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Transaction Analysis 3/26: Cards Cut 4 More: Primer on Service Time Rules

In the wake of an agreement between MLB and the MLBPA on various procedural issues surrounding the 2020 season, the Cardinals made the following transactions on March 26th:

Optioned LHP Genesis Cabrera, RHP Junior Fernandez, C Andrew Knizner and RHP Alex Reyes to AAA Memphis.

These moves leave the Cardinals with 49 players remaining in their non-existent camp: 28 40-man roster players and 21 NRIs. The total does not include RHP Jordan Hicks, who, although he had been present in camp, was placed on the 60-day injured list on February 12th to make room for Brad Miller on the 40-man roster. All MLB transactions have been frozen until further notice, with all options to the minor leagues having to be completed by all clubs by yesterday.

There has been no official press release from either side that has outlined every detail of the agreement, and instead we have had to rely on various media sources to piece it together. Jay Jaffe of Fangraphs has an outstanding summary here. Aside from the issue of when the season will start, a critical question that has not yet been resolved is whether the rosters will be expanded to start the season, assuming it is not cancelled. On the two most recent occurrences where spring training was delayed, clubs were granted additional players on the active roster to start the season. In 1990, a labor dispute led to a lockout which basically eliminated spring training and pushed back opening day by one week. Clubs were allowed to place 27 players on their opening day rosters, with the requirement that they reduce the roster to 25 players on May 1st. The 1994 players strike ended that season prematurely and cancelled the World Series, and the issues between the two sides were still not resolved by spring training of 1995. Clubs started spring training with replacement players until the early part of April. By the time an agreement was reached, 1995 opening day was pushed back to April 26th and the season was shortened to 144 games. Teams started the 1995 season with 28-man rosters, which had to be trimmed to 25 by May 15th.

Various sources have predicted that MLB opening day will not take place until the beginning of June at the earliest. Spring training has been indefinitely suspended and team workouts have been banned. With players scattered all over the place, it will be a real challenge for pitchers to find someone to throw to on a regular basis to keep their arms sharp in this interim period. While there will almost certainly be another “spring training” to get players ready to start the season, you can expect MLB to allow clubs to carry extra players at the start of the season to get them over the hump. At this point, it has not been determined how many. Active rosters have already been expanded to 26 players with a 13-pitcher maximum, and 28-man rosters and a 14-pitcher maximum for September. It would be reasonable to predict 28-man or 29-man rosters to open 2020.

But what does this mean for the Cardinals? At present, the Cards would have a 28-man active roster, but of the 28, 15 are pitchers. If the clubs are granted 28 men to start the season, would the pitcher maximum limit be waived? Of the 15 pitchers, Brett Cecil, Miles Mikolas and Andrew Miller are presently injured. Of the injuries, Brett Cecil appears to have the most serious injury with a significant strain of his right hamstring. Andrew Miller has a mysterious arm injury that has yet to be diagnosed, but he has been progressing. Mikolas was expected to miss about a month of the beginning of the 2020 season after receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection to the flexor tendon in his right elbow. It is possible that all three of these players will be ready to go by the time the season starts.

Right now it appears clear that unless something else happens, the opening day bench will consist of Matt Wieters, Tommy Edman, Brad Miller, Rangel Ravelo and Lane Thomas (assuming O’Neill is the starter in LF). This, however, is no real news. Jordan Hicks was expected to be unavailable until July. He was placed on the 60-day IL on February 12th, but the only time that counts towards the 60 days is time spent on the injured list during the regular season. Supposing opening day takes place on June 1st, Hicks would not be eligible to be activated until July 31st. This is close to his timetable, which was rumored to be around the All-Star Break. Every day that opening day is pushed back is another day that Hicks will be unavailable unless the rules change. There is no mechanism to transfer a player from the 60-day injured list to the 15-day injured list.

As far as what we can glean from the March 26th roster moves, to me the most telling move was the optioning of Genesis Cabrera. I read the following things into the move:

*Both Mikolas and Miller will be ready to go by whenever opening day is, which means that Carlos Martinez will be in the rotation and Kwang-Hyun Kim will be in the bullpen.

*With Tyler Webb available and out of options and Cecil a possibility, the Cards feel covered in terms of left-handed short relief, especially if Miller is available to start the season. If the club is allowed to carry at least two extra players to start the season, those players will be pitchers, and the Cards will use Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber as the extra pitchers for long relief protection. While Cabrera could have been a candidate for that assignment, Cabrera is a more raw prospect that is in more need of regular work on a regular schedule to harness his repertoire. While Gomber was injured most of last season, and could also use regular work. he is more advanced in terms of his development, and he would be hurt the least out of the two pitchers by bejng placed in the major league bullpen to start the season. To that end, Cabrera will be stretched out as a starter to get a regular schedule and would likely be the pitcher that is recalled to start the season if Cecil is unavailable. If a 29th player is allowed, Cabrera will likely be that player.


