Baseball is full of roster rules and regulations that aren’t always the easiest to understand. Well, these are my favorite parts of baseball, so I’m using this series to try and explain some of those aspects of the game.
Last week the topic of service time was covered in this space—how to count it and what accruing it means for a player’s career. Originally the following section was included in the discussion, but I decided it needed its own spotlight.
Service Time Manipulation
With a baseline understanding of how service time is calculated, an explanation of what is meant when someone says “service time manipulation” is also meaningful.
Since service is calculated by days on the roster, teams can control—in certain situations—how much service time a player does, or doesn’t, receive.
As covered before, a championship season can’t span more than 187 days. In 2023, the calendar covers 186 days, so we’ll use that as the example.
If a full year is 172 days, holding a player who has yet to have their contract selected down for fifteen days and selecting their contract on the sixteenth day means it is impossible for them to gain an entire year of service, finishing with 171 (.171) days of service (assuming no further optional assignments).
If that player is then able to accrue five (5.000) more years of service (again, without subsequent optional assignments), after 6 years in the majors they would finish with 5.171 years of service, or one day short of 6.000. This means they couldn’t qualify for free agency until the following year, when they would have 6.171 years of service.
As you can see, the team, who generally has contractual control of a player for six full years, gains an entire seventh year in exchange for fifteen days on the front end.
The most famous example of this, of course, is Kris Bryant, who the Chicago Cubs held down for twelve days to start the 2015 season. That season was 183 days, meaning Bryant accrued 171 days in 2015. He then was not able to reach free agency until after 2021 with 6.171 years of service, or seven years into his Major League career.
Either I’m reading the rules wrong or the Cubs didn’t think the chances at a one-game playoff were high, because I think it would have been hilarious for a tiebreaker to allow Bryant to accrue a full year of service in 2015. To be clear, it seems to be a one-game playoff for any team, not just the Cubs in this scenario.
Of course, the same idea applies in the middle of the season as well. If a team were to option a player during the season for twenty or more days—the length of time it takes to use an optional assignment and the days don’t count as Major League service—the player would be unable to accrue a full year of service.
This is the other commonly talked about form of service time manipulation, but probably even more misunderstood.
There is no “Super Two” date scheduled on the calendar—it’s an estimate that teams try and pinpoint and do their best to plan around, in order to determine which players might be eligible for an additional year of arbitration. In actuality, it’s not generally known if a player will actually qualify for the Super Two status until three offseasons down the road, when said player will have probably eclipsed two (2.000) years of service.
Reportedly, here is where the Super Two cutoff has fell after the last five seasons:
2020: 2.125* (estimated, never reported)
This means that any player above this cutoff qualified for Super Two that offseason, while any below did not.
Let’s analyze one of most recent examples for the Pittsburgh Pirates of what could be seen as falling into this bucket—the handling of Oneil Cruz.
Cruz earned a late season callup in 2021, leaving him with two (.002) days of service heading into 2022. The team did not recall Cruz until June 20th, after which he stayed in the majors until the end of the season. Therefore, in 2022, Cruz accrued 108 (.108) days of service (June 20th to October 5th), leaving him with .110 days of service to start 2023.
Assuming all goes as planned and he doesn’t get optioned again, Cruz will accrue full seasons in 2023 and 2024, leaving him at 2.110 years of service after 2024. Based on history, the Super Two cutoff has never been that low, with that figure falling five days short of the cutoff from the 2019-20 offseason. That means that by holding Cruz down until mid-June 2022, the team will most likely avoid having to pay Cruz for a fourth year of arbitration.
However, as illustrated, nothing is set in stone, and no one can predict the future two years out. The Pirates didn’t recall Tyler Glasnow until the middle of July in 2016, but subsequent struggles early in Glasnow’s career led to further minor league time, and he ended up qualifying as a Super Two player after 2019 anyway.
Also, while its probably safe to assume that a service total of 2.110 figure won’t qualify Cruz, there’s no telling where the line will fall several years down the line, so again, it’s a calculated gamble on the team’s part based mostly on precedence.
Manipulation and the Rules
It’s often asserted that these are the rules agreed upon by the players, so there’s nothing for them to complain about; however, that’s not exactly true.
