Imagine you’ve finished all the late night parties the typical college student should be expected to complete in the 4 plus years your parents have paid for. Somehow you’ve also managed to clean yourself up enough to shuffle your way into just enough classes to earn a diploma. Congratulations, you’re a degree holding tyro-professional and were the economy not totally screwed, you’d probably be hired to a job that pays a living wage from the jump.
Now imagine you’re the exact same person, but most of the fun of college has been replaced by carefully measured nutrition, heavily monitored weight training, and thousands of at bats or bullpen sessions. You’ve reached the zenith of your pre-professional existence. You’ve graduated. The world is ready for your well-crafted talent. You’re a rookie ball player primed and ready for success in the Major Leagues, the fans own your jersey, kids have pulled your card and hold it closer to their heart than you’ll ever understand… but there’s this thing called “service time” so, oops, you’re screwed.
Let’s discuss service time at the Major League level. The MLB season for business purposes is 187 days. Any player that spends at least 172 days on a big league ball club’s roster will have what is considered a full “service” year accumulated.
Why is this important? Because players can’t become free agents until they’ve accrued six “service” years. They can apply for salary arbitration in their fourth year and each season after. Now before I go any further, we can all agree I’m talking about a group of very well paid men that don’t need anyone’s tears. Major League Baseball players make a ton of money. Yes, the season is long as hell and they earn every penny… but, well, they make a metric ton of money.
So, why should you care about “service time?” Because it’s robbing you, the baseball fan, of everything baseball used to hold sacred.
Opening day has come and gone. Who started in the outfield for the Atlanta Braves? It’s the second year of their new stadium. The Braves won 72 games last year. Forty thousand people are in the stands. Clouds hung in the 74-degree air.
The Braves started Preston Tucker in left field. When the season ends, when we look back and watch whatever the MLB’s version of “One Shining Moment” is, we won’t see the top prospect in all of baseball running out of a dugout of the first day of the season… we get Preston “DERP” Tucker.
Ronald Acuna is really good. Like, if being good at baseball was people, this kid would be China. Families took the day off, young fans arrived at Sun Trust Park without a name to cheer. The slate was clean; the frost is melting away and a new season’s blossom exposed.
Acuna earned a spot on the Opening Day Roster. We deserved him on the Opening Day Roster. Baseball deserved it’s newest darling debut on it’s first day. But, service time…
So, now Acuna has to stay in the minors until 16 days have passed. Sixteen… Remember, 172 days on the roster equals a year. Guess what 171 equals. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. If Acuna finds himself up for 171 days, and plays 149 games for the Braves in the year of 2018, he’ll find himself rewarded at the end of the season with a nice note, and maybe a fruit basket, from the club saying thanks for everything… but none of it counted.
Back to you, the college grad. Imagine you’ve been awarded an amazing job and they’ve promised you a healthy pay raise in your fifth year at the company. Their fiscal year starts April 1st. You’ve gone through orientation and training, been shown around the office and met all of your co-workers. Then the boss sits you down, “we’re not going to let you start until April 2nd because there’s some fine print in your contract that will allow us to avoid paying you a fair wage until your sixth year.”
How would that make you feel? Personally, I think it’s complete nonsense. (I’m the complete idiot writing this because it makes me so mad.) How do you think each and every one of these phenoms feel? How did Kris Bryant feel in 2015?
Because of “service time,” because of 15 days, baseball owners and managers subject players to a potential 7 years of team controlled salary, an additional season below fair market value.
As of now, expect Acuna Sunday, April 15th in Chicago. Should Acuna find himself at third base I’ll bet you see Kris Bryant lean in and whisper something – maybe a strong “screw the owners.”
Then, let’s all imagine the 2025 season: the one were the reigning NL MVP Ronald Acuna is playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who signed him to an 8 year deal because the kid couldn’t wait to get away from the team that didn’t place the proper value on him during his rookie season. The Braves deprived the kid and the fans, most importantly the FANS, of being announced during Opening Day of the season almost everyone expects him to win the Rookie of the Year award.
In summation, generational talent shouldn’t be messed with. Braves fans are going to fall in love with Acuna. He might love them just as much. But a stupid rule, a clerical decision marginalized a player (as it has many times before) that could become the face of the entire league by year’s end. Marginalized players flee. Hearts get broken. I’d venture to guess that “service time” has been on the mind of many players when signing a contract for a team other then the one they’d come up with.
And the saddest thing; some poor, sad kid left Sun Trust Stadium today with Preston Tucker as his favorite player.
Images: SI.com, USAToday.com, MLB.com, The OdysseyOnline.com