It’s no secret that talent alone doesn’t necessarily dictate when top prospects will reach the major leagues. Ballclubs have significant financial and competitive incentives to keep top prospects down in the minors even when they’re hitting the cover off the ball, or embarrassing every opposing batter from the mound. These incentives are a by-product of MLB’s service time regulations.
For those unfamiliar, the basic concept is as follows: players accrue service time for each day spent at the MLB level, even if they’re on the major league disabled list. After a player collects six years of service time, he’s eligible for free agency.
Things get far more complicated from there, however. MLB has specific regulations in place to account for partial seasons, since the vast majority of players are promoted at some point in the midst of the season. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these regulations (and certainly the most controversial) is that a player doesn’t get a full season’s worth of service time if he spends 12 days in the minors.
That seemingly short amount of time is the difference between the Cubs keeping Kris Bryant under team control through 2020 or 2021, which was (unofficially) the reason the team elected to keep him at Triple-A to start the season. At the end of 2020, Bryant will fall exactly a day shy of qualifying for free agency, giving the team the rights to one more of his prime seasons.
The conversation has once again resurfaced (though admittedly to a lesser extent) in regards to Braves prospect Ronald Acuna. Although the 20-year-old annihilated Grapefruit League pitching to the tune of aÂ .432/.519/.727 batting line with four homers and four steals, Lane Adams and Peter Bourjos made the opening day roster while Acuna was reassigned to minor league camp. He’s now been down long enough to give the Braves control over him for an additional season.
It’s hard to blame teams for managing the service time of top prospects in this way, especially a Braves club that has little chance to contend this season as it is. From a pure baseball standpoint, the fraction of a WAR that AcunaÂ might have contributed in those first 12 days (it’s worth noting that he’s off to a .152/.222/.182 start in Triple-A) is worth tens of millions less than the WAR total he’s likely to post in the year 2024.
On the other hand, the system is hardly fair to the players. At its core, it seems absurd that a single day of service time can cost a player the additional seven or even eight figures he could have earned if his final arbitration season had instead yielded open market value for him.
There wouldn’t seem to be an easy solution to the issue, either. There’s not exactly a midway point between becoming a free agent and being under team control for an additional season (though the Super TwoÂ regulations at least guarantee players more arbitration dollars if they’ve accrued a significant portion of a seventh year’s service time). One could say that 12 days is an awfully small percentage of a season and that players should gain the full year even if they spent 20 days, 30 days, 40 days, etc. in the minors, but no matter what, it’d always come down to one day making a multi-million dollar difference in value.
What do you think? Should the service time rules change, or are they perfectly reasonable the way they are now? (Poll link for app users)