Astros pitcher Collin McHugh hasn’t been shy of sharing his point of view on the various issues surrounding Major League Baseball. He expressed solidarity with New Era workers last month, and has consistently been on top of the leagues’ service time manipulation issue. Last month, McHugh tweeted about Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. (who has since suffered an injury), “They’re not even pretending to disguise their rationale anymore. This is not good. Fans deserve better.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the White Sox announced that outfield prospect Eloy Jiménez was among the players optioned to Triple-A Charlotte. Jiménez didn’t have a particularly great spring, albeit in a small sample size, batting .154/.154/.346. However, Jiménez is considered by MLB Pipeline — and many other reputable sources — to be the No. 3 prospect in baseball. He demolished minor league pitching to the tune of a .337/.384/.577 line last year between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte. Besides, it’s not like the White Sox outfield has anything going for it. If the season started today, the starting outfield would consist of Adam Engel, Jon Jay, Brandon Guyer, and Daniel Palka. PECOTA projects them, collectively, to be about replacement level. Jiménez is projected to be about two wins better than a replacement-level player.
McHugh called out the White Sox for sending Jiménez down. He tweeted, “Wishing Eloy the best of luck as he goes to AAA to work on…defense? baserunning? creating excess value for a $1.5 billion franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade? bunting?”
With wonks in every front office, every team has been guilty to some degree of manipulating its players service time, including McHugh’s Astros. It is assumed, generally, that because smart people think it’s a smart thing to do, then it must be smart. It’s not. Service time manipulation is actually against the rules, contrary to popular belief. That’s why front office executives dance around the issue every February and March.
Pitcher Eric O’Flaherty brought up a great point recently on Twitter. He said, “Braves could have manipulated Jason Heyward’s service time in 2010. They didn’t, and we clinched the NL wild card on the last day of the season.” In a follow-up tweet, O’Flaherty wrote, “JHey hitting a 450ft [three-run home run] on the first swing of his MLB career, with every single fan in a sold out, standing room only crowd chanting his name on Opening Day is a once in a lifetime sports moment that people will remember for the rest of their lives.”
To manipulate a player’s service time is also to be myopic. Gaining that extra year of service time might matter after the 2024 season, when Jiménez would become eligible for free agency if he were to break camp on the active roster. Who knows what the White Sox might look like heading into the 2025 season? What if the club performs above expectations this year and finds itself in contention for the AL Wild Card or, better yet, the AL Central title? It is an unlikely scenario, sure, but is it less likely than that extra year of control over Jiménez meaningfully affecting the fate of the White Sox franchise six years from now? Doubtful.