The rules, as stated, say nothing about whether a player’s service time is allowed to be manipulated or not—they simply state how service is calculated and how it applies to a player’s arbitration and free agency clocks. Teams never admit to holding a player down for their benefit in regard to arbitration and free agency, and in the rare cases they do, it doesn’t go well. They realize no matter the actual reason, it must be for performance and readiness because it’s not allowed to be anything else, which can be seen as an admission of guilt in-and-of-itself.
Teams went as far as calling changes to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement an effort to address the “alleged service-time manipulation” concerns of the players, apparently willing to fix a problem that actually didn’t exist.
Also, it can, and has been, argued that while service time manipulation may be “legal” under the Basic Agreement, it’s not a good faith dealing with the union and is against the spirit of the rules.
Offseason Calendar Update
—No updates here as of this week
Pirates Payroll Updates
— No updates here as of this week
—For 2023, the payroll estimate stands at $73,202,372 for the Labor Relations Department, while it’s $89,619,039 for CBT purposes.
A longtime Pirates Prospects reader, Ethan has been covering payroll, transactions, and rules in-depth since 2018 and dabbling in these topics for as long as he can remember. He started writing about the Pirates at The Point of Pittsburgh before moving over to Pirates Prospects at the start of the 2019 season.
Always a lover of numbers and finding an answer, Ethan much prefers diving into these topics over what’s actually happening on the field. These under and often incorrectly covered topics are truly his passion, and he does his best to educate fans on subjects they may not always understand, but are important nonetheless.
When he’s not updating his beloved spreadsheets, Ethan works full-time as an accountant, while being a dad to two young daughters and watching too many movies and TV shows at night.
I don’t understand criticizing the Pirates actions in this case. They’re operating within the RULES. They need to extend the ‘decision time’ on prospects and established young stars. I do not feel sorry for players making more than $500,000 per year in their first year in ‘the show,’ and by the RULES it goes up from there. I’d love to be ‘forced’ to earn the current minimum for my entire career. The Pirates cannot compete for star players that want to play for the ‘highest bidder.’ They need to make reasonable decisions with reasonable players (like Bryan Reynolds?). As much as I’d like them to spend like the Yankees, et. al., I know they can’t. Small market teams must be careful. Mistakes can send them back to ‘square one.’
We all use it, but “manipulate” is probably not the best word. Maybe we should all start using “manage”, which puts service time in the category of 40-man rosters, 38-man rosters for Rule 5, etc. All part of running a successful business to maximize return* on investment.
*To be clear, I want to see evidence that the return is in terms of wins, not profit for Nutting.
What’s pretty interesting about Super-2 is the census of the 30 or so players who qualify is, pound for pound, a pretty decently accomplished group. This year, you have Daulton Varsho (7 WAR ’21-22), Randy Arozarena (6.5), Patrick Sandoval (5.3), Brady Singer (4.9), Nathaniel Lowe (4.7), Taylor Ward (4.5), Santiago Espinal (4.2), and Tony Gonsolin (2.7 WAR in ’22) among others. Seems like if teams en masse were manipulating Super-2 (and were actually good at it), we wouldn’t see as many average-or-above dudes falling into that group. I mean, Arizona, Tampa and Kansas City have dudes on this list. Generally tight-fisted organizations because they have to be, and KC and Arizona nowhere near competing for the playoffs. What’s going on there? Didn’t they get the memo?
Very, verrrry few teams actually care about super 2.
We just happen to be Pirate fans so our entire perception of Major League Baseball is inevitably skewed through that lens.
Not only is it pretty uniquely Pirates-y to make avoiding Super-2 a foundational strategy, they’ve got us ex-ante justifying holding 40s and 45s down, as if that’s going to accomplish a damn thing. Like, I really like Bae as a poor man’s Myles Straw, but the likelihood is he either plays himself out or prices himself out of his role well before a 3rd – let alone a 4th – trip through arbitration. Dude’s ready now, probably maxed out on his offensive potential, get what you can out of him while he’s still got wheels.
