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.
|Player||Depth Chart WAR||Years (Full Year)||Days (Full Year)||Years (April Plan)||Days (April Plan)|
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.