Service Time Stumbling Block Adds More Uncertainty to MLB Future Already in Turmoil

Major League Baseball and the players union continue to negotiate through a series of issues related to the eventual resumption of play, though one topic promises to remain contentious even beyond 2020. Among the items they’ve been able to check off the list are the relatively simple matters of securing money for minor-league players and those on non-guaranteed contracts.

Per a league press release, “Each player who is under a Minor League Uniform Player Contract will receive a lump sum equal to the allowances that would have been paid through April 8.” And as Bob Nightengale of USA Today tweeted Saturday, the league and union have agreed that all players on non-guaranteed contracts will receive 45 days of termination pay if they don’t make the 40-man roster. That won’t be finalized until one day before the proposed start of the season, whenever that may be, but at least it’s something.

The big sticking point almost certainly to be one of the last determined is how service time will be calculated this season. More specifically, what will happen in the event that there is no season. As Ken Rosenthal reported for The Athletic ($), the threat of a full cancellation creates the biggest hurdle. The calculation is very simple should MLB play an abbreviated season, since the current threshold of 172 days for a full year of service equates to approximately 92.5% of the standard 186-day season.

Cutting back to 140 days would mean 130 days for a full year of service, moving to a 100-day season would mean 93 days of service, and so on. But what happens if the season drops to zero days? Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that the union proposed granting a full year of service in 2020 to any player who accumulated at least 60 days of service in 2019.

While neither Sherman nor Rosenthal know the specifics of MLB’s proposal, it seems pretty obvious that the league would be incredibly reluctant to grant a full year of service under any circumstances. There’s certainly room for negotiation, which is why the union opened with a number that’s not laughably low, though it stands to reason that owners would require some other concessions in order to grant a full year of service to even those players who put in 172 days last year.

As Rosenthal laid out, this is a very dynamic situation with ramifications that might not be fully understood or appreciated for quite some time. He used the example of Mookie Betts, but we can really look at anyone who was initially expected to hit free agency after the 2020 season. Will the market be as robust if all 30 teams go a full season without generating revenue? The shared pool of funds from which smaller teams draw would be empty, and bigger teams might be even less willing to spend big.

That might actually be good for parity, since it’s possible that a large number of free agents could opt for smaller one-year deals in order to let the market correct ahead of another run at free agency. Then again, those players would all be another year older when entering a market diluted by a larger number of free agents than usual. For instance, several high-profile Cubs are set to reach free agency following the 2021 season.

Add in the expiration of the CBA at that same point and you’ve got an even higher degree of uncertainty than the current shutdown has already spawned. Considering how extensions have essentially become a new form of free agency, all these unknowns could spur another rash of deals as players and teams alike seek to create a measure of security into 2022 and beyond. Then again, that assumption could drive owners to limit their offers in order to capitalize on the uncertainty.

We’ll get a great deal more clarity on all of this once it’s deemed safe to return to activity, but we may not reach a full understanding of the impact of these ongoing negotiations for another two years or more.

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