With Bae there’s also the issue of the extra year of control. If he goes to AAA for 3-4 weeks, then we’ll control him through 2029 instead of 2028. For someone who’s only 23, I’d ensure that we get that extra year of his prime. Plus, I can see a reason to give him time at AAA to help figure out or prepare him for the position where he’ll spend most of his time. But I would not worry about Super 2.
If this were a championship level team I might grant that a little time to get Bae more reps in CF at Indy would be useful, but honestly I don’t think that matters on this team.
And I stand by the principle that worrying about whether you control a guy like Bae in 2029 is a waste of mind space. The overwhelming likelihood is that Bae doesn’t even make it to 2028 – because that’s the overwhelming likelihood of all average-to-slightly below major leaguers, not just contact-speed-and-defense guys. But if he does make it to ’28, which would make me really happy, his profile is such that he’ll be relatively cheap to extend. Even for the Pirates. Think Josh Harrison, with more speed and less power. They signed Harrison to a 4-year deal that covered his arb years and one free agent year, plus 2 option years they never picked up. JHey got paid, they got their money’s worth, everyone walked away satisfied.
Just play the kid now and leave the 2029 decisions to sometime in 2026 or 2027.
I want to add that while this is a legitimate debate, I feel big picture it ultimately does not affect a lot of players and IMO is why the union does not make this a big negotiation issue. If I were to get on the ‘treat the employees (players) fairly I would focus on 2 other areas.
1) Minor leagues. There is progress here. We mention all those players who come from poor countries or from US with little means, here is where most can be helped since a vast majority will never make the show. Give them real salaries in the minors and MANY more are actually helped.
2) The NBA/NFL model (partially). They agree on a % of revenues towards salaries (generally speaking). While MLB owners would fight forever regarding showing their books, this is how dollars get to the players. It may mean Yankees should have a $400M payroll if that same % is some how used to assign teams their salary floors/ceilings. But I think this is the players biggest gripe and Cohen may be proving it. This does not solve the free agency time line / Super 2 etc. ,but would be a much more open discussion and may facilitate a better way of allocating the player salaries. ie. an extension of the process added in the latest CBA where players get bonuses if they are pre free agent and reach certain goals (MVP etc.).
As a small market team we should ALWAYS try to get the extra year of control AND avoid super two. Super Two was why Neil Walker was traded early and not extended… Super Two IS why Reynolds wasn’t extended.
Yell at Nutting all you want but as soon as Reynolds knew he was Super Two his total ask went up $30-50M over the length of the extension.
No, they should do right by and treat their employees correctly
Then change the CBA. It’s like a speed limit… can’t complain about someone driving too fast if it’s under the limit.
Union thinks it’s fine or they wouldn’t have signed it. The union reps all make $15M/yr so they don’t care.
The amount to be gained is far less than the amount lost from missing season(s) worth of play, which is precisely what would’ve happened if the PA didn’t soften on their initial offer.
What if they based pay on years of service as a multiplier on the minimum? A guy that has one and a half years of service would get one and a half times the minimum. You could also add weights to this multiplier based on various incentives to increase the amount for some guys vs others.
Really have to do some mental gymnastics to visualize a future where Cruz isn’t making many, many tens of millions of $$$. Probably not in Pittsburgh. Sigh.
However, the same can’t be said for Roansy.
The blatant manipulation of Contreras’ service time last year may not have risen to Kris Bryant levels, but it was close. Contreras could hurt his shoulder and be out of MLB long before FA. Pitchers are far more susceptible to career ending injuries than position players.
How they treated Roansy last year was a low point for this franchise. And as you know, that’s saying something.
2014: 297 PA as the best hitter in all of AA followed by 297 PA as the best hitter in all of AAA
2015: held down for 12 days to “work on defense”, then immediately performed as the 10th most valuable hitter in all of Major League Baseball
2021: 54 IN in AA, 1 start in AAA, 1 start as a dog and pony show callup to end the year
2022: 9 AAA starts followed by just the 24th percentile best xERA and ran out of stamina by end of year with barely 120 innings under his belt
I’m as pro-player as it gets, but I’m more so pro-development and pro-good baseball. Bryant was indisputably ready for the show, whereas Roansy indisputably proved he had and has plenty of additional development ahead.
These two situations aren’t close to being the same for me.
