Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija recently crossed the 10-year threshold in terms of Major League service time and took the occasion to voice concerns about the difficulty today’s younger players will have in reaching that same milestone (link via Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle). More specifically, Samardzija wondered aloud how any young player can be expected to reach 10 years of big league service when modern front offices utilize the final spots on the MLB roster as a carousel of various relievers and bench players in an effort to keep their rosters fresh.
“These guys are being productive for our team but at the same time only getting 70 to 80 service days a season,” said Samardzija. “It’s going to take them till they’re 34, 35 or more to get six years, and then 40 to get 10 years. … We need to make sure one option can’t be 10 callups or call-downs where we can use them as swing guys who don’t accumulate any time.”
Samardzija’s precise wording is perhaps a bit embellished, but the sentiment is indeed reflective of today’s baseball climate. Players are optioned back and forth between the Majors and minors at a higher clip than ever before. The shift from a 15-day to a 10-day injured list — one that, notably, will be reversed for pitchers beginning in 2020 — in particular, has emboldened front offices to use brief trips to the IL as a means of resting pitchers and getting fresh arms into their bullpens or rotations when the need (often) arises. Rather than carrying a largely set seven- or eight-man bullpen, many clubs have only four to six set relievers and round out the final bullpen spots with a parade of changing faces.
As the league’s option structure is currently constructed, there’s nothing wrong with doing any of that. Maintaining that level of agility on a club’s roster is now generally viewed as a sound baseball practice, and with good reason. It’s easier to manage workloads in the minor leagues, and a constant churn at the back of the bullpen prevents clubs from having to trot the same pitcher out to the mound on three or even four consecutive days.
At the same time, the increased prevalence of optioning players in this fashion will eventually only increase the number of big leaguers who exhaust their minor league options, and that eventuality will the have the opposite effect of reducing teams’ roster flexibility. And for the players, of course, it does indeed become more difficult to garner substantial service time. The Yankees have sent left-hander Nestor Cortes Jr. back to Triple-A on seven different occasions this season. The Twins have done the same with Kohl Stewart. That’s a far better fate than merely sitting in the minors and not accruing any MLB time, but it’s also easy to see why players would argue that it’s a frustrating and suboptimal process that could be tweaked.
As things currently stand, players receive three option years (and, in rare cases stemming from significant minor league injuries, sometimes a fourth). Any player on the 40-man roster who is sent down to the minors and spends more than 20 days there is considered to have used an option year. He can be shuttled to and from the minors as often as the team deems fit that season all under the umbrella of that single option year.
As Schulman notes in the Samardzija interview, this very infrastructure is among the myriad topics being discussed as the league and the players’ union are in the early stages of collective bargaining negotiations. The current CBA runs through the 2021 season, so it’s unlikely that there’ll be any immediate changes to such a core component of roster construction, but the rising number of issues the players are bringing to the table in labor talks does seem like a portent for change in some respects. Surely, only a fraction of those issues will result in meaningful change, and the minor league option infrastructure is but one piece of the much broader topic of service time.
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