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.

About The Author

Doug Gray is the owner and operator of this website and has been running it since 2006 in one variation or another. You can follow him on twitter @dougdirt24, or follow the site on Facebook. and Youtube.

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39 Responses

  1. MK

    Doug, if you go with your usual logic that Soring Training stats are meaningless then just how does Vladimir not have a starting spot just given to him? I for one believe his 2021 experience does make him a sure thing.

    • AC

      Performance in games aren’t the main indicator of improvement or decline in spring training. Vlad struggled down the stretch last year, I would make sure his pitches and location have the same “sharpness” that he was displaying early on in his call up before giving him a spot in the rotation.

      • MBS

        I could be wrong but i think Gutierrez was gassed. He was suspended in 2020, I believed he did pitch at the ketchup factory, but so did Green (106.1 IP), Lodolo (50.2 IP), and Ashcraft (111.0 IP). Gutierrez had 114 IP, and at a higher level of competition, which probably put more stress on him. I by no means am saying Gutierrez is going to be a middle of the rotation kind of guy, but I still think he has the potential. It would be crazy barring an unforeseen factor, not to let him start the year in the rotation. IMO

    • Doug Gray

      Don’t use stats to make the determination. But you can ask your pitching coach who looks like the best option.

  2. Stock

    I think that by April there will be more than 1 spot in the rotation open.

    I hope Greene and Lodolo start in Louisville though.

    I don’t think Greene is ready yet. He is 22 years old but missed 2 seasons due to TJS so experience wise he is still 20. His ERA in Louisville was 4.13 so that indicates he could use more time in AAA. Finally, and most importantly he should be capped at about 140 innings in 2022. It is much easier to limit his innings in AAA than in the majors.

    Lodolo should be capped at about 160 innings so he is in the same situation in that he is better to spend a month in AAA to limit his innings.

    • Moses

      I’m confused how keeping someone at AAA for a month has any impact on someone’s innings. Aren’t they pitching the same number of innings regardless?

      • AC

        You can theoretically pull them out of games earlier and skip starts because no one really cares if the team wins or loses. I don’t typically pay enough attention to see if that actually happens or not.

  3. Stock

    The Reds should be making decisions this winter and next spring with an eye on 2024/2025.

    In 2024 or 2025 I would love to see a rotation of Greene/Lodolo/Antone/Bonnin/Boyle.

    Closer: Tony Santillan
    Bullpen Arms: Moreta, Sanmartin, Gutierrez, Ashcraft, Abbott, Roa, and Thomas Farr.

    Some of these will not make the show. However, trading Gray, Castillo, Mahle and Winker should bring back additional pitchers to replace the ones that fail to progress.

    • MBS

      Having 2 TJ surgeries makes me less optimistic about Antone. I don’t know how many pitchers have 2 TJ’s, and return as quality pitchers. I’ve never looked into it, but I’m guessing it’s a small number.

      I also am bullish on Santillan becoming the closer. It will be nice to watch him this year, and see if he takes over a back of the bullpen role.

      • Stock

        Rarely does one have his second TJS so early in his career. If you have it at 35 is it the inferior surgery the cause for you not being able to compete at age 37 or is it your age.

        Chris Capuano and Nathan Eovaldi have had 2 TJS. Eovaldi seems to be better after his 2nd TJS and had his best year in 2021.

        Jokiam Soria and Daniel Hudson have been very good RP since their 2nd TJS. If the Reds get a pitcher in trades this winter I could see Antone in the bullpen.

      • MBS

        Thanks, it’s good to know it’s not necessarily a career ending event. I had been a big fan of Antone. I take the glimmer of hope, he’s such an exciting pitcher. I don’t care where they fit him in, pen or rotation, both are always in need of good arms.

  4. James K

    One way to avoid service time manipulation: Make players eligible for arbitration and free agency at a certain age, instead of after a certain number of years in the majors.

    • Bourgeois Zee

      Or they could just provide free agency a certain number of years after being drafted.

      • James K

        If the rule were a certain number of years after being drafted, teams would have a strong incentive to draft college players. If it were a fixed age, teams would have an incentive (slightly weaker) to draft high-school players. A workable system might be something like age 29, or 9 years after signing a contract, whichever comes first.