One critical issue that was resolved between MLB and the union is the issue of service time. In the worst-case scenario, if the season is cancelled, all players on a 40-man roster, 60-day injured list, and all those that signed a major league contract, but were assigned outright to the minor leagues will get 2020 service time credit for the same amount of service time they earned in 2019. The Cards don’t have anyone that is covered by the last proviso. The Cardinals tried to outright C Joe Hudson to the minors, but he elected free agency in lieu of the outright assignment. RHP Mike Mayers and IF Ramon Urias, two other players the Cards tried to outright, were claimed by other clubs on outright assignment waivers. The last player that the Cards were able to outright to AAA Memphis was LHP Chasen Shreve back on July 27th, 2019, but he exercised his right to file for free agency at the close of the 2019 regular season, and is now a non-roster invitee with the New York Mets. He will likely not be covered by the rule, and even if he is, he’s not in the Cardinals’ organization any longer.

Before I explain how the service time issue was resolved in the scenario that the 2020 season does take place, I thought it would be useful to offer a quick primer on how MLB service time works. The regular season is designated by the official name of “championship season.” By the terms of the 2017-2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement, starting with the 2018 season, the season must last between 182 and 187 days. The schedule for 2020 called for a 186 day season. If the season would have proceeded as normal, the clubs would have played 162 games over the course of 186 days. One arrives at the 186 day figure by simply counting the number of days from opening day until the day the last regular season game was scheduled to be played, counting all off-days and the All-Star Break in between. The 182-187 day season was negotiated into the Collective Bargaining Agreement to make it easier for players to get more service time, and explains why the season starts in late March instead of early-to-mid April as some of us were used to when we were growing up, and why there are more off-days built into the schedule.

For every day a player is on the major league active roster or major league injured list (either the regular or 60-day list) during the regular season, he earns one day of MLB service time. Once a player earns 172 days of service time in any one season, that 172 number is converted to 1 year, and he earns no more service time that season. So if the 2020 season had proceeded as normal, a player would have had 186 days to earn 172 days, or 1 year of MLB service. If you look at player pages on Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus, you will see players’ service time expressed by a number to the left of a decimal and then three numbers to the right of the decimal. Take John Brebbia, for example. His service time is listed as 2.093. This means that he has 2 years and 93 days of MLB service. For a player like him, he would earn service over the course of the season, and when he would hit 2.172 or 2 years and 172 days, that would be converted to 3.000 or 3 years of service, and then it would continue up to the point, where the maximum he could earn by the end of this season would be up to 3.093 or 3 years and 93 days.

MLB service time is not earned during spring training or the postseason. There are special rules for service time for players on option to the minors and those who have been designated for assignment. If a player is designated for assignment, he gets full MLB service time while he is a “designated player,” which means during the period of up to 7 days that the team makes the required corresponding roster decision. If a player spends less than 20 days on option to the minors in any one season, not only is an option year not burned, but the player gets MLB service time credit for every day spent on option. If he spends at least 20 days on option, an option year is burned and he gets no service time credit for any of the days spent on option.

The reason service time matters is that eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency is tied to service time. Players are eligible for free agency if they are unsigned for the following season and have at least 6 years of MLB service. Players are eligible for salary arbitration (and thus may not be automatically renewed by their club like Jack Flaherty was) if they have at least 3 years, but less than 6 years of MLB service. In addition, some players are eligible for salary arbitration if they don’t have quite 3 years of MLB service. Under what is known as the “Super Two” rule, all players that have between 2 and 3 years of MLB service and had at least 86 days of service in the immediately preceding season are placed in a pool. The top 22% of the players in that pool in terms of service time are known as Super Two players and are also eligible for arbitration, giving them four arbitration years instead of three. The Super Two cutoff has varied over the years, ranging from a decade low of 2 years and 115 days of service for the 2019 offseason, to a decade high of 2 years and 146 days for the 2011 offseason. With 2 years and 127 days of service, Paul DeJong would have been a Super Two player this past offseason if he had not already signed a multi-year contract.

As you can probably see, a day here or there of service time can mean a difference of millions of dollars in earnings. Take a player like Jack Flaherty, who has accrued 2 years and 6 days of service time. Suppose the 2020 season started on June 1st and wasn’t extended. That would have lopped 60 games and 67 days off of the championship season. Let’s assume the obvious and grant that Flaherty would have been on the active roster for the full 119 day championship season in that case. If the maximum service time that Flaherty could have earned in 2020 was 119 days, that would put him at 2 years and 125 days for the 2020 offseason. Not only would he not have 3 years of service and be automatically eligible for salary arbitration as he otherwise would certainly have been, but he might not have accrued enough service time to qualify as a Super Two. It would have been enough this past offseason, but the year before that, the cutoff was 2 years and 134 days, and Flaherty would have fallen short. That would mean the Cards could have been in a position to renew Flaherty for a 3rd season in a row in 2021.