They’re exactly the same. Both players spent time in AAA for the sole purpose of reducing their pay.
I’m not wrong.
If you’re talking about the beginning of the year, maybe or maybe not.
If you’re talking about the option midseason that could have easily been an IL stint–that was the bigger issue.
There was absolutely no reason to option Contreras, limiting his pay and lowering his service time. That was completely unnecessary.
I was referring to the demotion mid-season to “manage his workload.” Then they basically use him in Indy just as they had in Pittsburgh.
It was pure bullshit to ensure no Super 2.
Could they have done him a favor and babied him along in the pen or phantom IL? Absolutely.
I just can’t get worked up about this as some sort of injustice.
Major League-ready means the entire year.
I wasn’t sure how to word this so thank you NMR. To me in general Kris Bryant should be excluded from most discussions on service time. It was a blatant service time manipulation and I don’t think there was one before or since near this blatant that played out as obviously wrong.
Roansy’s performance did not scream he was already a major league stud. It may have screamed he was better than what Pirates had, but that is a different argument. It was a debate on where his development was best served.
Mariner fans went crazy over Jared Kelenic being left in AAA and he ended up earning his way to a demotion and has now struggled in two attempts. However, he is still just 22 so maybe that development time Seattle said was needed was actually needed.
Excluding Bryant is fine until you get people defending all other manipulation by saying “it could be justified”. Not every Demotion is manipulation and not every demotion is justified simply because it “might” be justified. You can always come up with a reason and the teams always do. That doesn’t make it ok when the reason is a lie.
We can’t know for certain about roansy and jack suwinski and that’s part of the problem.
I agree with all of that which is why I sometimes cringe when that seems to be our fans first reaction for every ‘prospect’ but also realize that there will be manipulation. To me Jack was obviously in need of a demotion because he was totally either in a slump or overwhelmed and had come straight from AA – but of course that is IMO.
I wanted to exclude Bryant because one could argue they had been manipulating since August the previous year and most debates IMO are not that clear cut. Sometimes you have to squint some but sometimes it is just another opportunity to throw stones at the front office.
In general the teams truly don’t owe us fans any explanation IMO, so we will continue with our harmless debates.
I hate how this topic has just become a front in the never-ending culture wars.
We just saw a historic number of top prospects make big league clubs out of camp and absolutely nobody seems to give a shit about whether or not that actually turned out to be a good idea for player or team.
Just complete manipulation grievances, all around.
for me, the subject of manipulation kinda comes down to a simple question. “Is player a part of the best 26 man roster that the team could put out there?”
When the answer is yes, it becomes a question of morality.
Of course it’s better for business to suppress that player’s service time, but life is (read: should be) about more than the bottom line.
It’s especially important for guys who came from poverty and never got a good signing bonus. holding them back – even just an extra month or so! – could have a huge impact. MLB minimum salary is, what, $750k or so? it doesnt take long to earn 100k more in MLB than what you’d make in the minors.
imagine being a 22 yr old kid who came from poverty in, idk, the Dominican, and what $100k would mean for your family.
Getting paid the money you deserve by being placed in the baseball league that you deserve to be in can start getting you and your family out of poverty a lot faster.
That said, i’m sure someone here can also make the argument that the moral compass of the team is the fiduciary responsibility to the owners, ie, keeping salaries low. I prioritize the players here.
This completely breaks down when you have teams tanking and rebuilding, though.
A prospect hasn’t “earned” shit just because he may be better than whatever slug the big club has rostered with the explicit lack of will to win games.
If anything this would be roster manipulation in the player’s favor, except that it’s exceptionally easy to see the possibility that their own development is stunted by getting shoved into big league action before they’re ready.
Very obvious downside to the team, as well. Is the team better off with a fully developed player who can commit as many productive years as possible, or is the team better off treating the major league baseball like a minor league level?
Pirate fans have gotten butthurt for years that the rest of baseball views them as a minor league club, but now Pirate fans want to literally make their team a minor league club. Because morals, I guess.
idk, in your painting of the subject, it sounds like the prospect is super raw and is probably like 20 yrs old and isn’t very good yet.
