What It Would Take to Gain an Extra Year of Service After 2021

Anytime I think of or talk about service time, I feel like it needs accompanied by an asterisk.

With the Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire in December, service time is an aspect of the rule book that could see a shake up in an effort to get players paid sooner while they are still in their prime.

Does a club still hold the rights to a player’s contract for six years? Is the way that service time is counted change? Does it go away all together?

While I can’t see the latter happening, I do think there’s a possibility of significant change to the system, which makes me wonder how current players will be affected.

Save all of that, let’s assume nothing changes and the Pittsburgh Pirates continue to hold the contractual rights to your favorite prospect for six full years—is there a feasible way that could be extended another year into the future?

Of course, I’m talking about “service time manipulation”. Now, I think that term is often used to paint with too broad of a brush. Any time a highly ranked prospect—or any prospect for that matter, as the term seems to often be applied to anyone and everyone—spends some extra time in the minors, it’s not automatically service time manipulation. Sometimes there isn’t a spot available, or the roster isn’t constructed the right way, or other players have options while others don’t, or the player just isn’t quite ready yet.

I heard a couple of suggestions before the season that Blake Cederlind would be optioned to manipulate his service time. We now know how that worked out—he’s burning a year of service in 2021 anyhow—but I hate to break it to you, teams just aren’t manipulating the service time of 25-year-old relievers who are mid-level prospects. However, what do the timelines look like for other players currently in the minors?

In general, I’m against true service time manipulation—I don’t care if it benefits my favorite team, it’s anti-player—so this is not an endorsement of that practice in any way shape or form. This is simply an exercise acknowledging that an extra year of contractual club control can be gained for certain prospects on the roster and what it would take for that to happen.

The following is a list of prospects currently in the minors—save for one—who could conceivably be up-and-down for the rest of the season, their service time going into this season (not official, but by my count), the number of days on the active roster it would take to reach their next full year of service, and the day they would have to stay on option through without going back down to gain another year of contractual control.

Did I miss anyone you’re curious about? While I focused on players currently in the minors, there are players in the majors who could theoretically spend some time on optional assignment, so let me know in the comments below:

Wil Crowe: .025, 147 (already has 15 through May 6th), needs to be on option for 19 more days at some point during the season

Geoff Hartlieb: 1.091, 81 (already has 3), July 18th

Kyle Keller: .057, 115, June 11th

Nick Mears: .022, 150, May 7th

Jared Oliva: .019, 153, May 4th (obviously Oliva will not surpass one year of service in 2021)

Cody Ponce: .047, 125 (already has 17), June 18th

Sean Poppen: .109, 63 (already has 17), August 19th

Cole Tucker: 1.079, 93, July 3rd

Miguel Yajure: .044, 128 (already has 1), May 30th

Looking over the list, I realize some of these names are far more important to the Pirates’ future than others, so I know what you may be thinking—when will I get to see the prospects I really want to see? I’m of course alluding to the “Super 2 Deadline”, in which players are held down until they are unlikely to become eligible for a fourth year of arbitration down the line. Of course, for the uninitiated, there isn’t a hard-and-fast “deadline”, so to speak. We won’t know who will be Super 2 eligible—if it even still exists— from this season until after 2023, at the earliest. We can at least project a date based on precedent that may work well enough.

The official Super 2 cutoff for this season was never officially released, but according to FanGraphs, the player who reportedly qualified who had the lowest amount of service was Clint Frazier at 2.133. That’s more in line with recent history, after the previous year saw a low outlier of 2.115.

If we average out the past five Super 2 cutoffs, we come up with 2.127. In laymen’s terms, that means a player with no prior service time who accrues 127 days of service in 2021 would theoretically qualify for Super 2 status after 2023, assuming two additional full years of service in 2022 and 2023. Again, this is wildly premature and highly speculative, as we have no way of actually knowing who will be in the top 22% of players between two and three years of service after 2023 and what the cutoff will actually look like.

For a player to earn 126 days of service time or less in 2021, they would need to be called up on May 31st and not go back down. To earn 114 days or less—to fall under the aforementioned outlier—the date would be June 12th. So, the typical early to mid-June band works well for this extreme hypothetical, so don’t expect to see Travis Swaggerty until then.

I would add Cody Bolton or Oneil Cruz as examples, but since they are currently in Double-A (and Bolton is out long-term with a knee injury) and the rules for call ups currently being what they are, that’s a discussion for another day.