Canceled Regular Season Games Raise The Possibility For A Dispute Regarding Service Time

Major League service time is awarded not based on games spent on a big league roster but rather by total days spent on the Major League roster (or injured list). The Major League Baseball season is 186 days long and a “full year” of service time is defined as 172 days.

A full year of service can be accrued over multiple seasons, of course. A player called up with 72 days left in the regular season, for instance, would accrue 72 days of service time in the current season and need 100 the following year to get across that one-year threshold. Assuming said player spent that entire second season on the roster, he’d have a year and 72 days of service time. For written purposes, service time is displayed as: [years].[days]. So, the player in this example would have 1,072 years of service following that second season. Two more full years of service, and he’s at 3.072 and into arbitration by virtue of crossing three years. Three more years on top of that, and he’s at 6,072 and eligible for free agency by virtue of accruing more than six years of service time.

With that quick and admittedly rudimentary crash course for the uninitiated out of the way, I thought it would be pertinent to take a look at how the recent cancellation of Opening Day by commissioner Rob Manfred could potentially impact players from a service-time vantage point – specifically those who could, at least in theory, stand to see their free agency delayed by a season.

At present, the league has only canceled the season’s first two series. Theoretically, if MLB and the MLBPA were to agree to a new deal this weekend and Opening Day were pushed back only a week – a pipe dream, I realize, but humor me for the purposes of this example – the season could technically still contain 179 days. Players could, then, receive a full year of service even in the absence of a week’s worth of games being wiped from existence.

What if, however, we reach the point where anything more than two weeks of games are canceled? The moment 15 or more days are nixed, there are 171 days on the schedule – which is technically not enough for any player to accrue a full year of service in 2022 alone. For players like the hypothetical one I described in the first couple sentences, that might not be a huge deal. My 1,072 player would only need 100 days of service this season, and so long as he got those 100 days, he’d cross into the two-plus service bracket and his timeline to free agency would remain unchanged. However, a player entering the season with exactly three years of service time (or two years, one year, etc.) would suddenly be looking at a calendar that literally doesn’t have enough days on it to keep their free-agent trajectories on track. Since arbitration is also based off service time, there’d be major implications on that front as well.

It’s for this reason that the union is widely expected to fight tooth-and-nail for full service time to be awarded even in spite of missed games / missed calendar days. The MLBPA will argue that it was the league who implemented the lockout and the league who canceled games early in the season. An attempt to withhold service time would quite likely be perceived by the players as something so damaging that they’d be willing to sit out indefinitely. That service time is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the players.

The union is also expected to push for full pay rather than prorated salaries on the season, although it’s quite arguably the service time that’s more valuable, given its future implications. The two sides will butt heads over these issues, to be sure. MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes tweets that he expects the eventual compromise to be one that sees the players still receive full service time but not be paid for any missed days. As Tim points out, there’s precedent for both of these in the past.

At the moment, there’s a fair bit of talk about the possibility that all of April is lost to the current lockout. Much of that stems from Ken Rosenthal’s recent report at The Athletic, wherein he revealed that most television contracts don’t call for teams to issue rebates to their broadcast partners until “around 25 games” are missed. This has led to several players, Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward among them, accusing the league of deliberately seeking a reason to say April games from the schedule. April attendance is generally poor relative to the rest of the season, and the allegations put forth by the players accuse ownership of effectively only taking on the operating costs of five-sixths of a season while still receiving a full season’s worth of television revenue.

Feel free to discuss that theory all you like in the comments, but I’m setting it aside because the specifics of why we might miss the month of April are irrelevant for the purposes of this exercise. What matters here is which players would be most harmed by the possibility of April being wiped from the schedule and MLB subsequently trying to withhold their service. It’s quite unlikely that the league would succeed in these efforts, to be clear, but the hypothetical is still worth investigating.

Opening Day had been slated for March 31 (one day of service), and there are another 30 in April, of course. Striking April from the record would drop the season to 155 calendar days. Any player with even 17 extra days of service toward another year (ie 1.o17, 2.017, etc.) would be able to move their service time up a year. Any player with 16 or fewer toward another year (ie 1.016, 2.016, etc.) would be out of luck. MLBTR has obtained a full record of official service time for every current Major Leaguer, which is the source for the service-time data used in this exercise.

First, a few caveats. As this pertains mostly to players who have not yet accumulated six total years of service (ie reached free agency) or signed a long-term contract that renders such service time considerations largely moot (eg Fernando Tatis Jr.), I’ve excluded those players. I’ve also, admittedly subjectively, chosen players who have a decent chance to last the whole season on a big league roster.

All that said, let’s take a look at each service bracket and who’d technically come up short. As you might expect, there are some rather notable names:

Five-plus years of service time: Trey Mancini, Manuel Margot, Grant Dayton
Four-plus: Frankie Montas, Jack Flaherty, Ryan McMahon, Reynaldo Lopez, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Jordan Hicks, Brad Keller, Shohei Ohtani
Three-plus: Lucas Luetge, Austin Adams, Lucas Sims, Tyler Kinley, Brett Phillips, Adrian Houser, John Means, Kyle Higashioka, Josh James, Rowdy Tellez, Dylan Moore, Chris Paddack, Nick Anderson, Pete Alonso
Two-plus: Jorge Alcala, Lane Thomas, Nico Hoerner, Adrian Morejon, Jared Walsh, Aristides Aquino, Kyle Finnegan, Jorge Mateo, JT Brubaker, Jake Cronenworth, Anthony Misiewicz, Brady Singer, Codi Heuer, Cristian Javier, David Peterson, Tejay Antone
One-plus: James Kaprielian, Chas McCormick, Akil Baddoo, Andrew Vaughn, Garrett Whitlock, Jake Brentz, Jonathan India

Put another way, if the league were to somehow succeed in not only canceling the first month of the season but also withholding service time, you’d see the likes of Shohei Ohtani, Pete Alonso, Trey Mancini, Manuel Margot, Jack Flaherty, Frankie Montas, Ryan McMahon, etc. all watch their gateways to free agency be delayed by a full year. The huge loss of earning power that comes with getting a year older – to say nothing of the potential for injury and / or decline – is where the aforementioned “hundreds of millions of dollars” in value to the Players Association that I referenced stems. And, if we see a portion of May, June, etc. canceled, further names will be added to this list.

Again, this is an exercise in hypotheticals, and I can’t imagine a scenario where the players willingly shrug and accept the loss of service time for days that were lost to a league-implemented lockout. But the two sides are absolutely going to negotiate over this, perhaps in heated fashion. If you find yourself asking “what’s the big deal” regarding the potential for missed service time – the “big deal” is another year that the likes of Ohtani, Alonso, Flaherty, etc. are under club control via arbitration rather than having a chance to hit the free-agent market.

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