The San Diego Padres lost 96 games in 2018, but they entered 2019 with a sense of genuine optimism. They signed, for a second consecutive off-season, one of the top two available free agent position players in Manny Machado, and also signed solid lottery ticket veterans Ian Kinsler and Garrett Richards (Kinsler is currently the starting second baseman and Richards is currently on the 60-day DL: lottery tickets tend to be boom-or-bust like that). These moves alone pointed to a team making an earnest attempt at competence, but it was a move they made a couple days before Opening Day that really declared the team’s intentions to a larger audience.
The Padres announced that Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack, the team’s #1 hitting prospect and #2 pitching prospect (#2 and #33 in all of baseball, respectively), would begin the season on the MLB active roster. The reason cited was so bland that those who don’t follow the sport would be perplexed by why some fans and insiders found it so confusing–as Padres manager Andy Green said, about Tatis, “What he did (in a Spring Training game in which Tatis got two hits and stole two bases) wins baseball games. That’s ultimately what it’s all about.” The baseball team thought Tatis and Paddack gave them the best chance to win, so they put the players on the big-league team. Gripping.
But this seemingly obvious maneuver is the exception in Major League Baseball and not the rule, thanks to the gross loophole exploitation known as service time manipulation. Service time is the term for how long a player has been on a Major League roster, which affects how much he gets paid. The abridged version of the rule is that a player has three years in which he makes the league minimum or something close to it, followed by three years in which he goes to salary arbitration and makes quite a bit more than league minimum, but less (and for fewer years) than he would as a free agent. After that, he hits free agency and can sign with any team for any amount of money a team is willing to offer.
But for years, teams have exploited a loophole in the service time rules–MLB classifies a year of service time at 172 days, while the MLB season is slightly longer than 172 days. Because of this, particularly in the cases of elite prospects, teams have kept players in the minor leagues for the first couple weeks of seasons in order to get an extra year of team control. Because of the “Super Two” rule, these players do reach arbitration basically on schedule, but teams get another year of these suppressed salaries.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this manipulation came with the 2015 Chicago Cubs and Kris Bryant, who was widely acknowledged to be the organization’s best third baseman by a country mile by the end of 2014. Bryant was sent to the AAA Iowa Cubs to begin 2015 and was called up to the big leagues on literally the first possible day the Cubs could in order to get an extra year of service from him. Had Bryant spent the first twelve days of the season in Chicago, he would make the league minimum until after 2017 and then become a free agent after 2020. But because of those 12 days, he will remain arbitration-eligible in 2021 as well.
While it is tempting for a St. Louis Cardinals blog to pick on the Cubs for their bad-faith penny-pinching, they are hardly alone in this. The Atlanta Braves acted similarly with uber-prospect Ronald Acuna Jr. last season, and before he found himself on the Injured List to start 2019, the Toronto Blue Jays were intending to do the same with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. under the dubious justification of “he needs to work on his defense”. And while Bryant, Acuna, and Guerrero were all very clearly MLB-caliber players, the Padres could’ve more easily rationalized starting Tatis and Paddack, neither of whom have ever played in AAA, in the minors.
My hope, as a fan of fair labor practices but more selfishly as a fan of good baseball, is that the next Collective Bargaining Agreement will close this loophole and that a solution which encourages baseball teams to be as good on the field as possible will emerge. But to be clear, I do understand why teams do this. The front office executives manipulating service time aren’t doing so maliciously–they’re doing so because they have budgets with which to work and this is a way to improve the team’s long-term outlook while stretching a budget provided to them by billionaire owners who didn’t become billionaires by handing out money. But the smart move isn’t always the ethical move, nor is it always the aesthetically pleasing move.
The St. Louis Cardinals, for being a team that isn’t exactly known for its reckless spending, have largely avoided the trend towards service time manipulation. And while this seemingly hurt the team financially, it not only improved the team’s competitiveness in the short term, but in the long run it may have actually served the team’s best financial interests.
The rules of service time manipulation largely apply to premium prospects. One of the more notable debuts in recent history came from Trevor Story of the Colorado Rockies, who hit two home runs in his MLB debut on Opening Day 2016 and hit seven home runs in his first six games. But he also entered the season as the Rockies’ #10 prospect; most #10 prospects don’t even stick around for six MLB seasons, much less have such an impact that their seventh season being club-controlled would have a material impact on the team’s long-term outlook. By the same token, giving the Cardinals credit for, say, calling up Harrison Bader in July, is a bit overly generous, as Bader was projected as more of a fourth outfielder type than as the Gold Glove-caliber cornerstone center fielder he played like in 2018.
But there are examples in which the Cardinals eschewed manipulation when it might have been the “smart” play. In September 2012, the Cardinals called up top prospect Shelby Miller for sparing bullpen duty, a token late-season start after the team’s postseason position had been secured, and mopup duty in the NLCS. And Miller turned 22 during the 2012 postseason–keeping him away from high-pressure situations could’ve been reasonably rationalized. Keeping Miller in the minor leagues for a couple weeks to begin 2013 wouldn’t have been too tricky–he spent Spring Training in a rotation spot battle with Joe Kelly that could’ve easily gone the other way.