  5. MK

    Does anyone know what Brian Rey’s health issues are in Puerto Rico. His Facebook posts include references to a hospital stay but my Spanish isn’t good enough to pick up much more.

    • Krozley

      He was hit in the eye with a 95 mph fastball. Didn’t hear anything beyond that.

  6. Frank

    Guaranteed long term contracts are what hamstring teams for many years. Teams are basically gambling that a players production is going to remain at the level it was when they were signed. When it doesn’t they are stuck paying a player who is no longer worth what they are paying them. Injuries aside, there should be a way for teams to get out from under these albatross contracts. Limiting the length of contracts would benefit both player and team. Teams by not paying a player who no longer performs at an elite level and players by being able to negotiate when they do

    • Doug Gray

      Start paying players $30,000,000 before free agency then. Guys go out and win MVP awards and Cy Young Awards while making league minimum but then people complain when “they get paid too much” when they aren’t as good as they used to be.

      Baseball’s salary structure is beyond broken. But there’s not any good way to fix it, either. The owners want to both not pay non-free agents, but also don’t want to pay non-superstar free agents.

      • Tom

        Radical idea: pay for performance. League wide revenue sharing. Players get their win shares. Suarez gets 30 mil in 2019 and gets 500 thou last year. All is fair.

      • Doug Gray

        Win shares determined by what? WAR? WAR sucks. And even if we don’t agree that WAR sucks, which version are you using? Fangraphs? Baseball Reference? ESPN? Baseball Prospectus?

      • BK

        A couple of points … Per Cot’s, only 14 players made $30M plus in 2021. Together those players’ average annual value salaries totaled $457M. While they represent just 1.8% of the 780 players that would comprise an opening day roster, their salaries represent 11.5% of all salaries paid to MLB players in 2021 (source: Spotrac). Keep in mind it takes far more than 780 players to fill out MLB rosters across the season.

        Which teams did those 14 players finish 2021 with:
        – Dodgers: 5 (Scherzer, Bauer, Price, Kershaw, and Betts)
        – Angels: 2 (Trout, Rendon)
        – Yankees (Cole)
        – Cardinals (Arenado)
        – Nationals (Strasburg)
        – Astros (Verlander)
        – Diamondbacks (Greinke)
        – Tigers (Cabrera)
        – Padres (Machado)

        Ten of the 14 were signed by top 10 teams in terms of market value as reported by Forbes. Only 3 of these contracts are for less than 6 years. As stated below, the CBA has long favored elite players and the strongest markets. The current unconstrained free agency structure drives these disparate outcomes in terms of salaries and competitive balance. Larger market teams flex their financial muscle and sign the biggest names on the market. When a smaller market team like Detroit saddles itself with Cabrera’s contract, it tanks while it is hamstrung.

        The NBA’s CBA limits contracts in both their AAV and length. NFL contracts are rarely fully guaranteed. Limiting the length of contracts would significantly reduce the risk associated with signing the best players and likely create more competition.

      • Tom

        BK, I agree. Limit length and guarantees on contracts if that is the road. It still doesn’t move money to Juan Soto when he deserves it though, unless there is another rule change.

        What if there were (fake number scenario): 1 billion in a revenue sharing pool. Let’s pretend the league has some metric like WAR agreed upon that net totals 1000.
        1 billion / 1000 is 1 million
        You can see where I’m going with this fake scenario. Ohtani could and should have made 50 million (perhaps) from this league wide pool of money.

        Players with negative value just see their base pay, say 1 million, from their team.

        So as players perform well they see their bank roll explode. It would be exciting to see. No other sport has this that I know of. But to me when The players association talks about paying more money to the players for performance this is straight to where they are talking about.

      • BK

        @Tom, that would be a very different approach from what we have in MLB or other pro sports.

        Another way to handle a “Juan Soto” case is to agree on a metric or combo of metrics (such as WAR or MVP/Cy Young voting threshold, etc.) that would enable a younger player to enter arbitration sooner than the norm. This really isn’t all that frequent, but it would address the issue Doug raised.

        The current arbitration process is faulty in my opinion in that it almost guarantees a raise. A player like Garrett, should not expect a pay raise after his 2021 season. Perhaps a tradeoff of early entry into arbitration for elite players in exchange for performance related pay cuts/pay freezes for negative value players would be agreeable to both sides.

