Unfortunately it feels like we are still a ways away from knowing what all is going to be in a new collective bargaining agreement. The ownership side of things seem to want cost certainty – a spending cap, even if it comes with a floor – and the players want teams to try and compete, sooner free agency, and a way to eliminate service time manipulation. It’s that last part that is going to be the focus for today.
As things sit right now, keeping a player down for 11 days during a season means that instead of reaching free agency after six years in the big leagues that they will not reach free agency until after seven seasons. It’s always happened, but the general public didn’t really start taking notice of it until the last decade and a half. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that in that time we’ve seen prospect coverage explode and it’s been far easier to access information on the top guys in that span of time than ever before. The most well known case was that of Kris Bryant, who hit .425/.477/1.175 back in 2015 during spring training and was then sent back to Triple-A. After playing seven games in the minors that year he was called up to join the Cubs.
It was as clear as day to anyone and everyone what happened. But you literally need the smoking gun to win the case that the team did it with the purpose of getting that extra year out of his service time. It can’t be obvious. It has to be stated, and since they are never going to say that out loud, Bryant, his agent, and the players association lost their grievance against Chicago.
Of course, Kris Bryant is the reason teams shouldn’t be worried about trying to play these service time games, too. The Cubs did it. And then what happened? The big market team who won a World Series with the help of Bryant along the way – well, they wound up trading Bryant and a whole heck of a lot of other players in that 7th season they had him under team control because they weren’t contenders.
Still, as long as teams can, they will. Mostly. But if the new collective bargaining agreement makes it so teams can’t easily manipulate service time, what does that do for prospects that are on the verge of making the team? It could be a bit of a game changer. Take a guy like Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo, or Graham Ashcraft. Cincinnati seems to have at least one spot open in their rotation as things stand right now for the start of the 2022 season. While I’ve long said that it’s ridiculous to keep a pitcher down to try and get extra service time out of them, teams still do it. But if you take away that incentive, it really could open things up for players like the three above.
In a situation where a team keeps them down to try to gain that additional year, what happens if whoever they chose to go with to begin with starts out well? Even if it’s just three starts, if that pitcher gives up one run in those three starts, then you probably aren’t taking them out of the rotation until there’s another reason to do so. While that’s great for the team and for the other pitcher, it does kind of change things up a little bit. The team made a decision that may not have been based on the best player available for the spot as much as the best contractual situation for the business, even if that situation did seem to work out well in the early goings.
Take Reiver Sanmartin for example. Late last season he was called up and made two starts against Pittsburgh. The lefty performed very well, giving up just two runs over 11.2 innings, walked just two batters, and he struck out 11. If that performance came out to begin the year it’s tough to kick him out of the rotation in mid-April to call up someone to replace him. But would he really be a better option than Nick Lodolo or Graham Ashcraft or Hunter Greene? While we can’t say for certain, it doesn’t seem like there’s much reason to believe he would be. All three are considered far better prospects and all three are viewed by the organization as better options. Sanmartin spent time in the bullpen in 2021 in the minors for a reason and the other three didn’t, also for a reason.
Players who got some service time last year probably won’t have to worry about their time being manipulated. Unless the rules change, it’s just 11 days. Reiver Sanmartin and Riley O’Brien were the only call ups for the Reds last season that didn’t get at least 11 days of service time. They’ll be 26 and 27-years-old in 2022 so it’s tough to believe that a team would purposefully keep them down to gain their age 33 or 34 season. But altering the rules to make it tougher to do such things, it really could open things up for one of the three top-end Reds pitching prospects who could be vying for a spot in the rotation.
The competition is tough, and there’s a lot of options for the Reds behind Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, and Tyler Mahle. Vladimir Gutierrez probably has a big head start for the 4th spot, but it shouldn’t just be handed to him. But even beyond Gutierrez, the Reds will likely give an opportunity to Tony Santillan, Reiver Sanmartin, Riley O’Brien, Nick Lodolo, Hunter Greene, and Graham Ashcraft chances to grab a spot in the rotation. If the ability to not punish the best option by holding them back in the minors for a few weeks is there, it makes the competition in the spring far more intriguing to follow along. And it may even make the team a little bit better early in the season, too.