There is an important, underreported line within every season, one every ballclub quietly notes and then acts upon: the window of time between when it can stop manipulating the service time of some of its top prospects and start calling them up without risk of losing them to free agency too soon -- in this case, after the 2024 season. So as we get ready to finally see Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and other prized rookies finally get called up to make their major league debuts, here's what you need to know about service-time practices in Major League Baseball.
What's the issue?
By MLB's rules, a major league season is 187 days long. Players who spend 172 or more days on the active major league 25-man roster -- including time on the major league injured list -- are credited with a full season of service time.
When those first 172 days happen are crucial, because each player's seasonal service-time clock advances to a new season and from there counts toward eligibility for free agency after six full seasons of service time. And that's because those first 172 days of service time before the season-service-clock time ticks to one can be broken up across different seasons before his team (and his agent) starts counting his service time in full seasons year to year.
Who does this impact?
Minor leaguers who are not yet on their organization's 40-man roster but who are ready to reach the active roster. By MLB's rules, a prospect in an organization has to be added to the 40-man by the time he has been with the team either four years (if he signed at 19 or older) or five (18 and younger), or he risks being exposed to the Rule 5 draft in December. So the most significant players affected by service-time manipulation by their organization are generally fast-rising top prospects -- the guys who are ready for The Show before those four or five years have passed.
Notable recent players who saw their service time manipulated include:
• Evan Longoria, the third overall pick in the 2006 draft who was robbed by the Rays of being the team's Opening Day third baseman in 2008.
• Bryce Harper in 2012, after he was the first overall pick in the 2010 draft.
• George Springer in 2014, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
• Kris Bryant in 2015, after he had been the second overall pick in the 2013 draft by the Cubs.
• Ronald Acuna Jr. in 2018 (the Venezuelan signed as a 16-year-old in 2014).
Four of these five players would ultimately win their league's Rookie of the Year award that season -- without that year counting as a full season of service time.
What is the impact of having your service-time clock delayed?
These roster machinations have a huge follow-on effect for a player's future as for where he plays and on his earning potential over the course of his career. On average, players these days debut after they turn 24 years old -- more than two years older than in the 1960s. If a player comes up at 24 and ends up being entirely under club control for seven different seasons, that can mean he doesn't reach free agency until he's past his 30th birthday.
That window, between a player's age-24 and age-30 seasons, entirely encompasses the years in which most analysis (and projection systems) suggests he's likely to be most productive. Framing that window of club control over a player's career yields maximum value for the club while guaranteeing that by the time he reaches free agency, the math suggests he's already going to be a declining asset. (Welcome to a contributing reason for our free-agency freeze-outs the past couple of winters.)
Has every team been doing this?
No, not even this year, when the financial benefits to the team are very well understood in all 30 front offices. The New York Mets could have played games with rookie first baseman Peter Alonso's service time; they did not. The San Diego Padres could have kept right-hander Chris Paddack and shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. in Triple-A for a few weeks and nobody would have been surprised. Instead, they gave Tatis and Paddack clean shots at major league jobs that they won outright on merit, to the acclamation of new teammates like Manny Machado and Pads fans ready to see the franchise turn itself around.
So a top prospect getting his due and earning the honor of an Opening Day start in his rookie season isn't gone. However, as things currently stand in the baseball industry, it has financially disincentivized behavior in the marketplace. But is that why we watch -- to treat the sport as a proxy for futures market and reduce players to so many pork bellies? Or to get to invest in the new kid and what he can do from Day 1?
The upside opportunity if you threaten to control service time: multiyear extensions
Teams have used the threat of service-time manipulation to leverage multiyear offers to lock in young talent. Shortly after belatedly calling up Longoria in 2008, the Rays came to terms with him on a six-year, $17.5 million deal with club options for 2014 through 2016. This spring, Eloy Jimenez was faced with an imminent pre-Opening Day demotion as the White Sox gamed the system to deny him a date with free agency until after 2025, but he avoided that indignity by agreeing to a six-year, $43 million contract (with club options for 2025 and 2026) in March.
The downside risk if you don't control service time
Alex Rodriguez is always a good example. The Mariners called him up in 1994 at 18 years old -- with the strike coming, no less -- then sent him back down and shuttled him back and forth between the majors and minors the next season. Rather than ride that roller coaster, the Mariners might have had control of A-Rod through at least 2001 or 2002, instead of seeing him leave as a 25-year-old free agent after the 2000 season.
Why does it matter?
There are at least two major ethical problems with teams having this kind of freedom to delay a player's arrival and then artificially extend it beyond six seasons.
First, it allows them to circumvent the negotiated expectation that players would be club property at the major league level for six seasons before attaining free agency. Instead, they're using roster chicanery -- and thin excuses like the kid just needs to work on his defense for two weeks -- to stage-manage a claim to a valuable seventh season of big league control over an individual player, escaping the obligation of paying the player a wage determined by the free market.
Second, it undermines the proposition that franchises are fielding their best teams and are trying to win ballgames they're committed to play in each and every championship season. The games count; why shouldn't their investment in their roster be equally important? Nobody believed the Cubs were fielding their best team in 2015 when they made Mike Olt -- who had a .159 career batting average and a .582 OPS -- their Opening Day third baseman instead of Kris Bryant. They lost two of Olt's three starts (including Opening Day to the Cardinals) and looked at other journeymen until they got beyond the point when Bryant could get credit for a full season in the majors. They lost home-field advantage for the 2015 National League wild-card game by one game; they lost the NL Central to the Cardinals by three games.