Many believe that the existing service time system is broken. What alternatives exist?
Recent articles have criticized the Blue Jays and Cubs about their failure to promote uber-prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jiminez. Despite protests from senior management, it is clear that service time management plays at least a partial role in these decisions. Which begs the question – how could the system be improved?
The Current System
In brief, the rules in the current CBA state that a player becomes a free agent after he has accumulated six years of service time. It is an all-or-nothing test – if the player has even one day less than six years (as calculated) at the beginning of the season, the team gets another year of control. And herein lies the problem – there is an enormous difference between 6 years + 1 day and 6 years – 1 day, which leads teams to make decisions for service time reasons that are to the detriment of the player and (in the near term) to the team and fans.
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Is Management To Blame?
When the National Hockey League expanded in 1967, Sam Pollock (General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens) lobbied extensively for a rule to prevent expansion teams from trading their top picks. He believed that the only way that these teams would ever become competitive was through the draft, but that they would be under enormous pressure from their fans to trade those picks for short-term gains. Sam was voted down. His response was to effectively say “If those are the rules you want, I have an obligation to my team to do the best I can within them”.
Baseball GMs face a similar problem. They might not agree with the current service time rules, but they are under an obligation to do everything they can – within those rules – to benefit their teams.
Some authors have put forward creative suggestions about how this service time process could be improved, like this one from Sportsnet’s Jonah Keri, and this one from Mike Axisa at cbssports.com. My ideas below are less creative, but still potentially interesting.
Solution #1 – 6.5 years
First idea – suppose the time to free agency was changed from six years to something like six years and 100 days? This would mean that bringing up a player like Jiminez in September and having him start the season in the majors, would have no impact on the year he became a free agent. It would only affect players who were brought up mid-season – which is less common for the Bryant / Guerrero Jr / Jiminez level players.
Solution #2 – Rounding
A second idea would be to say that the first time that a player earns more than (say) 100 days of service time in a year, that year would be rounded up to the full 172 days. That would mean that starting a Bryant on April 1st vs May 1st vs June 1st would have no impact on his service time for that first year.
Suggestion #2A – Lots Of Rounding
A third idea is to redefine a “year” as a season in which the player spends (say) 100 days on the MLB roster. Each year would be determined individually – so a September call-up would not be a “year”, but a player called up in May would earn a full “year”. Six of these years would make a player eligible for free agency.
Suggestion #3 – September Call-Ups Do Not Count
A fourth idea, which would only address the question of September call-ups, would be to have time spent on the expanded September roster not count towards free agent service time (though it might well count for other purposes, such as pension). You might think that the unions would oppose this, but if the alternative is that players like Vladdy and Eloy are just not called up, perhaps it would be an acceptable compromise?
There would almost certainly have to be some fine-tuning to each of the above rules, to provide for special circumstances (injury? sport starting?) but you get the idea.
The Bottom Line
There are many possible solutions to the existing service time dilemma. I think that, like Pollock, management would welcome a system that did not force them to make decisions that prioritized business over the game. So what do you think? Do any of the above ideas resonate, or do you have other ideas? I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.