Is the New CBA Really Combating Service Time Manipulation? Sort Of.

Anthony Volpe
Dave Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Do you want to see baseball’s brightest young talents get a chance on the biggest stage? Do you want teams to care more about winning now than saving a few bucks six years down the road? If so, you probably had a good weekend. Anthony Volpe, 21 years old and the no. 11 prospect on the FanGraphs Top 100, has made the Yankees out of camp. Jordan Walker, 20 years old and the no. 12 prospect in baseball, has likewise made the Cardinals and will figure into an intriguing outfield rotation. Let us rejoice and be glad.

Jeff Passan summed up the news from the weekend thusly: “Service-time manipulation still exists. But new CBA rules that incentivize teams to start the year with top prospects are working.”

Those rules, which came into force a year ago, reward teams that promote high-performing prospects early. The specific mechanism, which ties top-100 prospect lists and BBWAA award voting to cash bonuses for players and draft pick bonuses for teams, has its issues, but the intent is good. Service time manipulation is black-letter illegal under the CBA, but in practical terms it’s been practically impossible to prove — so much so that executives can talk openly about doing it without fear of repercussion.

Absent enforcement of the actual rules, the new CBA aimed to move the incentives, which is what you do in a capitalist society; rather than using regulatory power to confront corporate malfeasance directly, you offer businesses incentives to play by the rules. So for every chorus of Yankee fans cheering on their young New Jersey-born shortstop, there are as many Mets fans whose hunger for Brett Baty has gone unsatiated. (To say nothing of delaying the inauguration of the Three Men and a Baty infield.) Walker breaking camp with the Cardinals? Good. Grayson Rodriguez being told he’s not good enough to break into a rotation with Kyle Gibson as its no. 1 starter? Not so much.

So where do things stand generally? I went back and looked at the preseason top 100 prospect lists from each of the past four full seasons. I excluded 2020 because the season didn’t start until July with truncated training camps and there was no minor league season at all, and once I got to 2019 I saw Luiz Gohara’s name on the top 100 and decided that was a good place to stop.

From there, I listed all players in the top 50 who had not yet made their MLB debuts but were predicted to do so in that season. (This eliminates cases like Baty but makes the service time math much easier.) Were those players in the majors on Opening Day? And if not, where they in the majors by May 31? May is the service time manipulation sweet spot: late enough to have plausible deniability about the reason for the late call-up, still early enough to impact the bulk of the season.

2023 Top Prospects
Player Rank Team Position Opening Day?
Eury Pérez 4 MIA SP No
Andrew Painter 5 PHI SP No
Anthony Volpe* 11 NYY SS Yes
Jordan Walker 12 STL OF Yes
Brandon Pfaadt 16 ARI SP No
Grayson Rodriguez 17 BAL SP No
Endy Rodriguez 22 PIT C No
Curtis Mead 27 TBR OF No
Owen White 32 TEX SP No
Bobby Miller 33 LAD SP No
Taj Bradley 37 TBR SP No
Michael Busch 46 LAD DH No
*Predicted 2024 Debut

Right away, there are a couple edge cases. Painter could’ve broken camp with the Phillies if he’d stayed healthy, and O’Hoppe missed the list by one spot on the top 100 and eight days of service time. (If you need another reminder of how much injuries can delay a player’s debut, look out for Brent Honeywell Jr.’s name a couple tables down.)

It’s also worth remembering that not every predicted 2023 debutant is created equal; a year is a big target, from a temporal mechanics perspective, so a player who’s legitimately far from MLB-ready in April could become so by August or September. Still, Volpe and Walker are huge headline names, but they stand alone.

2022 Top Prospects
Player Rank Team Position Opening Day? May 31?
Adley Rutschman 1 BAL C No Yes
Bobby Witt Jr. 2 KCR SS Yes Yes
Julio Rodríguez 4 SEA OF Yes Yes
Spencer Torkelson 5 DET 1B Yes Yes
Riley Greene 6 DET OF No No
Josh Jung 9 TEX 3B No No
Gabriel Moreno 10 TOR C No No
MJ Melendez 21 KCR C No Yes
Alek Thomas 23 ARI OF No Yes
DL Hall 27 BAL SP No No
George Kirby 28 SEA SP No Yes
Jeremy Peña 30 HOU SS Yes Yes
Hunter Greene 31 CIN SP Yes Yes
Oswald Peraza 39 NYY SS No No
Brayan Rocchio 43 CLE SS No No
Nick Pratto 47 KCR 1B No No

Last year’s class made a far more powerful case that service manipulation was on its way out; five top-50 prospects made their debuts in the first few days of the season, and Rutschman and Greene could well have been among them if not for injury. Rodríguez and Rutschman both won bonuses for their high finish in Rookie of the Year voting, and Rutschman was made whole by the new CBA awarding him a full season of service time for only 138 days in the majors.

