Which Players Lose Out in the 2020 Service Time Agreement?

This spring, one of the stickiest issues in the negotiations between the owners and the MLBPA was that of service time credit, a subject that has long caused labor friction. If the 2020 season occurs, the issue of service time credit will largely take care of itself. But what if there is no 2020 season? The lost salaries are hard enough, but the lost service time would have made those losses even greater. Using ZiPS to consider just 15 prominent free agents-to-be after the 2020 and 2021 seasons, I estimated that those players alone would lose roughly $316 million on their next contracts.

In return for $170 million in guaranteed money — an advance if play happened to recommence this year — and agreeing not to sue for their lost salaries, the players struck a deal. If 2020 is not played, the free agents-to-be in 2021 will still hit the market this winter, as players will be credited for the same amount of service they accrued in 2019.

MLB’s system of arbitration and free agency is based on bright lines; five years and 171 days and you have to go through salary arbitration, while one more day lets you hit free agency. The agreement between players and owners benefits them collectively, but inevitably, some individuals will find themselves on the wrong side of one of those new bright lines. And in this case, a few dozen young players, many of whom are among the brightest young talents in baseball, would still be under an additional year of team control if 2020 is lost.

So, how to determine who suffers? I started with every player who had at least one day of service time in 2019. I then estimated their service time two ways: first with a full year of service in 2020 and then only crediting them their 2019 playing time. After doing that, I identified which players would “lose” a year despite the service time agreement. For example, with a full year of service time in 2020, Cory Spangenberg would have five years and 41 days of service time compared to only four years and 78 days if he only receives 2019 credit.

I then eliminated the players who would have at least six years of service time under the less generous service time estimate; the difference between 11 years and 170 days of service and 12 years and two days doesn’t actually mean anything, as the player’s relationship with his team will be governed by the actual contract they agreed to. Removing those players from the list left me with a smaller, but still robust, list of 323 players who could lose a service time year. This list includes five players who would have hit free agency after 2020 who would no longer do so after a lost season: Justin Bour, Caleb Joseph, Bryan Holaday, Anthony Bass, and Steven Wright.

That’s not to say that 323 players got the short end of the stick under this deal. After all, the vast majority of them would not have gotten a full season of service time with a normal season. For example, Bo Takahashi collected two days of service time in 2019, never got into a game, and has no projected major league playing time in our depth charts. Even among the five possible free agents-to-be, Justin Bour went to Japan, and both Bryan Holaday and Caleb Joseph are backup catchers, and those guys are never guaranteed full-time jobs in the majors.

To make this list of players more digestible, I limited it to players projected to be worth at least a half-win in 2020 by our depth charts. A half-win player probably shouldn’t be a starter, but that’s typically good enough to be a legitimate role player, depending on the team’s needs. That got our list to a manageable 41 players.

For each of these 41 players, I’ve included their projected WAR, their service time with a full year, and their service time under the plan agreed to between players and owners without a 2020 season.

Service Time Losers under MLB/MLBPA Accord
Player Depth Chart WAR Years (Full Year) Days (Full Year) Years (April Plan) Days (April Plan)
Bo Bichette 3.6 1 63 0 126
Frankie Montas 3.0 3 15 2 113
Jesus Luzardo 3.0 1 21 0 42
A.J. Puk 2.6 1 41 0 82
Mitch Keller 2.4 1 59 0 118
Adrian Houser 2.1 2 10 1 161
Trent Grisham 2.1 1 60 0 120
Gavin Lux 2.1 1 28 0 56
Brendan McKay 1.9 1 56 0 112
Kyle Tucker 1.9 1 79 0 107
Jose Urquidy 1.9 1 49 0 98
Sean Murphy 1.8 1 29 0 58
Carter Kieboom 1.7 1 12 0 24
Dustin May 1.4 1 59 0 118
Aaron Civale 1.4 1 58 0 116
Austin Hays 1.4 1 57 0 80
Ian Happ 1.3 3 36 2 102
Reese McGuire 1.3 1 90 0 155
Nick Solak 1.3 1 41 0 82
Willie Calhoun 1.1 2 33 1 163
Joe Ross 1.0 5 18 4 141
Justus Sheffield 1.0 1 53 0 93
Mauricio Dubon 0.9 1 40 0 80
Justin Dunn 0.9 1 20 0 40
Jonathan Loaisiga 0.8 2 22 1 169
Franklin Barreto 0.8 2 31 1 103
Kyle Wright 0.8 1 76 0 122
Shed Long 0.8 1 57 0 114
Patrick Sandoval 0.8 1 56 0 112
Isan Diaz 0.8 1 56 0 112
Logan Webb 0.8 1 44 0 88
Matt Hall 0.7 1 75 0 130
Nico Hoerner 0.7 1 21 0 42
James Karinchak 0.7 1 17 0 34
Derek Fisher 0.6 2 61 1 143
Brett Phillips 0.6 2 13 1 58
Kyle Higashioka 0.6 2 5 1 58
Mike Ford 0.6 1 80 0 160
Victor Reyes 0.5 2 84 1 168
Andrew Suarez 0.5 2 59 1 136
Austin Allen 0.5 1 77 0 154

