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MLB’s Service-Time Manipulation Farce Has Reached Unprecedented Proportions

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and other prospects of his caliber belong in the big leagues. But as the shameful circumvention of laws and norms allows teams to prize free-agency control over what’s right or fair, the sport’s next generation of stars remains on the sidelines.  

Vladimir Gurrero Jr. Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Manny Machado used to have his heart set on playing shortstop long-term. But after arriving in Padres camp, the four-time All-Star not only expressed his contentment with playing third base, but anointed his preferred shortstop: Fernando Tatis Jr. Machado described the 20-year-old as a “baller” and an “absolute beast,” and told reporters: “Hopefully, Tatis breaks camp with us and he’s our shortstop. It’s going to be a hell of an infield that we’re going to have.”

Machado will probably end up being only half-right: It will be a hell of an infield, but Tatis will probably not break camp with the Padres.

Not because of anything Tatis can control. There isn’t anything Tatis can prove or learn from another couple of weeks in the minor leagues, but by keeping him off the big league roster during that time, the Padres can delay his free agency by a full year. A sly corruption of MLB’s free-agency rules has given clubs an incentive to keep their best prospects in the minors until late April, and Tatis will probably become one of the latest victims of service-time manipulation.

Tatis is a rangy 6-foot-3 phenom, the second-best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America and He can field his position well, with an incredible throwing arm, and has shown good power and feel to hit throughout his time in the minors. Tatis hit .286/.355/.507 at Double-A last year, and over the winter hit .263/.379/.488 in 23 games for Estrellas de Oriente of the Dominican Winter League, including this walk-off home run in the playoffs.

Tatis isn’t a finished product, but he’s ready to face big league pitching—there are no other developmental worlds left for him to conquer.

And yet Machado felt the need to lobby for his young teammate to break camp with the Padres, and that lobbying will probably be in vain. The Padres will find some pretext to send Tatis to Triple-A to start the season, then promote him before the end of April.

The path from draft to free agency is somewhat more complicated in baseball than it is in other sports. Instead of imposing an age cutoff or counting back years from the draft, MLB uses what’s called major league service time to determine when a player is eligible for free agency. According to league rules, an MLB regular season lasts 187 days; if a player spends 172 of those days on a major league roster or injured list, he earns a year of service time. Players can earn a year’s worth of service time incrementally—say, 90 days one year and 82 the next—but after earning 172 days in a single season, the clock starts. And after six years of service time, the player is eligible for free agency at the end of the season.

But this also means that if a player finishes his rookie year with 171 days of service time, the club retains control over him for another full season. Teams have been taking advantage for years, and the 2019 preseason features an unprecedentedly large number of talented rookies who might not get a chance to win a job out of camp.

Service time manipulation isn’t a universal practice; Machado, for instance, was called up in August rather than having to wait until the following spring, because the Orioles needed him for the 2012 pennant race. But it’s common enough that all things being equal, most teams would hold back top prospects for a few weeks to get an extra year of team control. Here are a few high-profile recent examples:

MLB Service-Time Manipulation

Player Date of Debut Service Time at End of Rookie Year
Player Date of Debut Service Time at End of Rookie Year
Kris Bryant April 17, 2015 171 days
Ronald Acuña April 25, 2018 159 days
Evan Longoria April 12, 2008 170 days
Bryce Harper April 28, 2012 159 days
George Springer April 16, 2014 166 days

Generally speaking, even a contending team can get away with playing an inferior player for a couple of weeks—Bryant, Acuña, Longoria, and Harper all won Rookie of the Year, and all four of their teams made the playoffs in their rookie seasons. As long as these decisions aren’t costing teams wins, and are saving teams money, all other considerations are secondary, including the ethical implications of cheating players out of years of autonomy and millions of dollars in salary.

Last year’s Mets went 77-85 while starting Wilmer Flores and Jay Bruce, neither of whom are still on the team, down the stretch at first base. Meanwhile, one of their top prospects, Peter Alonso, languished in the minors. Alonso hit .285/.395/.579 across Double-A and Triple-A in 2018 and was named a top-50 global prospect by Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs this past offseason. He still might not break camp with the Mets, even though MLB Pipeline—the prospect evaluation site owned by the league—is calling for Alonso’s promotion.

This kind of disjunction, in which baseball analysis is overruled by business concerns, is familiar to Alonso. Last September, the Mets denied the former Florida Gator a call-up when rosters expanded, then brought him to New York to be feted as the organization’s minor league Player of the Year. At the news conference announcing the award, Alonso fielded questions about his situation.

“I am disappointed,” Alonso said. “But not being here, I have to just trust the process. And I’m just going to use that as motivation to get better for next year.”

Next year is here, and Alonso is still not assured of a place in the majors on Opening Day.

Nor is Blue Jays prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the consensus no. 1 prospect in baseball, who also should have been in the majors last year. (I wrote about how outrageous Vladito’s lack of a call-up was last May.) Guerrero went on to hit .402/.449/.671—once again, he literally hit .400—in Double-A, before posting a .336/.414/.564 line at Triple-A. Toronto’s primary third baseman down the stretch last year was Aledmys Díaz, and still the Jays didn’t call up Vladito.