2021 Top Prospects
Player Rank Team Position Opening Day? May 31?
MacKenzie Gore 2 SDP SP No No
Adley Rutschman 3 BAL C No No
Jarred Kelenic 5 SEA OF No Yes
Andrew Vaughn 14 CHW 1B Yes Yes
Brandon Marsh 15 LAA OF No No
Alex Kirilloff 17 MIN OF No Yes
Matt Manning 18 DET SP No No
Vidal Bruján 24 TBR 2B No No
Max Meyer 26 MIA SP No No
JJ Bleday 35 MIA OF No No
Trevor Larnach 36 MIN OF No Yes
Logan Gilbert 37 SEA SP No Yes
Nolan Gorman 40 STL 3B No No
Drew Waters 47 ATL OF No No
Edward Cabrera 50 MIA SP No No

Only one top-50 prospect made it to Opening Day in 2021, the last year of the old CBA. That probably has something to do with the old rule set and something to do with the fact that two-thirds of this prospect class said “Macbeth” in a theater while opening an umbrella on Friday the 13th.

2019 Top Prospects
Player Rank Team Position Opening Day? May 31?
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 1 TOR 3B No Yes
Fernando Tatis Jr. 3 SDP SS Yes Yes
Forrest Whitley 4 HOU SP No No
Nick Senzel 7 CIN 3B No Yes
Eloy Jiménez 8 CHW OF Yes Yes
Keston Hiura 13 MIL 2B No Yes
Brendan McKay 14 TBR SP/1B No No
Brent Honeywell 25 TBR SP No No
Jesús Luzardo 27 OAK SP No No
Brendan Rodgers 28 COL SS No Yes
Casey Mize 30 DET SP No No
Austin Riley 33 ATL 3B No Yes
Chris Paddack 34 SDP SP Yes Yes
Sean Murphy 35 OAK C No Yes
Mitch Keller 37 PIT SP No Yes
A.J. Puk 40 OAK SP No No
Pete Alonso 48 NYM 1B Yes Yes
Corbin Martin 50 HOU SP No Yes

If we’re looking for a real historical turning point, 2019 is it. In a strong rookie class, four top-50 prospects with no major league experience made the roster out of camp. That spring, I wrote that the service time manipulation epidemic had reached an untenable level of brazenness. I was happy to be proved partially wrong when Tatis, Alonso, and Paddack made their respective teams out of camp to huge fanfare, even if Guerrero had to wait another month for his debut.

But the big number here is not that four top-50 prospects debuted in the first days of the 2019 season; it’s that eight more followed them. That kind of separation hasn’t been repeated in any subsequent season, and that’s the key figure here. It’s one thing for a rookie to need more time in the minors. It’s another for a rookie to be ready and twiddle his thumbs in Triple-A for six weeks until the service time ticker drops under 172. Not only is it tantamount to wage theft, but it’s also anti-competitive. Prospects should be promoted to the majors when they’re ready — no earlier, no later.

Which brings up another point. In 2019, the top 50 contained not only 18 rookies predicted to debut that year, but also nine players who had already seen major league action and retained their rookie status. In 2023, there are 12 predicted debutants, including Volpe, against 13 players with MLB experience, including Kodai Senga. (If you don’t count Senga as a prospect, O’Hoppe, with his eight days in the majors, is next in line at no. 51.) Of those 13, only Baty, Álvarez, and Peraza are currently bound for the minors. Maybe there’s something in the water in New York.

It’s not bulletproof evidence, but that would seem to indicate a shift in standard practice for MLB teams. Service time manipulation is still a problem, but not to the extent it was five years ago. There might not be a carrot you could dangle in front of the premier tightwad franchises in baseball that would get them to promote their top prospects early, but there’s plenty of evidence that playing it down the middle, instead of trying to game the rules, has its advantages.

Surely neither the Mariners nor Astros regret calling up Rodríguez and Peña for Opening Day last season. Nor would the Mariners regret the extension they just gave Rodríguez to keep him in Seattle into the mid-2030s. And the pennies saved by ruthless salary-cutting measures can damage relationships with players, as evidenced by Kris Bryant’s exit from Chicago or Corbin Burnesblunt appraisal of his arbitration experience. Smarter teams are realizing that superstars are too rare a thing to screw around with.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

The top prospect can get the call. Others have to wait a month or two. Much better than before. We get to see those top guys for a full season!