Editor’s note: McCovey Chronicles will be covering news from around the league all season long with our new daily MLB Chronicles column.
On Opening Day, Pete Alonso of the New York Mets went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts. It was a mostly unremarkable appearance, but what was remarkable is that he appeared at all. All spring, it was rumored that Alonso would begin in the minor leagues, not because he wasn’t ready for the bigs, but because the Mets could get another year of control if they kept him down for two weeks.
Meanwhile, Fernando Tatis Jr. got the Opening Day nod for the Padres. Because of that, he’ll enter free agency a year sooner. The Padres and Mets have endeared themselves to baseball fans simply by starting some of their best players on Opening Day.
It’s a low bar for sure, but when the Blue Jays were going to start Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the minors because he needed to work on his defense and the White Sox were going to do the same with Eloy Jiménez, it’s a welcome surprise. The only reason Vlad Jr. didn’t begin the season in the minors is because he strained an oblique. In Jiménez’s case, the White Sox signed him to an extension.
From a team’s perspective, manipulating service time makes sense. The reward is so great, and the risk is that the player files a grievance that won’t be resolved four years later. The amount of time the team needs to be without their burgeoning star is about two weeks. A baseball season consists of 187 days, and a player must accrue 172 days of service time to qualify for one year. Had Vlad Jr. not strained an oblique, he would have been called up sometime between Tax Day and Easter.
The Blue Jays don’t figure to be competitive this year, so they don’t need Guerrero all season. If they held him down to begin the year, they could keep him around for the 2025 season. Better to save Guerrero for 2025 than let him play 15 extra games in a season they’ll finish fourth regardless of what they do.
Just because it makes sense, doesn’t mean that it’s right. Not playing your best players shouldn’t be a viable baseball strategy. It’s as simple as that. Not to mention it can take away from a player’s career earnings because they have one fewer year of free agency. Vlad Jr. should have been in the majors last season, and Major League Baseball was worse because he wasn’t. But because the “penalty” for manipulating service time is so lax, it’s almost hard to fault the Blue Jays for wanting to exploit it.
It’s good to see that the Padres and the Mets have decided to forego an easy exploit. Maybe the pressure applied by the public is doing something. Maybe the Mets and Padres have made it harder for teams to do what the Cubs did to Kris Bryant and the Blue Jays were going to do to Vlad Jr.
For change to be permanent, the service time rules need to change. Mike Petriello suggested that the service time threshold be dropped 100 games. Sheryl Ring of FanGraphs suggested that a player should get their first year of service time if they spend over half their time on the major league roster. Either of those ideas would work, and I suspect we’ll see something along those lines when the CBA is renewed in 2021. Keeping players down doesn’t benefit the fans, so teams could feel pressure from the league to agree to more lenient service time rules for players.
Hopefully, we’ve seen the last of service time manipulation. Just because something is good strategy doesn’t mean that it’s good baseball.