Today marks the twentieth day of the truncated Major League Season, and aside from being a cause for celebration for making it through almost a third of the way through this crazy season, it also marks an important transactional milestone.
For the likes of Nate Pearson, Nick Madrigal, Jo Adell, Daulton Varsho, Luis Patiño, et al, who all share one commonality—aside from top prospect status—they were not on the 40-man roster to start the season. That means they never had to be optioned, thus their service clock started as soon as their contracts were selected. The main concern for prospects like these is gaining an extra year of control, which was achieved by leaving them at the Alternate Training Site for a mere six days. Pearson was selected on exactly the seventh day of the season, while the other names started to filter in shortly thereafter. Obviously, none of these players concern the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the subject is one that is always important to them and now to one of their top prospects in waiting, Ke’Bryan Hayes.
So, why didn’t we see Hayes on Wednesday, July 29th? Well, aside from illness and lack of preparation—which we’ll get to—it’s likely because he isn’t playing by the same set of rules as the top prospects listed above. Hayes was added to the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, meaning he had to be optioned to Altoona to start the season, not assigned, which may not sound like a big difference, but it definitely is. Article XXI(B) of the CBA—Credited Major League Service—states that “[i]f a Player is optionally assigned for a total of less than 20 days in one championship season, the Player shall be credited with Major League service during the period of such optional assignment.” Before the season, many seemed to disagree on how this rule may be applied in a shortened season with prorated service time. In an error that brought great shame upon my house, I even neglected to mention it when I covered the Operations Manual a few weeks back. Basically, it was assumed by some that all prospects would simply need to stay down the same amount of time to save an extra year of service, but this rule seems to have been neglected, especially with the benefit of hindsight that we now have.
First of all, the Operations Manual for this shortened season seems to clearly state the 20-day rule still applies for 2020. In a table comparing original and revised transaction dates and time periods, the item “[f]or the avoidance of doubt, the crediting of Major League Service for days on an optional assignment less than 20 days during the 2020 championship season shall be no greater than 19 total days of Major League Service, per Article XXI(B) of the Basic Agreement” is listed as “Maximum of 19 Total Days of MLS” in both columns, meaning nothing is different. It also doesn’t reference being “reduced proportionally,” as the minimum number of Rule 5 days does. Secondly, the application of this rule seems to have been made clear with other top prospects in Hayes’ category. Of the thirteen prospects in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 that needed protected for the 2019 Rule 5 Draft, only one has yet to play in the majors this season—Andres Gimenez of the New York Mets—and he started the season with the team, as opposed to being recalled after play began. Often, when it comes to interpreting these rules, actions speak louder than words, and teams are showing us that we will need to wait until at least tomorrow—Day 21—to start seeing top prospects already inhabiting 40-man rosters.
So, will we see Hayes the next time the Pirates take the field? If that were in their plan, they could have at least gained a couple games of seasoning for Hayes due to the postponement of the series with the St. Louis Cardinals. Originally, the team would have played both yesterday and today before being able to recall Hayes tomorrow; however, Thursday would now be the earliest they would reasonably call him up, gaining back those two extra games of Major League experience for the top third base prospect. However, how likely is that even to still be the plan?
First of all, let’s consider the less likely, but at least still plausible explanations. Hayes missed all of Spring Training 2.0 with a positive test for COVID-19. It wasn’t but a few days before the season that Hayes finally reported to Altoona, so he sat out longer than many before returning to baseball action. We also have no idea how the virus affected Hayes physically—if at all—and for all we know he may still not be in preferred shape yet. It’s also no secret that Hayes needed work on his offense before he would totally be considered ready for his big-league debut—at least by the Pirates’ Front Office, it seemed—so they may still want him to get some swings in Altoona before being called up. Ben Cherington has made it no secret though that what was probably already a difficult environment to replicate Major League pitching in is even more so now with all the injuries to the pitching staff, so that may be doing Hayes more harm than good anyway. Also, decision makers couldn’t have been upset by the hot starts of Colin Moran or Phillip Evans, not only because they have been the best bats for the team during the early going, but because they made it easier to excuse Hayes’ absence from the lineup for the time being. Obviously, Evans is out for the rest of the season and Moran has slowed down considerably, so the team may be running out of excuses on that front as well.
Even considering all of that, it may still just be a game of numbers on the calendar. Sure, calling up Hayes on Thursday may not lose a year of service, but it could certainly still put him the Super 2 category. None of us know if this will even matter after the upcoming CBA negotiations, but it is likely many front offices continue to play it safe until the matter is officially settled. If Hayes is recalled on the 13th and isn’t optioned back, he would accrue .128 prorated days of service time on the season, still very much in play for theoretical Super 2 territory. Waiting an extra five days—August 18th—would put him at .114 days at the end of the season, which is below the extremely low cutoff set this past offseason (2.115 years of service), assuming two full years of service after this one, of course. With nothing much to play for at this point, may they play it safe and wait a couple of extra days to possibly save Super 2 status for Hayes down the line? Sure, it’s entirely possible.
In the end, it seems teams haven’t changed their practices of service time manipulation, even in a shortened season, and the Pirates are probably no different. While it’s possible we see Ke’Bryan Hayes manning third base in the team’s next game against the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday, I don’t think I’d make a bet on it. When Hayes was originally optioned back in March, Cherington did say that they “[p]robably came into the spring with the expectation that there might be a little bit more time in Triple-A.” So, if one day of service equals 2.78 in 2020, what’s the exchange rate for training days in Altoona to games in Triple A? We’ll find out soon enough.