Last week we explored a poll covering December transactions from the year 2016, the ramifications of which Nationals, White Sox, and Yankees fans are all feeling to this day. This article’s look-back will touch on another poll from the archives and focus on a topic that affects the league at large: service time regulations.
Service time is one of the more universal components of major league baseball— if a player is on a team’s active roster during the regular season, he’s going to accrue service time. How quickly a player accrues service time affects their career earnings, both through the arbitration process and how quickly they’re compensated in free agency. For teams, service time signals how long they have control of a non-market value (read: very affordable) player, is a major component in assessing trade value, and is closely monitored to maximize a team’s perceived competitive window.
Because the accumulation of service time affects player compensation and a team’s roster construction, it’s not much of a surprise that editing the existing service time structure has been a hot-button issue in the ongoing CBA saga. MLBTR broke down what each negotiating party looked to change with the current service time structure here, but the general attitude of each side can be described as this: the MLBPA wants its players to reach active rosters and free agency as soon as possible, while the league has proposed to rework the system but generally has little urgency to shake up a longstanding way of doing business.
Any changes to the existing service time structure will be tricky, and may require concessions from the benefitting party elsewhere in CBA negotiations. That said, barring a massive overhaul in the way players reach free agency it’s likely that a new system will be just as exploitable as the current iteration.
Teams have always looked to keep their brightest young players under team control for as long and cost-effectively as they can, and it’s unlikely they’ll budge to a structure that will make that mission much harder. Baseball fans meanwhile, will of course want their teams to act logically under any system that’s set in place— more than 73% of voters in a 2018 site poll indicated baseball’s service time structure was tolerable, even if they didn’t think it was fair to players.
Anecdotally, a majority of sampled fans feel that keeping a Kris Bryant-type prospect in the minor leagues for a few weeks in April is okay if it leads to another year of team control. The exceedingly rare instances where that type of player cracks an Opening Day roster, as was the case with the immediately-impactful Fernando Tatis Jr., are welcome breaks from service time considerations and generate buzz, but can seem regrettable if a top player departs a team six years down the road instead of an easily-attainable seven.
With the league preparing its next round of economic proposals, the service time structure as we know it may soon look a bit different. If that proves to be the case and the current structure is modified, it’s possible a deal can be reached that feels workable for teams and more inherently fair to players. That said, there’s no guarantee any changes will be made to service time structure when several other key issues remain on the table. To the fans, at a time when change may be on the horizon, we’ll ask again: how do you feel about MLB’s service time rules?