortunately, it could also incentivize teams to keep players down even longer than they do now. While it might make clubs’ decisions more difficult if they are potential contenders, organizations might still opt to keep players in the minors, and non-contending teams might be more likely to do so than those with playoff aspirations; in a year where the Blue Jays are only projected for 77 wins, they might decide that Vlad Jr.’s defense at third needs yet more time, bad PR and a potential grievance be damned.
As a result, it will be necessary to give players half-service time for their days on the 40-man roster. If a player spends the entire season on the 40-man roster in the minors, he will reach 90 days of service time at the end of the season. To prevent shenanigans for those with MLB experience, players can earn one year of MLB service time in the minors at any point in their careers, but can only accrue one year this way. This will get some players closer to free agency without actually playing in the big leagues, and incentivizes putting a team’s best players on the active roster. After all, if a player’s free agency clock is going to start anyway, why not have him lend his talents to the big league club if he’s ready? Unfortunately, teams don’t put players on the 40-man roster until they have to, and many top prospects won’t be on the 40-man roster as a result.
To combat the phenomena described in the previous paragraph, it will be necessary to put more teeth behind the Rule 5 draft by making players draft-eligible a year earlier than they are under the current system. Players who signed their first pro contract at age 18 or younger would now be eligible after four years of minor league service instead of five, while those who did so at age 19 or older would be eligible after three years instead of the current four. This would make many more good prospects eligible for the Rule 5 draft and in order to protect them, teams would then put them on the 40-man roster.
Unfortunately, making so many more players eligible for the Rule 5 draft would create a massive roster crunch, and could result in teams being unable to get the prospects they develop to the majors. To prevent this situation, and to keep the Rule 5 draft roughly as it is, the 40-man roster would become a 50-man roster. Teams would then have no difficulty protecting eligible players, but would still be encouraged to promote their prospects as those prospects would end up with a year of service time. While teams would move more players to the majors earlier, those players accruing service time in the minors are a limited set of players: those who are close to the majors or have star potential after multiple years in the minors, hence creating the need to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. For players, it would also have the added benefit of welcoming hundreds more players into the union with better minor league wages as players who have been named to the 40-man, now 50-man, roster are paid at a higher rate thanks to union protections. As a benefit to teams, an additional option year could be added.
So to review:
- Players receive their first, and only first, year of service time after 90 days
- Players receive half-service time for days spent on 50-man roster, but not in the majors
- Rule 5 Eligibility moved up one year
- 40-man roster increased to 50 players
- Teams receive an extra option year
This proposal is admittedly complicated. The irony of this idea is that Kris Bryant, the poster-boy for service time manipulation, actually wouldn’t have been spared due to his rapid ascent to the majors, though the Cubs would have had to hold Bryant out until the All-Star Break in 2015 to get an extra year of his services. While this deal favors the interests of the players at the expense of teams and team owners, it is a much more reasonable proposal from ownerships’ perspective than cutting the service time necessary for free agency to less than six years. A union proposal that cuts free agency down to five years and deals with service time manipulation in some other way would mean less team control for those young, ready stars that this proposal is designed to protect, and might make it a non-starter come 2021. Negotiating this solution is likely to be difficult and part of a much larger deal. Teams are going to be highly resistant to any change that deprives them of cost controlled years of their best players. But the union focusing some of their attention on getting players like Vlad Jr. to the majors, as well as getting better benefits to the minor leaguers left behind, can only be to the game’s benefit. Many of baseball’s stars of tomorrow are ready today. Let’s watch them play, shall we?