Two weeks ago, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins talked to MLB Network Radio about having such a talented prospect fall into his lap. But instead of talking up his team’s next star, Atkins criticized Guerrero’s defense, saying, “I just don’t see him as a major league player.” Defense, coincidentally, was the thing Bryant had to work on for two weeks and change in 2015.

Maybe Guerrero’s defense will be a problem; Vladito’s girth is an indication that he’ll have to move to an outfield corner, first base, or DH eventually. But Toronto’s incumbents at those positions—Billy McKinney, Randal Grichuk, Justin Smoak, and Kendrys Morales—are nowhere near as important to the future of the Blue Jays as Guerrero is, and any in-game defensive lessons that he can learn in Triple-A, he could also learn in Toronto. Regardless, one could make the argument that offensive prospects like Vladito are usually allowed to work through their defensive growing pains, but there’s no way to tell. Offensive prospects like Vladito don’t come along often enough for us to know for sure.

Even if Atkins doesn’t think Guerrero is a big league player yet, MLB’s marketing arm is treating Guerrero like a big-time attraction. In February, MLB’s official Twitter account posted a video of Guerrero taking batting practice with the caption: “We could watch Vlad Jr. crush all day.”

The replies are mostly comments expressing either bemusement or frustration at the knowledge that the Blue Jays are going to keep Guerrero in the minors to start the season. And not just Guerrero, but likely Tatis, Alonso, and other prospects the league has spent the offseason promoting. White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez and Athletics left-hander Jesus Luzardo would also be in line for Opening Day roster spots if service time were not an issue.

The outcry over service-time manipulation stems from two sources. The first is a growing general public frustration with ball clubs that brazenly put short-term profit over on-field success. The second is the juxtaposition of league-owned media sources talking up players like Guerrero, Tatis, and Jimenez, while their teams are making such an obviously disingenuous effort to keep those players off the MLB roster. In other words, we know we’re being lied to, and being lied to sucks.

MLB Pipeline, like other league-owned media outlets, does not answer editorially to the league office. But even if it did, there’s very little difference between what a PR campaign would say about Guerrero, for instance, and what an honest scouting report would say: He has limitless offensive potential and might be Toronto’s best hitter right now. Not only that, he’s exciting to watch, and fans would be excited to see him play. When Atkins says Guerrero isn’t a big league player, he sounds foolish and is probably aware that he sounds foolish. But while it might be true that the Blue Jays are holding Vladito back for their own financial benefit, Atkins can’t come out and say so.

That’s because it’s incredibly difficult for a player who’s been held down for economic reasons to prove the team’s wrongdoing and be made whole. Consider Bryant’s case, which is as obvious an instance of service-time manipulation as you’ll find. Bryant, widely considered big-league-ready, torched his Cactus League competition and was sent to Triple-A to work on his defense while Mike Olt held down the hot corner in Chicago. Olt went 2-for-15 in six games and broke his wrist April 14, but it wasn’t until April 17, one day after the deadline for Bryant to earn a full year of service time in 2015, that the future MVP was called up to the big leagues.

Bryant was, and still is, irritated by what the Cubs did to him. But while the players union filed a grievance on his behalf, he had to wait more than two years to learn that nothing could be done. As long as a team official doesn’t come out and say what they’re doing, it’s practically impossible for a player to prove malfeasance. Even when an executive slips up and reads the stage directions, nothing happens. Twins GM Thad Levine found this out last September when he said of the club’s decision not to bring Byron Buxton back to the majors: “I think part of our jobs is we’re supposed to be responsible to factoring service time into every decision we make.”

Service-time manipulation is against the spirit of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union, but because it’s so hard to prove wrongdoing, most teams have adopted the practice anyway. Just like companies that hire contract workers instead of full-time employees to avoid paying for health insurance, or retailers that engage in wage theft, there’s little if any difference in baseball between “legal” and “illegal but practically unenforceable.” And the team officials who make these decisions know it’s wrong on some level—otherwise they’d come out and say what they’re doing plainly instead of obfuscating, deflecting, or outright lying.

Like society in general, Major League Baseball is an entity that functions not only on laws, but norms. Service-time manipulation, like the free-agency freeze and the race to the bottom on payroll, is the result of those with money and power—i.e. management and ownership—coming to the realization that if they choose not to obey certain inconvenient norms, they can increase their own wealth and power, and there’s very little workers and consumers can do to stop them. If Bryant’s displeasure and the larger public opprobrium don’t persuade other teams not to yank their top prospects around, it’s hard to imagine what will. To make sure every club is writing out its best lineup, the rules have to change. Any overhaul to free agency would have to wait until the next CBA, which is likely at least three years away. Even in that case, the league would be reluctant to give up this lucrative lever of power over young players without concessions from the union on other issues that would make eliminating service-time manipulation a pyrrhic victory.

It’s an unsatisfying conclusion to reach, but maybe that’s appropriate. Club executives have spent the past few years playing rhetorical games to justify the anticompetitive decision to keep the next generation of star players on the sideline. The whole situation has been unsatisfying.