By: Noah Wright
Service time; it’s probably a term you’ve heard in conversations involving top prospect Blue Jays’ corner infielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr, and even some with the Mets and 1B Peter Alonso before his contract was selected. Why is this always brought up? Well, their service time will probably be manipulated to start the season. Service time manipulation isn’t anything new. One of the most notable cases of service time manipulation was back in 2015 with Kris Bryant. Even though Bryant had an amazing spring that year, and had a very good year at the AA and AAA level a season prior, the Cubs decided to option him to AAA to start the season. Eventually he was called up mid-April and won the Rookie Of The Year, but he could have been on the team to start with.
Alonso and Guerrero Jr. will likely go through the same process Bryant did. Teams perform service manipulation to gain an extra year of control. In the MLB a full regular season is 187 days. If a player spends at least 172 days on the team’s active roster, or DL/IL, then it’s considered a full season. After 6 full seasons, the player can hit free agency.
Keeping the player down in AAA until mid-April prevents them from being able to reach a full season in the year that they will eventually be called-up in, causing the team to gain an extra year of control. In the long run, it’s a good business move. You get an extra year of control over a guy who could potentially be a very good major league asset.
However, in a baseball sense, it doesn’t really help you. I’m sure a lot of fans are wanting to see what guys like Vlad Jr. can do at the big league level. Whenever Vlad does make his MLB debut this year after he comes off the DL (although the DL placement probably would not have changed him being called up any sooner unless the Jays experienced a handful of injuries in spring training), it will likely be in front of a sellout crowd. He has the hype surrounding him, as well as the name of his Hall Of Fame father, Vlad Guerrero Sr.
The MLB should look into changing service time rules so we don’t have service time manipulation. Afterall, how epic would it be to watch Vladimir Guerrero Jr. make his debut at the Jays’ home opener in Canada, the country his father played in from ‘96-’03? One of the solutions the MLB could look at is lessening it. Instead of one full season on the MLB roster being 172 days, maybe bump it up to 175-180 days. Then, we wouldn’t have to wait as long for the team to call up the player.
The MLB could just take it out completely. Afterall, what’s the point of leaving a guy in AAA for 2 weeks to begin the season? Unless they only got a few at bats the season prior in the high minors, or missed part of Spring Training with an injury, there is no real good reason. 2 Weeks isn’t going to make a whole lot of a difference. By moving it up to 187 days, then teams wouldn’t have to worry about gaining that extra year by leaving a highly coveted prospect in the minors.
A major way they could effectively lessen the amount of service time manipulation would be to make the cut-off extreme. For example, if a team leaves a player down in the minors until July, then they gain the extra year of control. This would almost completely eliminate service time manipulation in the MLB. However, you’d still have teams that are rebuilding keeping guys in the minors until July, even if they were ready on opening day. However, unless service time manipulation was going to large rates, and it was happening to a point where it couldn’t be stopped by any means, this would probably be a last resort (or it could be the MLB’s first option. I wouldn’t put it past Manfred to make a strange and illogical move). Plus, it would probably be shot down by the MLBPA.
As of right now, it’s not a huge problem. Sure, it’s pretty stupid that a team has to keep their prospects down in AAA until mid-April, but it’s not gotten to to a point where it is majorly negatively impacting players and teams. We’ve already seen Padres’ middle infield prospect Fernando Tatis Jr’s. contract selected, as well as Peter Alonso’s. White Sox star OF prospect Eloy Jimenez just signed an extension with the club, eliminating the reason for service time manipulation, but would likely have had to play the few weeks in AAA if he had not signed it. Really, the only guy it’s happened to is Vlad Guerrero Jr. Though he is injured, it’s not like the Jays need him in the MLB right this instant since they likely won’t be in line for competition this season. We will likely still see service time with rebuilding clubs, but the amount of clubs in competition that could perform service time manipulation will likely decrease.