Service Time Manipulation

MLB Trade Rumors has put together a great summary of service time manipulation, explaining exactly how and why teams will consider keeping a prospect in the Minor Leagues even if they feel as though that player can contribute at the Major League level.

Before we discuss why this is important to the Toronto Blue Jays ahead of the 2011 season, let’s quickly recap how Super Two status works.

  • The top 17 % of players for cumulative playing time in the majors that have accumulated at least two, but less than three years of Major League service time are known as “Super 2” players.
  • To qualify for Super 2 status, a player must have accumulated at least 86 days of service in the previous year.
  • Attaining Super 2 status makes players eligible for an extra year of arbitration, instead of being paid close to the league minimum.

The argument that most general managers make to justify their keeping of a Major League ready player in the Minor Leagues is that if they’re good enough to achieve Super 2 status, they’ll be good enough to acquire a multi year contract that will cover all their arbitration years anyway.  However, as MLBTR points out using the Evan Longoria contract, total service time also dictates when a player will become a free agent (after six years on the active roster).  Covering free agent years in a multi-year contract is usually more expensive for the team than merely taking care of the remaining arbitration years.

The best recent example of a possible intentional free agency postponement is the Rays’ Evan Longoria, who started the ’08 season at Triple-A and spent 13 days there before making his big league debut. He ended up accruing 170 days of service time in ’08, two days short of a full year. Rays players were unhappy when Longoria was reassigned, but executive vice president Andrew Friedman said service time considerations were “virtually irrelevant” in their decision because the Rays expected to sign the third baseman long-term. Longoria didn’t get much Triple-A seasoning that year, but his April 12th call-up was necessitated by Willy Aybar going on the DL.

The Rays managed to lock Longoria up to an unprecedented contract less than a week after his debut. But in that contract, 2014 represents his first free agent year, when it would have been 2013 had he broken camp with the team. As it stands, Longoria gave the team club options on three free agent years. Had he been called up a few days earlier, the contract might only allow for options through 2015 instead of ’16.

This is exactly the reasoning, whether the team admits it or not, that the Blue Jays will use to keep Brett Lawrie in Triple A this coming year, and in all likelihood for the first part of next season.  While it may be frustrating for Blue Jays fans to have to wait to see the cause of so much hype, it’s something that we should cheer for, more so than a premature call up.

As fans grow more and more aware of how front office decisions affect on field performances, the vicarious experience that is cheering on a sports team can’t help but get extended to off field happenings.  As fans, we’ve come to recognize that smart business decisions have a more lasting effect on the success of a team than a single defensive play, a game winning RBI and even a season of 54 home runs.

That doesn’t diminish the romanticism of a sport that’s often described with flowery language, as some would have you believe.  If anything, it allows for more emotional and intellectual devotion, which in all honesty is what the romanticism of baseball is all about.

But for the Blue Jays, it’s not all about delaying gratification for the greater good.  The team’s consensus number one prospect Kyle Drabek is likely to begin the season in the team’s starting rotation, and for good cause.  Put simply, it’s his time.

Like Lawrie, the team could delay and push back Drabek’s service time, but unlike Lawrie, Drabek has gone through five seasons of Minor League Baseball, and at the age of 23, is ready to continue the Major League service time clock that he started last season.  Not to mention that, as Drew Fairservice touched on yesterday, sending Drabek down to get knocked around in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League would likely be more counter productive than gaining experience at the Major League level.

These are the types of decisions that fans are starting to take a greater interest in, and for good reason.  If the Blue Jays follow this blueprint, as they appear to be, it should give us fans reason to cheer, even if we’ll have to wait a little bit longer to bring those cheers to the Rogers Centre.