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Mets starter Marcus Stroman elected not to play the remainder of the 2020 season, as Kevin Armstrong of The New York Times reported on Monday. He became the 23rd player to opt out or elect not to play. What’s the difference? Players considered “high risk” opt out. Everybody else elects not to play. Those who opt out still receive prorated pay and service time. Those who elect not to play receive neither.
The 29-year-old Stroman reached six years of service time after spending the first two-plus weeks of the 2020 season on the injured list with an injured calf muscle before making the decision to sit out the rest of the year. As a result, Stroman’s tenure with the Mets is almost certainly complete as he will become eligible for free agency in November.
Stroman mentioned that his grandmother and uncle have compromised immune systems, motivating his departure from the Mets. He also cited the team-wide COVID-19 breakouts with the Marlins and Cardinals, and the rising rates across the country in general.
Despite this, more than a handful of fans felt Stroman acted selfishly by waiting until he reached six years of service time to elect not to play. Stroman, however, was only flipping the script. Teams toy with players’ service time constantly. They do it brazenly without apology, making sure they delay a player’s major league debut, or send a player back to the minors for a made-up reason, such that the team effectively gains an extra year of contractual control.
For those of you who might not be familiar with the term “service time,” here’s a quick primer: Every season, players accrue service time for every day spent on the active roster or MLB injured list. A full year of service time is 172 days. Each season has about 187 total days of service time.
Players with less than three years of service time are “pre-arbitration” players, which means their salaries are determined by the teams and receive only slight raises even if they performed incredibly well. Mike Trout is a great example. He won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012. During that season, he earned $482,000. In 2013, after winning the hardware, the Angels bumped his salary to $510,000, which was just $20,000 above the major league minimum of $490,000.
Players with between three and six years of service time are “arbitration-eligible” players. Going into the next season, they and their teams submit salary figures. If they cannot reach an agreement, they make their cases in front of a panel of independent arbitrators. They pick one of the two submitted figures, not a median or anywhere in between. Historically, arbitrators have tended to side with teams.
Once a player has accrued six years of service time, he can become a free agent at the end of the current season if his contract expires.
In 2015, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant – then a top prospect – was coming off of a season in which he absolutely tore up the minors. Split evenly between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, Bryant hit an aggregate .325/.438/.661 with 34 doubles, 43 home runs, 110 RBI, 118 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases over 594 plate appearances. He kept up the hot hitting in spring training, racking up 17 hits including three doubles and nine home runs in 40 Cactus League at-bats. What more could the guy do to prove he was MLB-ready? The Cubs vaguely cited Bryant’s defense as a reason to have him start the season in the minors. Bryant said he was “extremely disappointed” with the move.
By some strange coincidence, after Bryant appeared in seven games for Iowa to start the 2015 campaign, the Cubs’ front office felt his defense was no longer an impediment, calling him up to debut on April 17. Bryant hit the ground running and went on to unanimously win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, finishing the year batting .275/.369/.488 with 31 doubles, 26 home runs, 99 RBI, 87 runs scored, and 13 stolen bases over 650 trips to the plate. His 5.3 WAR, per Baseball Reference, was a good 1.4 above the No. 2 and 3 finishers, Matt Duffy and Jung Ho Kang. It was a blowout. Bryant finished the year with 171 days of service time, one short of a full year.
In December 2015, Bryant filed a grievance against the Cubs, alleging that they gamed his service time in order to gain an extra year of contractual control. Fellow third baseman Maikel Franco, then with the Phillies, also filed a grievance against his team for the same reasons. Bryant’s case wasn’t resolved until this past January, when an independent arbitrator sided with the Cubs. Rather than become a free agent after the 2020 season, Bryant instead won’t become eligible until after the ’21 season. Bryant said of the Cubs’ manipulation of his service time, “It’s funny how obvious it can be.”
The Cubs are far from the only team to do this, they just did so egregiously against a top prospect. In February 2019, on MLB Network Radio, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said of top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., “I just don’t see him as a major league player.” Atkins said Guerrero needed to improve defensively and offered some other generic hogwash, saying, “It’s about him having a 15, 20-year career, starting with an incredible foundation.” Guerrero had a Bryant-esque season in the minors, posting a 1.073 OPS in 95 games. He also had a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, batting .351 in 19 games. Many knowledgeable analysts thought Guerrero was big league-ready in 2018, so ’19 was almost a given.
Nevertheless, Guerrero didn’t debut for the Jays until April 26 last year, once he had passed the cutoff for the Jays to guarantee an extra year of control. While he wasn’t an immediate superstar like Bryant, Guerrero more than held his own against major league competition, mashing 15 homers over 123 games and finishing sixth in AL Rookie of the Year balloting. Other notable players that have had their service time gamed recently include Eloy Jiménez of the White Sox and the Twins’ Byron Buxton.
Every team in Major League Baseball fiddles with their players’ service time, so this is not to single out the Cubs or Blue Jays or anyone else. That’s why Stroman was right to elect not to play, even if he gamed his own service time in doing so and cost the Mets a year of contractual control. He gave a major league front office a taste of its own medicine. The fact that players are increasingly aware of this and are using it to their own benefit suggests this will be one of the crucial issues discussed in negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires on December 1, 2021. Getcha popcorn ready.