The one instance in which you could argue the Cardinals tried to manipulate service time was Oscar Taveras, but the moves the team made were mostly defensible from a competitive standpoint. He made his MLB debut at 21, not exactly a late bloomer, and while Taveras had a very productive minor league career and was probably a better bench option than the likes of Shane Robinson, he wasn’t going to get regular starts over the likes of Matt Holliday, prime Jon Jay, or pre-collapse Allen Craig, so allowing him to play every day made sense for his long-term development. And given his struggles in the big leagues, he arguably needed it (that he didn’t play much in the 2014 postseason had zero impact on his service time–agree or disagree with it, it does suggest the team genuinely didn’t think Taveras was ready for starting duty).
The most acclaimed Cardinals prospect since Taveras by quite a bit is Alex Reyes, who, like Taveras, was called up a month before his 22nd birthday and like Miller, was called up without a clearly defined role. This arguably backfired on the Cardinals badly–he missed the entire next season with Tommy John surgery and made just one start the next year, and thus he has spent two years accumulating service time while making minimal impact on the MLB team.
Reyes is scheduled to reach salary arbitration following this season, but this requires him to remain on the MLB team (or the MLB Injured List), and the Cardinals do have the option to keep Reyes in the minor leagues. Assuming the team still forecasts him as a future member of their starting rotation, this might make sense–the Cardinals want to monitor his innings and it’s easier to do this in Memphis than in St. Louis. Also, more nefariously, this would keep Reyes at league minimum next season.
But the Cardinals aren’t doing this. They’re keeping Reyes in the big-league bullpen. They began 2018 with a 21 year-old minor league starter, Jordan Hicks, in their bullpen, when if nothing else they could’ve waited a couple weeks and gotten an additional year of team control out of him. This doesn’t seem to be their goal. Their goal seems to be playing what they consider to be their best team.
And long-term, this may be beneficial. The benefit of manipulating service time still exists, but the impact seems to be a bit smaller as average annual value of free agent contracts has not kept up with inflation. Before signing a contract with an average annual salary of $32.5 million, Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado was already scheduled to make $26 million. There’s something to be said about the ability for a team to go year-to-year with a player, but assuming the Rockies were going to try to sign him long-term anyway, the savings may have amounted to less than Brett Cecil’s annual salary.
The Arenado extension was more or less a market-value one–very few people have claimed the Rockies got a bargain. Many more people have claimed that the Los Angeles Angels got a hometown discount with their extension of Mike Trout, a claim which was also made when Trout signed his initial extension with the team which bought out his arbitration years. And while Trout was a prime candidate for service time manipulation (he was a consensus top-three MLB prospect along with Bryce Harper and, more hilariously, Matt Moore), the Angels didn’t do this. They called him up initially in July 2011 after an injury to starting center fielder Peter Bourjos, and was called up for good in a good-faith promotion in 2012 to replace a struggling Bobby Abreu in the lineup. The Angels didn’t try to keep Trout’s salary low, and in return, the goodwill this built saved the Angels far more money than doing so would have.
Not to mention a somewhat obvious argument in opposition to service time manipulation–early games count, too! Before Ronald Acuna Jr., the Atlanta Braves had Jason Heyward, a fellow outfield super-prospect, and Heyward began 2010 on the Opening Day roster. Perhaps they could have gotten marginally more following the 2014 season when they eventually traded him if he had two more years of arbitration remaining rather than one, but in 2010, the Braves clinched the National League Wild Card on the final day of the season. The presence of Heyward over those first two weeks may very well have been the difference between making the playoffs and not. And in 2015, the Cubs finished in third place and finished three games out of first place. I don’t know how much a division crown (and home field advantage in the NLCS series they ultimately lost to the New York Mets) was worth to the Cubs had that been the result of allowing not only Kris Bryant but also Addison Russell to play immediately, but it’s surely not nothing. And four years later, Kris Bryant is still mad about it and Addison Russell is suspended and may never reach his fourth season of arbitration anyway.
In 2001, the Cardinals had a hotshot prospect named Albert Pujols with whom the organization had become completely enamored in Spring Training–the urban legend is that Pujols only made the team because of an injury to Bobby Bonilla, but in reality, Pujols was too good to pass on. And the Cardinals could have manipulated his service time as well. But instead, as Pujols got to arbitration, the amicable superstar agreed to a seven-year, $100 million contract. According to FanGraphs, during the subsequent eight seasons, Albert Pujols was paid $111 million and generated $328.4 million in value.
For all of our efforts in trying to squeeze every penny out of baseball players whom we have commodified throughout their careers, there is value in keeping players happy. And there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that keeping baseball players isn’t simply good ethics–it’s good business.