      • BK

        @Doug, we’ve heard agent repeatedly state they get similar offers for free agents from teams. This implies franchises have developed near consensus metrics for evaluating a player’s value. Predictive analytics usage is exploding across a range of industries. Rarely is a single metric useful in isolation but sets of metrics are often very informative. With both sides at loggerheads trying to tweak what I see as a fatally flawed underlying agreement, perhaps they would benefit from exploring a radically different approach.

        I’ll add, there are even potential new revenues available (uniform patches, expanded playoffs, expansion to name a few) that could help MLB ease the transition from their basic agreement that provides larger market teams with a structural competitive advantage and creates radically disparate salaries between players. MLBPA needs to look themselves in the mirror and ask why they are comfortable with Max Scherzer making 76 times more than the rookie minimum–that’s a pretty radical difference in compensation for similar work in just about any industry.

      • Tom

        @ Doug
        I was acknowledging there would be the need for something modified or agreed upon, I don’t pretend to know what that would be, but as BK mentioned, there do seem to be near consensus values on players.

        The alternatives, current and proposed, do not handle all the issues confronting owners and players in quite the same way as simply paying directly for current performance would. Perseverating about the quality of a metric or metrics is certainly the last hurdle but what an easy hurdle that really is if players and owners are getting their needs aligned.

        Heck, give teams 8 years of control. What would free agency matter to players if in year 1 they could be making 30-40-50 million if they’re that talented. If teams couldn’t offer a financial advantage, they’d have to offer a competitive advantage on the field.

        It would trend towards the NBA where super teams are arranged by the players. But there are more spots on an MLB roster, and more surprise ways to win a championship, so I wouldn’t expect every FA to be lined up for a roster spot on the Yankees. I’d expect many to be lined up where the smart ball is being played. Where the development is happening. It would be pretty fascinating.

      • Tom

        Two more quick thoughts:

        You already see top quality managers heading to teams where they can see the development maturing. Like Dusty Baker in 2007-8. Jocketty too. It was a good time, if you know baseball, to be getting on board in Cincy. Now imagine if they could have convinced a few top FA to join that effort because money was not the issue. Cincinnati might have a few more rings.

        And as far as other sports paying like this, it occurred to me that fighting, boxing, and golf all have “purse” prizes. That would be similar. The money pool would be divvied out for individual performances. Likely team performances too. It would all be fair. The stink of Free Agency since the 80’s would be gone and the Cincinnati’s and Baltimore’s would be relevant as determined by their baseball acumen, nothing else. The fans would appreciate.

      • Frank

        Just trying to think outside the box. If the max length of a contract was a rolling three years. And a player won an mvp in his 2nd year, renegotiate the 3rd year and get his 30 million. If he wins it again, renegotiate the 3rd year at 60 million. Now you have made 90 million made in 4 years. Must be able to renegotiate 3rd year of contract on a rolling basis but the high performance player has made his money. If his performance falls off team is only on hook for three years. Numbers are for example only but player gets paid what he is worth. If team doesn’t want to renegotiate 3rd year, player becomes free agent

  7. LDS

    I’m not optimistic that the CBA logjam is broken any time soon. The owners aren’t likely to yield. Too much money involved. And they certainly don’t want to surrender control or be expected to compete. Generally, I don’t think either side has a compelling argument but if forced to choose, I think I lean a bit more in the players’ favor. Teams like Pittsburgh & Cincinnati (and many others) aren’t operating in a manner that’s good for the game.

  8. MBS

    Caps and Floors, and increased Revenue Sharing would help keep the league competitive. Service time manipulation, and tanking for picks is trickier.

    Maybe, if the age of players making the roster was a deciding factor for draft picks. That could help resolve roster manipulation and tanking at the same time.

    The top 20 teams in the league would be picks 11 – 30, but the bottom 10 could have their picks decided based on how quickly their last 5, 1st round pick get called up to the 26 man. Or maybe it’s the bottom 15, it’s a new idea I was thinking about, haven’t fleshed it out yet.

    I think this would make teams want to bring their guys up sooner, and lessen the desire to tank.

