Major League Baseball’s Proposed Service Time Manipulation


BY: JAMES HOSMER

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated


Major League Baseball’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement will expire on December 1 leaving less than two months for MLB and the Player’s Association to work out a new deal. So far, talks between the sides have been relatively fruitless -- perhaps clouded by the MLBPA’s ongoing grievance against MLB filed last year [1]. A major point of contention between the sides has been the service time structure.


Last month, both sides met in Denver to discuss the new CBA where MLB proposed sweeping changes to the service time system [2]. Under the current system, players become eligible for arbitration after accruing three years of service time (unless qualified for the Super Two designation) and become free agents after six years of service time [3].


MLB’s proposal included a $1 billion pool for the 2022 season (tied to revenue in future years) for teams to spend on eligible players to replace arbitration. For context, arbitration-eligible players received about $650 million for this contract year. A formula would then be used to determine what figure each player is awarded. Further, the proposal would change free agency qualification to be based on age rather than service time. The offer makes players eligible for free agency at 29.5 years of age [4]. With this proposal, MLB is attempting to eliminate service time manipulation. In theory, a predetermined timeline for free agency would leave no incentive for teams to keep young stars from being promoted and would encourage teams to field the best possible major league roster. However, a system based on age introduces a slew of other issues that will certainly prevent the MLBPA from agreeing to the proposal.


Like service time manipulation, the proposed system would harm young stars. Let’s look at Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Blue Jays 22-year-old first baseman who is having an MVP year and is contending for the Triple Crown. In the proposed world, Guerrero would play in ten major league seasons before becoming eligible for free agency -- he made his debut at 20 years old. Guerrero’s volume of work and the contributions to his team require a huge figure for compensation, and without one, money is left on the table.


While the system harms young players, it benefits players that begin their major league careers later. Joel Sherman, for the New York Post, mentioned 29-year-old Yankees star Aaron Judge as a player who would benefit from the proposed system. Judge was 24 when promoted to the majors and is eligible for free agency after next season -- under the proposed system, Judge would be eligible at the end of this season [5].


Furthermore, the proposed $1 billion pool for teams to spend in arbitration would in practice, act as a cap, and the Player’s Association wants nothing to do with a cap on spending towards salaries.


As discussions stand, the proposal will most likely not be adopted. But MLB’s idea to end the practice of service time manipulation warrants a look into what other strategies have been discussed. Ideas have been brought up for years; they include decreasing the number of days in a service year, introducing half-days for the time a player is on the 40-man roster, and making players eligible for the Rule 5 draft a year earlier. An idea that I agree with is to expand the 40-man roster to 50 players and grant those players service time while they are on the roster [6]. This strategy would allow teams to protect valuable players but would also start the free agency clock on those players earlier. With a potential work stoppage looming, it will be interesting to see what signals are given by MLB’s proposals in the coming weeks.


And that is all that these discussions are -- proposals. By examining previous issues that the Player’s Association has dealt with, it is impossible that MLB’s exact proposal is agreed upon. However, these discussions are important as they show what MLB is willing to concede and what the MLBPA has to work with for future negotiations.


[1]https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/mlbpa-seeks-500-million-in-damages-in-grievance-against-mlb-over-shortened-2020-season-per-report/

[2]https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/mlb-proposes-new-service-time-rules-in-latest-cba-negotiations-per-report/

[3]https://www.mlb.com/glossary/transactions/service-time

[4]https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/mlb-proposes-new-service-time-rules-in-latest-cba-negotiations-per-report/

[5]https://nypost.com/2021/09/01/mlb-makes-new-service-time-proposal-to-players-union-sherman/

[6]https://blogs.fangraphs.com/a-modest-proposal-to-end-service-time-manipulation/