The greatest impact the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement will have on the Orioles’ 2022 season has already occurred, with Major League Baseball choosing to cancel the first two weeks of regular-season games amid the owner-imposed lockout.
The runner-up, though, will come in the form of however the eventual CBA between the league and its players addresses so-called service time manipulation, where teams hold top prospects in the minor leagues to delay when they become eligible for free agency. There is a presumption the Orioles will do so with catcher Adley Rutschman, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft who has since become baseball’s top prospect. Baltimore’s 40-man roster has no catchers on it, and Rutschman, 24, is clearly their best available option after hitting .285/.397/.502 with 23 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021.
Although both the owners and union have made proposals to encourage teams to promote top prospects or to ensure certain players are credited with a year of service time regardless, it’s not clear whether either side’s efforts will have the desired effect of putting players such as Rutschman on teams’ rosters come Opening Day, whenever it happens. It’s possible they even encourage the opposite.
How service time manipulation works
If the season officially becomes shorter than 162 games, 2022′s service time structure figures to be different than a typical year. But traditionally, a player needs to be in the majors for 172 of the 186 or so days in a given season to be credited with a full year of service time. Players need six years of service time to become a free agent and three years of service time to be eligible for arbitration, with a percentage of players between two and three years — known as Super Twos — also eligible.
By keeping a prospect in the minors long enough that he can’t be in the majors for more than 171 days, teams effectively give themselves a seventh season of control over that player. The most notable example came in 2015, when the Chicago Cubs held third baseman Kris Bryant in the minors long enough for him to earn only 171 days. Bryant won National League Rookie of the Year that season and NL Most Valuable Player the next as the Cubs ended a 108-year World Series drought. Bryant eventually filed a grievance against Chicago, but an arbitrator sided with the Cubs, determining the team’s actions were permissible under the CBA.
At the cost of a few games without Rutschman in 2022 — a season in which Baltimore isn’t expected to contend — the Orioles could increase the chances they’ll have him under contract in 2028, when a 30-year-old Rutschman might be one of the top catchers, if not players, in the sport.
Rewarding the teams
One aspect present in both sides’ latest reported proposals is rewarding teams with draft picks if a rookie who received a full year of service time earns award recognition early in his career.
As with all aspects of these negotiations, particulars have and will change between proposals. But the basic concept based on various media reports is that if a top prospect opens the year on the major league roster then goes on to finish high enough in Rookie of the Year, MVP or Cy Young Award voting within in the first few seasons of his career, the player’s team receives bonus draft picks, with their placement in the draft depending on where the player finishes in voting. In the league’s latest reported proposal, teams could receive up to three extra draft picks per player this way.
It’s not promised that Rutschman being on the Opening Day roster would give the Orioles these picks. There’s no guarantee he finishes top three in Rookie of the Year voting or top five in MVP voting early in his career.
There’s also the question of whether the Orioles would view these draft picks — which, based on reports, would come no earlier than 31st overall — as equal value to a full year of a player they selected first overall. Players chosen with any new pick would come with six years of major league control, but Rutschman’s age-30 season could have more value by itself if he reaches his potential, and Baltimore could decide it’s better off trying to secure that extra year over extra picks.
Rookie of the Year guarantee
The league has also suggested that any player who finishes in the top two of Rookie of the Year voting will be credited with a full year of service time, regardless of how many days he actually spends in the majors; the players’ most recent reported offer includes a wider range of qualifiers based on award voting. These changes would have addressed Bryant’s situation in 2015, but the league’s Rookie of the Year stipulation seems doubtful to motivate the Orioles or a similarly positioned team to promote a player of Rutschman’s status. It’s almost more likely to encourage the opposite.
In 2015, Chicago was ready to compete, so calling up Bryant immediately after he couldn’t get a full year of service time was logical for both the business and baseball sides of the organization. With the Orioles unlikely to contend even in a shortened season, delaying Rutschman’s promotion far past the necessary mark could have the two-fold effect of keeping him from eventually becoming a Super Two and ensuring he won’t compile the stats necessary to be a Rookie of the Year contender.
Any award-based determination of service time also puts an uncomfortable power in the hands of the Baseball Writers Association of America, which votes for Rookie of the Year among other honors. If Rutschman spends the opening portion of the MLB season in the minors, the votes of 30 journalists in 2022 could determine whether he’s an Oriole in 2028.
The union’s proposals have also included one other way for players to earn a full year of service time despite coming in under the requisite number of days, suggesting that any player ranking high enough at his position in wins above replacement (WAR) would secure a full year. The latest reported cutoff for catchers was the top five.
There are several calculations for WAR, with FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus having formulas, and it’s unclear which or what combinations would be used for the determination of service time. Each of the three sites has expressed discomfort in MLB using the statistic to determine player salaries or service time.
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Given that WAR is in some ways a cumulative stat, teams could again respond to this rule by keeping players in the minors even longer to stop them from building up enough WAR. The projection system ZiPS, which estimates how a player would perform if he spent the whole season in the majors and played regularly, forecasts Rutschman would be third among catchers in 2022. Steamer, which factors in projected playing time and thus the possibility Rutschman spends time in the minors, has Rutschman tied for seventh but just 0.1 WAR behind fifth.
One possible solution
Any other potential change to service time — such as fewer days required to earn a year of service time, age-based free agency or years of control including time in the minors — likely won’t solve service time manipulation or would be strongly opposed by either owners or the union.
Likewise, a season shorter than 162 games will likely cause 2022′s service time structure to be altered; in 2020, a season limited to 60 games amid the coronavirus pandemic, service time was prorated. The owners have threatened to prevent players from receiving a full year of service time in a shortened 2022 season, but it’s doubtful the players’ union will agree to a situation where players can be on the major league roster all season and not be credited with a year. Of course, a season where it’s impossible for players to earn a year of service time could ensure Rutschman’s spot as Baltimore’s Opening Day catcher.
But one way beyond the CBA or its fallout to guarantee Rutschman’s place on the Orioles’ roster would be for the club to sign him to a long-term contract. An agreement of seven years or longer would cover at least his first year of free agency and negate any need for the Orioles to manipulate his service time while also providing Rutschman financial security, though it’s worth noting he received an $8.1 million signing bonus as 2019′s first overall pick.
Such deals aren’t unheard of, with Seattle Mariners first baseman Evan White and Chicago White Sox outfielders Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez all receiving six-year contracts with options covering potential free-agent years before they played in the majors. Robert’s deal had the highest guarantee at $50 million.
The Orioles could also include Rutschman on the Opening Day roster and sign him later. The San Diego Padres put top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. on their 2019 Opening Day roster, then signed him to a 14-year, $340 million contract ahead of the 2021 season. Likewise, manipulating Rutschman’s service time might not prevent a long-term deal. The Tampa Bay Rays kept shortstop Wander Franco, Rutschman’s predecessor as the game’s No. 1 prospect, in the minors until June this past season then negated any service-time qualms with an 11-year, $182 million deal.
The season’s start date will be unknown until the new CBA is complete. Once that happens, the question for the Orioles will become whether it does enough to motivate them to have Rutschman on their Opening Day roster.