COVID-19 Roundup: The Service Time Elephant in the Room

This is the latest installment of a daily series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.

This is the beginning of our second week of daily updates on the COVID-19 pandemic, and around the world things have only continued to escalate. Just on Sunday, it was reported that Rand Paul became the first United States senator to test positive for the virus, news he apparently received just after going to the gym while awaiting test results; four other Republican senators, including Mitt Romney, were forced to self-isolate because of recent contact with Senator Paul. Later in the day, a $1.8 trillion stimulus bill stalled in the Senate, pushing back any action until early this week. Meanwhile, according to The Washington Post, cases in the United States jumped by 38% on Sunday, with the new total exceeding more than 34,000 positive tests and 470 deaths nationwide.

Inside the baseball world, however, it was a strangely quiet weekend. After last week saw a steady flow of news regarding how teams will compensate the most vulnerable people in their employ during the outbreak — that is, stadium workers and minor league players — the weekend was one largely spent watching the dust settle. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t take the time to speculate a bit more about the consequences of what’s to come in the baseball world, as well as some developments on sports overseas.

Without Update on Scheduled Start to Season, Service Time Concerns Increase

Crises such as this one render most other things insignificant. Someone you know or a famous face you recognize gets sick, and suddenly a mortality rate that once seemed low to you is now made real. Big words like “recession” start getting tossed around as even the healthy among us begin losing their jobs en masse. We refresh our news source of choice even more frantically than we already had been, looking for any sign of hope, but every update carries with it more uncertainty, a reminder that the place we’ve wound up in is one we have never been before.

We know all of that to be true, and endeavor to take it all with grave seriousness, but our brain don’t always want to cooperate with that order. It wonders how this strange time will affect our loved ones, and if those we care about will make it through this safe and financially stable. But it also can’t let go of those sillier things we’ve spent so much time focusing on in the past, such as how this might affect Mike Trout’s career WAR, or what it might mean for players with option years in their contracts. Baseball-specific conversations seem frivolous in the current moment, but in some cases, they’re conversations that could be immensely consequential to how the sport proceeds after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Agent Seth Levinson and Ken Rosenthal waded into those waters on Saturday, digging into the potentially significant service time issues that could result from this unforeseen stoppage of play. The season was scheduled to begin this Thursday, which means the players’ first pay period begins this week. That means there could be a bit of a rush to establish contingency plans for every scenario of games lost, whether that total turns out to be around 40 or closer to all 162. From The Athletic:

If the season is not lost entirely, a service-time solution would appear relatively simple. As reported previously, the definition of a full season could be adjusted accordingly, based upon the number of games played.

The 2019 season consisted of 186 days, including off-days. A player’s maximum service time was 172 days, which equates to a full season. A 100-game season, for example, would consist of 115 days using the same proportions, with a maximum service time of 106.

A canceled season creates a different set of issues. The owners, after losing an entire year of revenue, would want relief in a variety of areas, including service time. They would not simply grant a year of service to every player who appeared in a single major-league game in 2019. The union, likewise, knows a certain threshold of service in ’19 would be required, and its proposals reflect that understanding.

According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the players’ union has argued that, in the event of a completely cancelled 2020 season, a player would still log a full year of service time so long as they had at least 60 days of service time in 2019. It isn’t yet known what the owners’ stance is, but it seems likely they’ll fight back against the possibility of losing a year of control over their entire roster in addition to the financial losses they would incur with the cancellation of the season.

Whatever agreement is reached could have an enormous impact on the way baseball looks and is talked about for years to come. Service time is everything to both players and teams, with the former already forced to contribute so many peak seasons before they’re allowed to negotiate their own price tags for the first time. Teams, meanwhile, base their entire roster construction over how long they can expect to have each player in their organization. If the season is lost, there won’t be much room for middle ground — one of the two sides is going to suffer a major blow in this arrangement. And as Rosenthal alludes to in his story, even a scenario in which next year’s scheduled free agent class really does hit the market without playing a single game for their teams this year, there would still be doubt that their free agencies would be unharmed by the disruption of a lost year of playing time, as well as the financial hit teams would be attempting to recover from.

No one is asking you to see the players and owners sorting this bit of business out and feel the same kind of pity that you do for people whose lives are genuinely put at risk during this crisis. But once we are on the other side of this pandemic, the effects of these service time issues will be felt for years to come.

Blue Jays’ GM Expects Another Four-Week Spring Training

Before the 2020 regular season begins, teams would likely need at least four more weeks of spring training to get players back into form after the time spent away from the field, Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro told the Associated Press on Sunday.

Shapiro told the AP, “(i)t certainly looks like we are not dealing with days and likely not weeks, but closer to months.”

If the four-week spring training period really is something MLB would require before the start of a season, then that would even further limit the number of games we thought likely to be played this year. A statement from MLB last week said they intend to comply with the CDC recommendation that groups of 50 or more people be restricted for the next eight weeks. Assuming that a spring training exhibition could not be done without gathering at least 50 people together, that means those camps wouldn’t open until at least mid-May, setting a regular season start time around mid-June.

KBO Nears Return, NPB Eyeing Tentative Return Date

While we still appear to be in the early stages of this crisis stateside, the baseball community in Asian countries has had more positive developments in recent days. Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball could open its regular season as soon as April 24, according to a story in on Sunday. Meanwhile, South Korea is already back to holding team scrimmages as it prepares for its regular season to begin. If you plan on staying up late this week and are in need of some live baseball (aren’t we all?), you can even stream some of those scrimmages for free:

Outside Baseball: Olympic Postponement Likely; NBA to Continue Paying Players Through April 1

The inevitability of a postponed summer Olympics in Tokyo continues to grow, with countries such as Canada and Australia saying they will not send athletes if the games are held on schedule. Per the Associated Press, the International Olympic Committee announced it was considering a postponement to 2021, and would have a final decision in the next four weeks. Japan has more than 1,700 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 43 deaths reported.

In the NBA, plans for how to compensate players during the regular season’s suspension are still being fleshed out, as the league announced it will issue full paychecks to players on April 1, but would not commit to doing so in subsequent scheduled pay periods.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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I’ve seen some speculation that a shortened season could lead to some players not reaching FA based on service time who normally would have in a full season. Mookie in particular needs 102 days of service time to get to 6 full seasons. Any insight into how that works, and is there a scenario where the Dodgers get him for 2020 and 2021 if the season is only ~80 games?


Literally the subject of half of this article, and the title.

TL;DR version: Nobody knows. Negotiations are ongoing.