I suppose the ideal view of this universe is that the team would sign a solid-enough vet for that spot. It’s what the pirates did with Santana/Choi instead of rushing Nunez along. Nunez isnt the best player at that position in the org right now. there’s no bad morals. Thats an example of me being pretty happy with what a team is doing with a prospect / position situation.
last year when roansy was shoving AAA and the pirates were marching whatever flotsam in the MLB, and just haaaapppeennnn to give him just little enough service time to be likely to not be super 2, that’s more of what i’m talking about. Roansy shouldve been on the team all year, even if he had to spend some time in relief in order to control his innings.
i know you and i are both wired to kinda nitpick the things people say, but come on, you know exactly what i mean, and you know that i dont advocate rushing along some clearly unready player.
we know the situation when we see it.
I mean this as a compliment to your wording but ‘we know the situation when we see it’ is exactly why a lot of these fan boards exist and why we engage so much. We may always debate on ‘what we see’ which is part of the fun/entertainment. I’ll be first to admit there are posters IMO (geez this sounds political), who can’t get off certain paradigms and engage in reasonable debate.. but then I can choose to let it be or debate.
I don’t consider myself pro player or pro management on MLB Economic issues. I’m pro fan.
As such the idea of rostering your best 26 players is highly appealing. But it’s not a hard and fast rule for me. For example, is Endy better than any other Catcher in camp? Yes. But is it better for pitching staff to work with Hedges for a couple months to become better Pitchers? Almost certainly.
As for economics of game. I say what Cohen is doing to player salaries is just as bad for us fans as what Nutting is doing. Obviously for different reasons. I think the sport would benefit greatly from all teams being reasonably close to each other in revenue and expenses. Maybe the downfall of local cable TV deals will force MLB to usher in a new era where they are forced to split the revenue pie more equitably?
Problem is Agents like Boras would choose sacrificing their first born before agreeing to any kind of salary cap/floor system.
Agents, even Boras, would have no problem with a cap/floor system that didn’t restrict overall share of revenue received by the players. That’s the kicker of every deal MLB has ever floated, including leading up to ’94. Not just a cap/floor, but far more money to the owners overall.
Also think what Cohen’s doing has absolutely zero impact on the game from the perspective of a Pirate fan.
Teams that play on that end of the budget spectrum were already so far beyond what Nutting would ever be willing to do that incremental advancement beyond that level really doesn’t do much. None of the dudes the Mets ended up with were ever even in the realm of possibility for the Pirates.
Cohen is f*cking with the other big market owners, who *are* competing for the class of player he signed, which is why you see those owners more upset than anyone.
You can even game theory this out to see what Cohen’s doing is what’s needed to break the system in FAVOR of the small markets. Status quo isn’t gonna do shit. If he starts an arms race and it ends up actually making the big markets feel some pain, then maybe you open the door for a change in philosophy.
Plodding along with a de facto cap that ensures everyone makes money without barely even trying is the worst case scenario if you want to see structural change.
The Mets are nothing more than a tax shelter for Steven Cohen. He has created massive, tax deductible losses for the next 15 years by 1) being able to depreciate almost 100% of the $2.4B purchase price, and 2) jacking up expenses so high that he will assuredly “lose” money on paper.
These are the REAL economic benefits of MLB franchise ownership. Cohen has just been unbelievably egregious about his motivations, to the extent that his spending has arguably changed the market on player salaries/contracts, both actual and perceived, thus the pushback from other franchise owners.
Cohen will break this system for the better.
I read a critique(wording it nicely) of Hank Steinbrenner back when Cutch was about to get traded. It was a Yankee fan basically (and in a thoroughly thought out way) saying Hank was cheap and banking money in fear of payroll penalties and if Hank cared about winning (if he was George) he could blow through the salary penalties and still make a lot of money. From a Pirates perspective it was a bit disconcerting because it sounded just like us but with vastly different sums. While we wanted to spend an additional 30M to continue the window, the Yankee fan had basically the same gripe but was proposing 100M more.
My summary – if all teams / owners spent basically aiming for minimal profits the Pirates would have even less chance of competing.
I hope NMR is correct and the Cohen’s et al help break the system. As much as Nutting absolutely could and should spend more, we can’t kid ourselves and pretend our teams market is the same as others.