Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija recently reached 10 years of service time, an achievement he celebrated with his teammates. Samardzija was thinking about the big picture, though, realizing that is going to take players longer and longer to reach 10 years of service time now that front offices have become so adroit with service time manipulation.
Per Kerry Crowley of The Mercury News, Samardzija said, “I think we need to make sure as a union that we reassess our work time when it comes to days of service and options. We need to make sure one option can’t be 10 call-ups and call-downs where you can just use this guy as a swing guy and he never accumulates any time.”
A player who still has minor league options (they start with three) can be yo-yoed between the minors and majors as many times as his team deems necessary while only using one option. In this sense, the player has no control over his fortunes. Teams hadn’t really taken full advantage of this imbalance of power until recently as front offices became increasingly savvy. This has worked in tandem with the annual song-and-dance from GMs every year in which they make up phony excuses to keep their top prospects stashed in the minors until they secure an additional year of contractual control.
Samardzija said, “It’s easy to say we need you to go down to Triple-A and work on your glove or work on hitting left-handers. ‘Well you don’t ever start me against left-handers so how can I improve my numbers there?’ I definitely think it’s happening on both sides, I’d say it’s just as prevalent with pitching and position players.”
This kind of service time manipulation may not seem like a big deal, but it snowballs over time. A player can be held down and/or optioned to the minor leagues just enough to prevent him from accruing a full service year (172 days). Players become eligible for free agency after six service years. A team that opens a season with a 24-year-old and never options him will see him leave for free agency after his age-29 season. If that player is instead promoted in mid-April, when the player’s maximum service time for the season is 171 days, the team will have contractual control over his age-29 season as well. That player won’t become a free agent until he’s 30 years old. As free agency has shown us in recent years, front offices have grown quite skeptical of free agents in their 30’s, so this tiny bit of service time manipulation could cost players millions of dollars down the road. The spirit of this is not that much different than employers cutting a full-time employee’s hours so they no longer qualify for employer-based health insurance.
Samardzija is right to express concern over service time manipulation. It is heartening to see an increasingly labor-conscious group of players as well, as the members of the union seemingly grew complacent over the years which allowed ownership to take decisive victories with recent collective bargaining agreements. The current CBA expires on December 1, 2021. We should be hearing plenty more about the players’ concerns within the two-plus years remaining.