- Byron Buxton, Eloy Jimenez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. should all be playing in the big leagues this month, but MLB's service time rules encourage teams to stash them elsewhere. It's a practice that needs reform.
The first of September has come and gone, and with it, a wave of minor leaguers up to the majors as teams expand their rosters to 40 players for the month. Top prospects and career backups alike either have made (or will make) the trek to cities across the country to write a new chapter in their careers or, in many happy cases, make their debuts.
But as notable as the names popping up by the dozens on MLB’s transaction logs are those that remain absent—in particular, Eloy Jimenez, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., and Byron Buxton, not one of whom will be called up by their respective teams this September. That’s despite terrific performances all season by Jimenez and Guerrero, both of whom are the top prospects in their systems, or the need to evaluate for next year amid a lost 2018. Instead, they’ll head home or to the Arizona Fall League, denied a chance to earn major league money or begin what promises to be a superstar career.
So why are all three of those players not getting the call? Simply put: money. By leaving Jimenez, Guerrero and Buxton in the minors, the White Sox, Blue Jays and Twins gain additional service time on their contracts and delay their free agency. By holding back Jimenez and Guerrero, Chicago and Toronto can keep them in their organizations for longer and cheaper. Minnesota, meanwhile, will get an extra year of control over Buxton by keeping him out of the majors, as his injury-interrupted campaign has left him two weeks shy of a full season of MLB service time.
This kind of chicanery is nothing new. In 2015, the Cubs sent Kris Bryant to Triple A to start the season, ostensibly for him to work on his defense, but two weeks later, he was promoted. That delay probably didn’t do much for his glove work, but it did gain Chicago an extra year of team control on Bryant’s contract. Earlier this year, the Braves pulled the same stunt with Ronald Acuña Jr., who hit .344/.393/.548 in Triple A the season prior as a 19-year-old and did equally ridiculous things in spring training but didn’t make the Opening Day roster. “We just want him to get into the flow, keep doing what he was doing and he’ll find his way back here, hopefully very soon,” said Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopoulos in an empty attempt to justify Acuña’s demotion. By the end of that month—despite hitting a meager .211/.297/.267 in Triple A—Acuña was up, presumably enough in the flow for the Braves’ liking, and with one more year between him and free agency.
So it’s been for Jimenez and Guerrero, who have shown from day one of the season that they have nothing left to learn in the minors. Jimenez slashed a scorching .317/.368/.556 in Double A to begin the year, got the bump to Triple A in late June, and hit .355/.399/.597 there at 21 years old. Guerrero was even better: a preposterous .402/.449/.671 in Double A, then .340/.419/.566 the next level up after missing a month with a knee injury—and all that at the age of 19.
There’s no performance reason for Jimenez and Guerrero to be where they are. But all year, the White Sox and Jays have delayed the inevitable despite trudging through losing seasons and using lesser players. Toronto has preached a need for Guerrero to work on his defense at third base, as he’s presumably not up to the team’s standards there. Yet at the major league level, the Jays have slotted declining veteran catcher Russell Martin at the hot corner repeatedly and given the majority of the starts there to the iron-gloved Yangervis Solarte. It’s hard to imagine Guerrero being any worse than those two, and that’s before you factor in offense.
Jimenez and Guerrero staying down is all about service time manipulation, but neither team will say that openly. Doing so would be an admission of bad faith on the team’s part—of artificial suppression of a career solely for financial gain. Bryant filed a grievance against the Cubs over his delayed callup; Jimenez’s agents say they’re considering one. These grievances are almost impossible to prove without concrete evidence; as such, MLB GMs skirt around the issue with bland comments on defense and readiness instead of admitting the obvious.
But when the Twins chose to leave Buxton off their roster, Minnesota GM Thad Levine surprisingly told reporters that service time did play a part in that decision. “I think part of our jobs is we’re supposed to be responsible for factoring service time into every decision we make,” he said. It’s a curious admission: Should Buxton and his agency want to file a grievance, they’ll have Levine’s comments front and center in their case. It also signals just how strong a position the teams hold: Yes, service time matters, but what are the players going to do about it? The rules on it are locked in through the current CBA, and that won’t be up for debate again until 2021.
It makes all the financial sense in the world for teams to do this. That extra year of control is valuable, and MLB teams are always looking to exploit every last advantage. This business has been cheered on, too, by a small yet vocal segment of media and fans. They’ll support keeping Jimenez and Guerrero down if it means they’ll be around one year longer or allow a team to save money. Process trumps everything, and service time manipulation is part of that.
But what fun is that, to lose what could’ve been special seasons from Jimenez or Guerrero solely to save billionaires some money? What message does it send if a team essentially announces that it’s too cheap to field a better product? It’s cruel to force players to spend chunks of their finite careers wasting away in the minors, denying them opportunities to earn more money or put up stats that will enrich them down the road. It’s anti-labor—and more than that, it’s anti-competitive. Fans should get to watch the best players, not have to count down the days until owners deem it financially appropriate to be good. For those defending their teams for keeping players down: What does it matter to you if, six years down the line, Jerry Reinsdorf or Rogers Communications has to spend more of their millions to keep them? Shouldn’t spending money on good players be the goal anyway?
Lost amid service time manipulation and teams openly tanking and front offices refusing to sign free agents is that baseball is supposed to be about the on-field product, not the ledger books. The people who own these franchises are richer than you and I will ever be; even the biggest player contracts are rounding errors amid their vast wealth. But owners will do whatever they can to save a dollar, and in the end, it’s the players and fans that end up footing that bill.
Jimenez, Guerrero and Buxton deserve to be up. So have several other minor leaguers in the past, and so will countless more in the future. And the fans deserve to see them play when they’re ready, not when it’s financially convenient. Service time is a trap, and one that, come 2021, the MLB Players Association should be ready to fight and fix. It’ll be too late for Jimenez, Guerrero and Buxton by then, but it’s patently unfair to let this continue.