    • MBS

      It’s kinda like a lottery system, but rewards good player development, and maybe even player health, as you want to make sure your guys stay healthy to join the 26 man sooner rather than later.

    • Tom

      I like the idea of rewarding the worst 10 teams with draft picks based on their second half record. Best record wins number one pick.

  9. BK

    Fans definitely want to see the best players on the field and we want to see competitive teams. Owners of the largest market teams like the structural advantage they have and are reluctant to agree to share from their bounty with the smaller market franchises. Similarly, the players like the giant contract those big market teams will throw at the elite players. Note: the negotiating committees from the owner is stacked with large/mid-market teams. Only one member for the player’s committee makes less than $12M. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see franchises put on a more level playing field from the next CBA … I’ll be happy to be wrong.

    The term “service time manipulation” is pejorative. One of the things I’ve learned following this site for a decade plus is knowing when a prospect is major league ready is an inexact science. In fact, knowing which prospects will excel vexes even the best prospect gurus. While there is near universal agreement with my last two statements, sports writers know with absolute certainty when “service time manipulation” has occurred, is about to occur, or is occurring. Prior to the 2019 season there was much written about how “ready” Nick Senzel was–he produced an 87 OPS+ in year one (not exactly what I was hoping for from the best bat in the 2016 draft) and negative defensive metrics (recall he had never professionally played in the outfield before). Three years later he’s produced -0.6 bWAR. The fact is, Kris Bryant is the strongest case. MLBPA believed his case was so strong, they waited a mere 5 years after the alleged manipulation to file the case.

    So how have the Reds done? Barrero (had not played above High A when promoted), Stephenson and India were on the 26-man roster when needed–no apparent “manipulation” occurred. I want to see Greene, Lodolo, etc. promoted when they are ready–realizing its a subjective and highly debatable call.

  10. AllTheHype

    The easy solution to the manipulation thing is just make players free agent eligible after 5 1/2 years of service, which rounds to 6 years anyway. Any team that sends a player down would have to do so for half a season. That’s a lot different than 11 days (or 20 in the middle of the season) and probably eliminates the manipulation thing.

    I will say, the Reds have had two excellent chances at manipulation over the years and declined to do so.

    The first was Mike Leake, who was promoted from the draft directly to the Reds instead of making two starts in Louisville to gain an extra year. Later, he was demoted in his year two (2011) for 13 days. Had he stayed 20 days in Louisville instead of 13, or one more start, the Reds would have gotten another FULL YEAR of service from him.

    The second of course is India this year, who was promoted from Spring Training and could have easily been manipulated.

  11. TMS

    I have always been a little ambivalent over these service time manipulation accusations. While the player can certainly complain, teams should be able to make roster decisions based on more than the fact that the player thinks he is ready or that Baseball America or some other national prospect guru thinks he is ready for the big leagues.

    Not every prospect is Kris Bryant. Most have times of significant struggle when they come up. Does that mean that can’t send him down because it may look as if the team is playing games with service time?

    I remember all the anguish over sending Senzel to the minors to learn how to play CF. How many critics harped on the Reds for manipulating his service time?

    Too much hand-wringing over players who probably shouldn’t be in the majors anyway.

  12. Doc

    I believe it is the large market teams who are in large part responsible for the competitive imbalance and the tanking as the season progresses. It will not be solved until there is a fixed payroll with which all teams must live. Everything else is trying to put lipstick on a pig.

  13. MK

    At age 68 I want to see the best players now. I might not be around in 7 years so I won’t care what happens after I’m dead.

  14. Shawn

    I think we need a cap and a floor. I believe that would greatly cut down on the 40 million dollar contracts. I think it would also increase the 10 million dollar contracts, spreading the wealth around. I would also increase the minimum salary to one million and although it seems the major league players don’t really care about the minor league players, I would greatly increase minor league salaries. I don’t understand how players that were brought up their the minors can ignore their needs.

  15. Mike in Ottawa

    I’d like to see something like the NBA (I cannot believe I just said that). If service time is moved, to make FA come sooner. Allow the team the chance to offer more $$$ over the bidding teams.

    Baseball has become harder to watch seeing the Reds become farm teams for the big $$$ teams. Perhaps that is BC’s choice.