Moving through the remainder of Spring Training and looking towards Opening Day
March 20 2015 / By:
More cuts this week as prospects have been sent down to Minor League camps and Spring Rosters have been slowly whittled down. Players have had their taste of the nectar of the Gods and are now back to the reality of small crowded lockers, tight locker rooms and longer days. Players are not sent down just because they are not ready or because they are not needed or because they are not the best player to put on the field. The reality of baseball's rules on free agency play a big role in who is on he Opening Day roster.
A lot of attention is being paid towards the Cubs budding start, Kris Bryant. He certainly seems ready to play with the big boys but will he break camp as part of the Opening Day roster? All signs point to NO! The issue is service-time rules in general, how they impact a player's gradual emergence from the reserve system, and the perception of whether or not playing by the rules is actually playing by the rules.
The accounting of service time has been a part of MLB since the institution of the first player's pension plan in 1946, and, best I can tell, the rules governing what constitutes a full year of credited service time date back nearly as far. In order to qualify for a full year of service time, a player has to spend 172 days in a single season on the major league roster (that includes days on the disabled list and, in an apparent remnant of the time in which the rule was created, up to two years of active military duty or 30 days of emergency National Guard duty).
That rule exists because it would be plainly unfair to consider a player who spent all but a single day in the majors to have not spent a full year in the majors. However, that line has to be drawn somewhere, and it was drawn, a long time ago, in the middle of the season's second week. That rule took on increased importance with the advent of salary arbitration in 1973 and free agency three years later, but it took the perpetual escalation of player salaries for the manipulation of that service time to become a relevant strategy for rebuilding teams, such as the Cubs.
The Cubs may be able to steal an extra year of team control by delaying his debut by nine games, but they'll still have to pay him Super Two prices in arbitration if they call him up before early-June, and the only reason to wait that long would be if Epstein's concerns about Bryant's defense and seasoning are legitimate. Each winter, all players with three or more years of service time who are not signed to multi-year contracts are eligible for salary arbitration. Super Two players, however, are eligible before accumulating a full three years of service time. Players who qualify as Super Twos are thus eligible for arbitration four times prior to free agency, rather than three.
When star players reach that fourth year of eligibility, they often receive something close to a free-agency-quality salary in that fourth year. For example, David Price settled for $19.75 million in his fourth year of arbitration this January. Jordan Zimmermann signed a two-year deal with a 2015 salary of $16.5 million when he came up for arbitration for the third time in '14. Hunter Pence settled for $13.8 million in his fourth year of arbitration in '13, and Cole Hamels settled for $15 million in '12.
Super Two eligibility, which was added to salary arbitration in 1990, is a powerful weapon for players, and one the union was able to strengthen in the last collective bargaining agreement. Mindful of the other service-time game being played by teams, in which prospects were held in the minors until the approximate Super Two cutoff passed in late May, the Players Association negotiated the expanding of the Super Two group in the last collective bargaining agreement, increasing it from the upper 17 percent of players who met the criteria to the upper 22 percent of such players. Even the simple fact that it is a percentage works against service-time shenanigans: the more players held in the minors until the Super Two deadline is perceived to have passed, the later the Super Two deadline will actually be. That collective bargaining agreement, it should be noted, made no alteration to the 172-day rule governing the cutoff for a full year of service time.
Teams have to weigh the value of that extra year of team control acquired by delaying a player's debut against the value that player could contribute if called up earlier. Any decision to call up a player hinges on his potential value at the major league level. But this is not a situation in which a team is burying a deserving player, as the Indians did with Minnie Minoso and Al Rosen in the late 1940s or the Mariners with Edgar Martinez in the late 80s. This is a team delaying the arrival of a prospect by a couple of weeks because there are rules in place which benefit them greatly if they do.
There's no objective measure by which we can say with absolute certainly that a prospect is ready for the majors. They get called up when the benefit of doing so to the major league club is perceived to be greater than the negative impact of doing so. Negative impacts can include the necessary removal of another player from the roster, potential poor performance, lack of playing time or the belief that the young player's development will be adversely affected. Just as significant as any of those, however, is the potential loss of an entire year of team control from the player's prime, and that calculation changes greatly because of a collectively-bargained rule. If you don't like it, change the rule. But let's stop making teams pretend that service time issues aren't a factor in the promotion of their top prospects.