Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 31, 2022

Stealing Time In Broad Daylight

One week to go until Opening Day.  As with every part of the Great Game’s calendar, Spring Training’s final days possess their own familiar rhythm.  Starting lineups for exhibition games start to look more like the ones fans will see when the regular season begins.  As pitchers ramp up their workloads and position players fine tune their batting strokes, bad innings and hitless games are still waved off as forgettable footnotes in the Florida or Arizona sun, but those dismissals now come with a touch of genuine concern.  Most of all, the quickening pace of roster decisions means once crowded clubhouses have begun to thin out, as aging veterans seeking one more chance learn their fate and touted prospects hoping to reach baseball’s ultimate level are told if they will be going north with the team or heading down the street to the franchise’s minor league complex.

Those decisions can be life changing, and yet they are always imprecise.  A veteran released by one club will sign elsewhere and perform well, while a young hotshot given the opportunity to wear a big league uniform will wilt under the hot glare of media and fan scrutiny.  For all the metrics available to managers and coaches and front office personnel in the most statistic loving sport, every roster assignment is part judgment call, its sagacity determined only once the games start counting.

Unfortunately, some teams use that inherent uncertainty as a cover for extending control over particularly promising prospects.  Owners and general managers who manipulate the service time of their best young players prioritize profit over production, substituting controlling costs for winning as their franchise’s main objective.  It is a sad and cynical exercise, which abuses the loyalty of fans and treats the athletes the faithful pay to see as little more than pawns. 

One of the Players Association’s demands in the recent negotiations over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was to shift eligibility for free agency to an age-based system instead of one based on service time.  The proposal went nowhere, in part because the owners like the current requirement that a player must accumulate six years of major league service before becoming a free agent.  But what teams really love is the definition of a year as 172 days spent on a big league regular season roster, out of what are typically 180 to 190 from Opening Day’s first pitch to the last out prior to the playoffs.  Language that precise allows general managers to turn six seasons of control over a player into seven with just a calendar and a calculator, by sending a major league ready prospect to the minors at the end of Spring Training, delaying his inevitable promotion until less than 172 days remain in the season.

The most blatant example of service time manipulation remains the 2015 decision by the Chicago Cubs to send top prospect Kris Bryant to AAA to start that season.  Bryant, drafted by the Cubs with the second overall pick two year earlier, had raced up the team’s minor league ladder, batting .325 with 43 home runs and a 1.098 OPS in 138 games at AA and AAA in 2014.  His promise was one of the reasons Chicago fans had endured five straight losing seasons, including three years of intentional tanking under new team president Theo Epstein while the focus was on acquiring young talent for future success.

During 2015’s Spring Training Bryant led the club with 9 homers and a 1.175 OPS, an outstanding number even by the casual standards of exhibition games.  But as the team began its final preparations for the new campaign, Bryant was shipped to Des Moines to begin play with the AAA Iowa Cubs.  In a statement that no one believed, the team said the decision was based on an assessment that the franchise’s top prospect needed more time to work on his defense.  Bryant was apparently an exceedingly quick study, for on April 17, less than two weeks into the 2015 season and with exactly 171 days remaining in it, he was promoted to the majors.

Bryant went on to claim NL Rookie of the Year honors, but did so without earning a year’s service time, despite playing in 151 Cubs games.  One year later he was the league’s MVP and fielded the ground ball that resulted in the final out of the World Series, ending Chicago’s historic title drought.  The Cubs’ manipulation of Bryant’s service time cost him untold millions by delaying his free agency by a year.  Whether it also delayed the celebration that began after Bryant threw across the diamond to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to end the 2016 Series will remain forever unknown. 

What fans do know is that in 2015, Chicago won 97 games, earning a Wild Card spot by finishing a game behind the Pirates and three back of the Cardinals in the NL Central.  But the Cubs began the season running in place, playing .500 ball during that handful of games while Bryant was in Iowa.  No one can say that he would have given the team the spark needed to instead start hot enough to have claimed the division title and avoid the Wild Card Game and its scrambling of a team’s postseason pitching rotation.  But neither can anyone say that he would not have done exactly that.

Before and since Bryant’s delayed major league debut, other promising players have received similar treatment, though usually the timing is not so precise as to make a team’s intent so obvious.  The latest appears to be shortstop Oneil Cruz of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Or, for now, of Pittsburgh’s AAA affiliate in Indianapolis.  That’s because despite a strong spring and his offseason ranking by both FanGraphs and Baseball America as the franchise’s top prospect and 15th best overall minor leaguer, this week the Pirates optioned Cruz to AAA, saying he needed more time to develop.

That Pittsburgh would engage in service time manipulation is hardly a surprise, in part because the club’s GM is Ben Cherington, who tutored under Epstein years ago when both were in Boston.  But even worse for Pirates fans is that doing so is just one more example of owner Bob Nutting’s commitment to pocketing as much money as possible rather than spending it on fielding a competitive team.  Pittsburgh has had one winning season in the last six years, losing 101 games in 2021.  The current consensus is this year’s record won’t be much better, largely because the Pirates will play ball next week with the third lowest-paid roster in MLB at less than $38 million, almost thirty percent less than a year ago.  An owner content to line his pockets with revenue sharing distributions from clubs in larger markets rather than invest those funds in roster building – despite being in the top third of MLB owners in terms of personal wealth – is surely one who would revel in the thought of controlling the pay of the hired help for as long as possible.

When Cruz is called up, he could upend the Pirates’ manipulation by his play.  Under the new CBA, the top two finishers in each league’s Rookie of the Year voting earn a full year’s service time.  The provision was a tiny victory for the players, but if Oneil Cruz finds himself wearing a Pirates uniform before the calendar turns to May, fans everywhere should hope he has himself a rookie season to remember.

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