While it’s unlikely Brett Phillips or Victor Reyes would be headed to eight-figure contracts, there are more than a handful of potential stars on this list. Bo Bichette only need 46 games to put up nearly two wins of production for the Blue Jays in 2019 and at some point this season, Frankie Montas, Jesus Luzardo, and A.J. Puk could be three-fifths of Oakland’s rotation. Gavin Lux and Brendan McKay are top candidates for the 2020 Rookie of the Year in their respective leagues, assuming there is such an award this year.

And this list doesn’t consider players with no service time who could conceivably earn a full season of service time in a normal season, players like Nate Pearson, Casey Mize, or Ryan Mountcastle. Now, teams are incentivized to get…uh…”creative” with the service time clocks, but if the Mets can find the courage to to play their best young talent, theoretically, other teams could do so also.

Hopefully, none of this will come to pass and we’ll get our 82-game season. But if the worst-case scenario happens, it’s useful to remember that even in agreements the MLBPA agrees to, younger players are frequently the ones who benefit the least.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

newest oldest most voted
Joe Joe
Joe Joe

“But if the worst-case scenario happens, it’s useful to remember that even in agreements the MLBPA agrees to, younger players are frequently the ones who benefit the least.”

This can not be said enough.

The Stranger

Also if the best-case scenario happens. And pretty much everywhere in between. It’s only the details that change.


Yeah, but it’s a necessary evil to allow for small market teams to be competitive every now and then by developing relatively cheap young stars through their systems


No, it’s not. It’s because the players who are voting union members are mostly veterans or will be veterans in the near future and so they trade off stuff that would mostly benefit future union members for stuff that benefits current union members.

There are a million ways you could help smaller market teams compete other than dicking over young players.


Agreed, the line of thought that small market teams need cheap young talent to compete is only true under the current economic structure of the game.

Change that structure in other ways – ex. greater revenue sharing, salary floors, etc. – and small market teams would have new ways to compete.


MLB already has tons of revenue sharing. Are you suggesting to split all the profits evenly? That’s a stupid idea that would disincentivize owners from competing or even investing in a team in the first place. You’d also wind up heading towards the much worse financial system they have in the NFL full of holdouts, contract renegotiations, and teams constantly being forced to release still valuable players.

Meanwhile, a salary floor would be nice, but it would only keep teams from tanking or being ridiculous cheapskates. It wouldn’t help the small markets that do spend properly but still can’t compete with the big markets through money alone.


Correct. Just as the auto unions gave away lower wages for new member workers to help protect existing workers’ wage scale, so did the veterans who run the MLBPA give up service time for young players, and kick amateur players in the teeth by agreeing to the 5 round draft and lower or deferred signing bonuses. That’s how unions usually work.


No, there’s not! If young players got paid what they deserved regardless of service time, small market teams wouldn’t be able to build and develop a good team through the draft and the occasional international signing, the only consistent way they have to compete against the big markets! Half the teams in baseball would be forced to act like the Rays and likely only make the playoffs once in a blue moon.


Look at how much those small market teams pay minor leaguers.
Not even doubling it would break them.
Nor would it much impact paying them out of revenue sharing.