Indians Using Pandemic to Game Service Time?
Last week, Indians pitchers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac were sent to the club’s alternate site for 10 days after being caught breaking COVID-19 protocols. The two “went out,” which according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, included dinner and socializing with friends.
Clevinger and Plesac’s teammates and bosses were none too happy. Plesac posted an Instagram video trying to explain his side of the story, but failed in that attempt and ultimately erased the video. He said he felt that he and Clevinger were being portrayed as “bad people,” but admitted to breaking protocols. Plesac, the nephew of former major league reliever Dan Plesac, said he wanted to “get out the truth,” which amounted to wanting to avoid suffering consequences for bad decision-making.
Passan reported today that veteran reliever Oliver Pérez threatened in a team meeting to leave the team if the duo returned to the active roster as the Indians opened up a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers over the weekend. All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor was also among the more vocal critics of Clevinger and Plesac. The Indians’ unhappiness with them makes sense out of regard for one’s personal health and safety. However, teammate Carlos Carrasco was treated for leukemia last year, which makes him more susceptible to COVID-19. Along with Carrasco, Clevinger and Plesac’s selfish decision to go out on the town also put the players’ families and other loved ones at risk, as well as those of the various staff members at Progressive Field.
There is, unfortunately, another wrinkle in all of this, and it’s the fallout of optioning Clevinger and Plesac to the Indians’ alternate site. If the Indians keep them each at the alternate site for certain periods of time, they stand to benefit by gaining an extra year of contractual control over Clevinger and ensuring that Plesac won’t qualify as a “Super Two” player.
In Wednesday’s newsletter, I explained how service time works in Major League Baseball as well as how teams brazenly take advantage of players’ service time. If you’d like a primer on how that complicated contract stuff works, check that out.
As Passan notes, Clevinger entered the 2020 season with three years, 41 days of service time. Plesac had 125 days. Service time is prorated this year due to the shortened 60-game season, which has 67 total days of service time. As a result, if Clevinger is kept off the active roster for 20 total days, he would wind up one day short of four years of service time. If Plesac is kept off the active roster for 18 total days, he will go through the arbitration process for three years instead of four. A player can gain a fourth year of arbitration eligibility by ranking among the top 22 percent of players in total service time among those with between two and three years of service time.
In a world where Clevinger and Plesac did not break COVID-19 protocols, if the Indians wanted an extra year of contractual control over the former and to delay the Super Two status of the latter, they would have had to have done so in ways that might have opened them up to a grievance from the MLB Players Association. Clevinger has done nothing but pitch well since 2017, so the Indians couldn’t justifiably send him down to the minors. Plesac, in his sophomore season, has an excellent 1.29 ERA over his first three starts. The pandemic and the players’ irresponsibility ended up giving the Indians’ front office the perfect justification to game their service time.
MLB teams have long operated in ethically murky waters, so this is nothing new. The pandemic, however, adds another layer to it, highlighting the role of the league and its individual teams as arbiters of punishment while also benefiting from said punishment. The current collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1, 2021. Given how well-known the issue of service time manipulation is now among the general public, and how cognizant players are of the ways front offices take advantage of them, this is likely something that gets changed or done away with in favor of another system. Long-term, this may not be an issue anymore. But we need a short-term solution as well.
None of this is to defend the actions of Clevinger and Plesac. The pair should be punished, but in a way that doesn’t benefit their employer. Despite breaking protocols, they should continue to accrue service time while at alternate sites. As a punishment, Clevinger and Plesac should be made to publicly apologize. They could also be fined a percentage of their prorated salaries, 100 percent of which would be donated to a COVID-19-focused charity. Clevinger, for example, is earning $4.1 million ($1.52 million prorated) this season . A 2% fine would be just over $11,000. Plesac is earning close to the $563,500 MLB minimum salary ($208,703), so 2% of that prorated total would be nearly $4,200. That seems significant enough to make an impact on both players without putting them into financial disrepair, raises more than $15,000 for a COVID-19-related organization, and it keeps the Indians from unethically profiting from poor behavior during a pandemic.
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