Obviously, a situation like that could not stand. Even in past seasons that were cut short by a player’s strike, the players were granted service for the days they were on strike after the matter was settled. This season is being postponed due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. It was completely expected that the matter would be worked out to give the players proportional credit. Assuming there is a 2020 season, service time will be calculated for 2020 by the following simple formula as I understand it:

(days spent on the active roster or MLB injured list /number of days in the 2020 championship season) X 172.

In the numerator of the equation would also include the days that someone could get if they were designated for assignment or spent less than 20 days on option. So let’s assume that the 2020 regular season was extended for a bit in October and we had a nice round number of 120 days for the 2020 championship season (not 120 games, but 120 days for the season). If someone spent half the season on the active roster for instance, the formula would be (60/120) X 172, which would yield 86 days of service. A player in that situation would still be shorted a bit in terms of what he could otherwise have earned in a normal season, as spending half of the season on the active roster in a 186-day championship season would yield 93 days of service instead of 86. But that’s the best that can be done to solve the problem. If someone like Flaherty spends the whole theoretical 120-day season on the roster, he would get 172 days of service and be eligible for arbitration next season.


The Cardinals have five potential arbitration cases next year: Flaherty (currently at 2.006), John Brebbia (2.093), Jordan Hicks (2.000), John Gant (3.004), and Alex Reyes (2.065). Flaherty, Brebbia and Hicks all have options remaining, but didn’t project to spend any time in the minors in 2020. Gant is out of options. The service time settlement just put those guys on track towards arbitration and free agency. The Cardinals have seven potential free agents at the end of 2020 (much more likely four real cases), but all of those players already have more than 6 years of MLB service.

The most interesting case to watch is Alex Reyes. Reyes has only pitched 17 major league games in the past 4 years, but because he spent so much time on the major league injured list in 2017 and 2018, he has earned 2 years and 65 days of MLB service time. He got hurt again last year, but that was after he had been optioned to the minor leagues, and players on the minor league injured list do not earn service time. If the Super Two rule is not relaxed, Reyes will need at least 86 days of service time under the settlement formula to be eligible for arbitration for 2021. That would put him at 2 years and 151 days of service, more than enough to qualify as a Super Two in any year in the past decade. If the rule is not relaxed, Reyes will be under team control for another year if he does not earn at least 86 days of service this year. Let’s suppose he earns 50 days instead. That would put him at 2 years and 115 days of service, which would have been enough to qualify as a Super Two this past offseason. But only those who have earned at least 86 days in the immediately preceding season qualify, regardless of the total days of service earned. So for Reyes, it’s 86 days or bust. If he gets at least 86 days of service in 2020, he’ll be a Super Two at a minimum next offseason for sure, and be eligible for arbitration for 2021. If he doesn’t get at least 86 days, he will not be eligible for arbitration next season. Reyes has just been optioned to the minor leagues, so he will be a player to watch.

Unrelated to service time, but still affected by a shortened season, are players that have performance incentives and options based on various playing time thresholds. Matt Carpenter has an $18.5 million option for 2022 that is automatically guaranteed if he has 1100 plate appearances across the 2020-2021 seasons, with at least 550 plate appearances in 2021. He might not be able to meet it. In the 1981 strike shortened season, the Cardinals played 103 games. Tommy Herr started every single game at second base and led the club in plate appearances with 463, with some of that time as the leadoff hitter. Even if Carpenter starts every game this season in the leadoff spot, it probably will not be enough.

Andrew Miller has a $12 million option for 2021 that is automatically guaranteed if he pitches a combined 110 games across the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Since he pitched 73 games in 2019, all he needs is 37 games this season to guarantee his option, but he also would have had the chance to earn $100,000 each for 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60 games. There’s no way he can max out those bonuses. In the 1981 season, Bruce Sutter led the club with 48 appearances, with Jim Kaat in second place with 41. Bullpens were smaller and reliever usage patterns were different back then, but it gives you an idea. The newly-signed Kim has performance bonuses that have not been disclosed. Brad Miller can earn $100,000 each for 250, 300, 350, 400 and 450 plate appearances. Wieters also has performance bonuses based on starts. The player probably most immediately affected by the shortened season in this regard will be Adam Wainwright. Wainwright has a $5 million base salary, and can get an extra $1.5 million each for 20 and 25 starts, plus an extra $2 million for 28 starts. Assuming he’s healthy and effective, the 20 start threshold is more than doable, but anything after that is questionable. Again, in the 1981 season, Lary Sorenson was the Cardinal workhorse in the rotation, and he maxed out at 23 starts, with a handful of starts at the end of the season on 3 days of rest.

What is the solution to these performance-based issues? As of now, they have not been resolved.