Since the quashing of the reserve clause 40 years ago, MLB players have been afforded the opportunity to test the open market after accruing a specific amount of MLB service time. For most players, that opportunity comes after their sixth season in the league. But not for all.
Take the Chicago Cubs and über-prospect Kris Bryant, for instance. If the Cubs make Bryant their Opening Day third baseman and he never returns to the minors for more than 20 days, he’ll become a free agent following the 2020 season, checking in at six years of service time exactly. If, however, they hold off bringing him up for good until April 17—just nine games—he’s suddenly under the Cubs control through 2021, essentially seven seasons. Such are the eccentricities of MLB service time.
The advantage this provides to teams is massive. Even if Bryant becomes merely an average player, the decision here for the Cubs is a no-brainer—the value of an extra year down the road will always trump 12 days now, especially when those dozen days are a player’s first in the big leagues. He might end up being a bit more expensive as a guy with Super Two status—i.e. four years of salary arbitration eligibility, rather than the regular three—but the extra season of potential production would more than make up for the added cost.
The Angels also have a top prospect, Andrew Heaney, who’s ready to break into the bigs, but things are bit more complicated for him so far as MLB service time is concerned. Heaney’s clock started last summer with July and September stints in Miami. The left-hander tallied 47 days on the active roster in all, just few enough days to maintain his rookie status but too many to make extending his team control into 2021 a simple process.
The typical regular season consists of 183 calendar days. In order for a player to be credited with a full year of MLB service time, he must spend at least 172 of those days on a team’s active roster. (Hence the 12-day wait for Bryant.) Because Heaney already has 47 days on his clock entering this season, he needs only to spend 125 days in Anaheim to complete his first full year of service time, which would put him on track for free agency after the 2020 season. If the Angels want to get that coveted extra year of team control—like the Cubs with Bryant—they have to be willing to stow him in the minors for at least 59 calendar days. That’s a quite bit more than 12.
To make matters more difficult, the Angels can’t just rack up days by optioning him to Triple-A in brief spurts between starts. As a member of the 40-man roster, Heaney must stay in the minors for at least 20 days for his MLB service clock to stop1. If he’s recalled at, say, 15 days, those days are automatically added to his ledger as though he’d been with the team the whole time.
Fifty-nine days sure seems like a long time, but let’s delve into what exactly that’d entail in terms of outings for Heaney. Day 60 of the season is June 3, when the Angels play their 54th game. If we assume Heaney would take the No. 5 spot and start every fifth game were he in the rotation from Opening Day, he’d make 10 starts by that date. If the Angels instead work it so that they go with a four-man staff every time an off day happens to fall on the fifth starter’s turn in the rotation, then it’s nine starts.
There’s no definitive answer to whether giving up 10 starts now is worth equal or greater value than the potential for a full year of starts seven years down the road. We know the Angels are in win-it-all mode heading into 2015, but know close to nothing2 about 2021. And the fickle nature of pitchers as a species serves only to compound the uncertainty involved, making it a more or less blind bet. All we can really do, then, is assess the present.
A third of the season is not an insignificant amount of playing time, but it’s also probably not so much that the team’s current spot starters would be overstretched. Next to last year’s half dozen bullpen-by-committee starts, a choice of Nick Tropeano, Hector Santiago, or Jose Alvarez in the back of the rotation looks downright greedy. The trio all have the potential to put up strong numbers over a 10-start stretch, and at worst would be around replacement-level. Heck, one of them might even legitimately beat Heaney out of the final rotation spot with a strong spring. Wouldn’t that make things easy.
The Angels haven’t shown a propensity for playing the service-time game in recent years, but doing so with Heaney seems to be a defensible decision given the current state of the roster. His ability to marinate a little longer at Triple-A of course depends on Garrett Richards being healthy by Opening Day and no one else in the rotation getting injured between now and the first week of June. The likelihood of that happening probably isn’t great, but the possibility is there.
Right now Heaney is presumed to be the favorite to win the final rotation spot out of camp, but don’t be too surprised if the Halos ultimately decide to send him for a little more seasoning in the minors. At least for 59 days or so. Give or take.
1 You’ll notice this isn’t the case with Kris Bryant. That’s because the Cubs are smart and have yet to add him to the 40-man roster, meaning the 20-day threshold doesn’t apply. His clock won’t start until the moment his contract is purchased. The Rays did the same thing with Evan Longoria back in the day.
2 Other than that Albert Pujols will still be under contract…