Blue Jays: Atkins appears to be done with the service time issue

Mar 14, 2021; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah (75) looks on during their game against the New York Yankees at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 14, 2021; Dunedin, Florida, USA; Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah (75) looks on during their game against the New York Yankees at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Blue Jays have been protective of the service time for their young stars in the past, but a few recent decisions show Ross Atkins has adjusted his philosophy.

That makes sense as the Jays have shifted into more of a win-now phase of the roster build, or are at least operating with the expectation of competing for the playoffs in 2021. As they did last season, their success is largely on the backs of their young stars, led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr’s performance as one of the best hitters in baseball in the early going.

As Vlad Jr., Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson, and others have made their MLB debuts, there has been discussion about one phrase that most MLB players have grown to dislike, and that’s service time. We saw it with Vlad Jr. when he debuted in 2019, as he started the year on April 26th rather than breaking camp with the big league club. Ross Atkins and the front office talked a lot about wanting him to become a “finished product” and to work on his defence at third base in addition to his premium hitting skills, but that kind of short delay to the start of his season was nothing more than manipulating the service time rules to make sure they could keep him in Toronto for an extra year. Let’s just call it what it was, even if the front office can’t come out and bluntly admit it.

With mid-season debuts for the likes of Bichette, Pearson, Cavan Biggio and more over the last two years, the conversation hasn’t really been much of a focus as they’ve re-shaped the roster. Now that we’ve seen the way that Atkins has handled a few of their other top prospects over the last few months, I think it’s safe to say there’s been a philosophy change in that department in the front office.

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The first example this year would be that the team elected to keep Alejandro Kirk with the MLB club rather than send him down to Triple-A to start the year. There was a solid argument that Kirk could have benefitted from starting full-time with Trenton, but the Blue Jays instead elected to have him join the big league club and make whatever impact he could, even if his playing time was around 40% of the starts behind the plate while sharing the job with Danny Jansen. The point is kind of moot now that Kirk has landed on the 60-day injured list, but it’s clear that the Jays didn’t give his service time much of a second thought.

And then there’s the latest example with the news that Alek Manoah will make his big league debut later this week against the Yankees. I’m a bit surprised that the Jays chose to bring him up now, especially to begin his big league career against the hot-hitting Bronx Bombers, but it’s hard to argue the need for the pitching staff at the moment either. Manoah forced their hand a fair bit with his dominant performance during the Spring, and also so far against Triple-A competition, and has been rewarded with a big league opportunity.

I’m not sure that I expected Manoah to last the entire season in the minor leagues, but again, I’m surprised that the Blue Jays elected to bring him up now for more reasons that just a difficult first matchup. He’s now widely considered one of the Top 100 prospects in baseball, and one of the best pitching prospects in the Blue Jays’ stables. The decision to promote him now means his service cost will begin, and I had half wondered if the Jays wouldn’t try to keep him away from the big leagues until late April of next season, using a lost 2020 campaign as their justification, and working that service time angle once more before a new Collective Bargaining Agreement gets negotiated.

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We’ll see if the same “win-now” philosophy will still apply when it’s time for the MLB debuts of Austin Martin, Jordan Groshans, Simeon Woods Richardson, and more. Each situation could be handled differently and with a unique lens for each case, but it’s clear that there’s a bit more urgency with the decision making of the front office these days. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a very good thing.