Three years ago, Kris Bryant ranked as the best prospect in baseball. Then 23 years old, Bryant had brutalized minor-league pitching the year before and destroyed the competition in spring training with nine homers and 17 total hits in 44 plate appearances. Despite a clubhouse that now included Jon Lester and manager Joe Maddon among others — part of the Cubs’ signal to the world they were ready to compete — Bryant was easily one of the best 25 players in the organization, probably among the top five, and eventually proved during the season he was Chicago’s best position player.
And yet, the Cubs opted not to start the season with Kris Bryant on the roster. Once Bryant had spent enough days at Triple-A to extend his team control by a year — to become a free agent after the 2021 season instead of the 2020 campaign — the future MVP received a callup to the majors.
Bryant is still the most famous and most obvious case of a team’s effort to manipulate player service time to the potential detriment of the on-field product, but it happened before Bryant, has happened since Bryant, and is likely to keep happening. This season, there are several prominent players who might be kept off their major-league rosters for a time so that the team might save money and gain control of the player for an extra season.
For those unfamiliar with how service time works in these instances, here it is briefly. Players achieve free agency once they have six years of service time. Although the season lasts 187 days, a player is considered to have played a full season if he appears on an MLB roster or disabled list for 172 days. In any season where a player hits the 172-day threshold, that counts as one season of service time. If a player belongs to the roster for fewer than 172 days, he must combine those days with days from another campaign to reach the official “full season” mark.
Kris Bryant’s case is a useful example of this work. In 2015, he was on the roster for 171 days. That time counts only as a partial season. In the last two years, Bryant has been on the roster for more than 180 days each year, and each of those seasons count as one year of service time. At the end of the 2020 season, Bryant will have five seasons and 171 days of service, one day short of the six seasons necessary for free agency. As a result, he will need to play in 2021 to become a free agent. An extended discussion of service time appears in the FanGraphs glossary.
Around this time of year, you might also hear about Super Two status and a player being held back in the minors so that he won’t attain it. That process is slightly more complicated — and, again, you can read more about it in the glossary — but it’s different in that (a) there’s no specific date for avoiding it and (b) it has nothing to do with a player’s eligibility for free agency. Rather, it relates only to the year in which a player is able to participate in arbitration. If you hear about teams holding down players in the minors until mid-June or so, that is to delay arbitration but does not change when a player will hit free agency. They always need six full seasons.
This year, there are a handful of players who are perhaps worthy of a major-league job but who might be held down for a while to gain an extra year of free agency. We’ll start with the most unlikely.
All of baseball didn’t spend time courting Ohtani and selling him on their organizations so he could spend time in the minors. He is clearly one of the best pitchers in the Angels organization — and he is the best according to our Depth Chart projections. Given the millions that Ohtani already sacrificed to come over to the United States and play professionally, starting Ohtani in the minors would be an insult to him and to the game of baseball. The Angels are trying to contend this year, and doing anything other than putting Ohtani on the roster is bad for the sport. It isn’t likely, but it is a subject thathas been brought up, so it is at least worth addressing.
The Braves’ 20-year-old phenom ranked second on this year’s FanGraphs Top-100 list behind only Ohtani. Acuna began the 2017 season without an at-bat above Low-A but tore through three levels with a .325/.374/.522 batting line and has continued to hit well during spring training. Of the players projected to receive playing time for the Braves this season, only two are projected to record an average batting line or better. The first is Freddie Freeman, Atlanta’s star first baseman. The second is Acuna.
In the outfield, where Acuna plays, Ender Inciarte is a solid player, but every other outfielder is replacement level. Nick Markakis takes up one outfield spot due to his salary and tenure, but there is another spot free for Acuna. Atlanta hasn’t indicated any desire to win this season — noted, for example, by their absence of offseason moves — which means they will likely keep Acuna in the minors in order to manipulate his service time and keep him away from free agency for an extra year.
Calhoun, acquired by the Rangers last summer for Yu Darvish, already has some major-league service time, having spent 20 days in Texas last September. That doesn’t mean the Rangers can’t keep him in the minors long enough to ensure he doesn’t hit 172 days of service time between this year and last, however. He’s projected to produce a batting line 10% above league average, which would make him the Rangers’ third-best hitter behind the ageless Adrian Beltre and slugging Joey Gallo. He’s already been sent to minor-league camp this spring. The Rangers reasons for sending Calhoun — to work on his defense — are suspicious, as Eno Sarris suggested recently for the Athletic.
While the Rangers have some well-known players, ownership dropped payroll in Texas about $35 million from last year. The team doesn’t look like it is trying hard to compete this season, especially with the lack of upgrades in their rotation. Keeping Calhoun in the minors for more than a month to make sure he has less than 172 days of service time between this year and last would help confirm any suspicions that the Rangers are in a transition year.
Keeping players in the minors for reasons other than their ability to play in the majors is an ugly part of the game, but it is part of the system to which the players and owners have agreed. Most Cubs fans are probably happy that Kris Bryant won’t reach free agency until after 2021, putting public sentiment on the owners’ side. These are baseball decisions in the sense that a team is choosing to value a year of production in six years over a couple weeks of production now. These are not baseball decisions in terms of present competitiveness, however, because it requires a team to actively hurt their current on-field product. The combination, while currently unavoidable, is unfortunate.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.