What better way to explain service time than with the hottest prospect to come through the Braves system since Jason Heyward? For that matter, what better way to explain arbitration than with the strangest case that we’ve seen over the last number of years?
In professional baseball, you earn two different kinds of “time.” The one that everyone gets from a rookie-league ballplayer to R.A. Dickey relates to how long you have been a professional. This is especially important when it comes to things like the Rule 5 draft and minor league free agency. For instance, after seven seasons in the minors, you can become a minor league free agent. Oddly, we call them “six-year minor league free agents” despite needing seven years. Baseball is strange.
The other kind of time a player earns – which is far more important to this article – is service time. This refers to each day spent in the major leagues. Under the new CBA, there are 187 days to fit in a 162-game schedule. However, you are still credited with a day of service time during those off days. In fact, a full season is referred to as 172 days in the major leagues – which did not change in the CBA despite the added days to the MLB calendar year. Think of this way – as long as a player didn’t use an option that season (i.e. 20 days in the minors), he likely earned a year of service time if he was with the team in April.
You receive service time while on the active roster, the disabled list, the restricted (or suspended) list, and…well…any list. As long as you haven’t been optioned to the minors, your service time is climbing. Hence why some teams have tried to play the system against itself. In 2015, the Chicago Cubs waited exactly 13 days to call up Kris Bryant. Under the previous CBA, there were 184 days in a calendar season. As Bryant was not on the 40-man roster to begin the season, by pushing his debut off nearly two weeks, the 2015 Rookie of the Year received 171 days of service time in 2015. That’s a day short of a full season. Chicago said all the right things about Bryant needing to work on some parts of his game, but the decision was made with the 2021 season in mind. Had the Cubs opened the season with Bryant on the major league roster, he would have become a free agent after 2020 as players with six years of service time in the majors at the end of any given season can become free agents should they not be signed beyond that season. Believing it was more beneficial to them to keep him in the minors, they did just that.
Should the Braves follow suit with Ronald Acuna? There is a lot of talk about bringing him up in September and why not? Over three stops from High-A ball to Triple-A, Acuna has hit .320/.374/.539 with 28 doubles, eight triples, 20 homers, and 37 steals. His numbers have improved at each stop and despite being about eight years younger than the International League, Acuna has an OPS of 1.021 with Gwinnett over 34 games. He’s not only the top prospect in the Braves’ system but has a solid claim to the best prospect in baseball and he’s just 19 years-old.
Bringing him up now would sacrifice a potential extra year of team control. There are other concerns, but provided Acuna stays in the majors, he would reach free agency after 2023. If the Braves waited until sometime in late April of next season to bring Acuna up, they would follow the Bryant route and gain an extra year of team control while merely sacrificing a few weeks of the 2018 season with their top prospect in Triple-A. The Braves have historically not concerned themselves with that, though. I mentioned Heyward and he opened his rookie season in the starting lineup on opening day. By that September, Freddie Freeman joined the team for a cup of coffee. Last August, Dansby Swanson was surprisingly brought to the majors, which started his clock early. In fact, the last time I remember the Braves really concerning themselves with service time came in 2009.
Tommy Hanson was absolutely dominant with Myrtle Beach and Mississippi in 2008 as a 21-year-old. He finished the season by crushing the Arizona Fall League with a 0.63 ERA over 28.2 innings and 49 strikeouts. Over 14.2 innings the following spring, Hanson had a 2.45 ERA with 14 strikeouts. But it was Jo-Jo Reyes who was named the fifth starter. Predictably, he failed and in mid-May, the Braves made a change. Hanson had a 1.70 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 47.2 ING over his first eight starts, but the Braves passed on bringing him up from Gwinnett. They instead called on Kris Medlen, who had been nearly as excellent but wasn’t considered a top prospect. Medlen would get three starts until June 7, when the Braves finally brought up Hanson.
All of this was done for one reason – arbitration. Had the Braves opened the season with Hanson as the fifth starter, not only would he have gotten to free agency a season quicker, he would have gotten paid a lot quicker as well. Players become arbitration-eligible after three seasons on a MLB roster. The Braves passed and continued to pass even after gaining the extra year of team control. That was done to get him past the expected date for Super 2 arbitration-eligible players. Super 2 refers to players with two years of service time plus a lot more. Basically, you group all of the players with more than two years of service time, but less than three years in a given season. You take the top 22% of that list and it gives you a threshold. Anyone above that threshold reaches arbitration early. That threshold differs, but it typically lands somewhere in the 2 years and 120-to-150 days area. Remember Bryant from earlier? Despite the fact that the Cubs bought an extra year before free agency, he will still reach salary arbitration this year. And the three years after it. Hence why Super 2 guys can get really expensive. Since arbitration-eligible players rarely fail to receive a nice bump in pay, it gets pretty costly the third time around even for just good players. Add a fourth year and players often are getting plenty of bank. One such player for the Braves this offseason will be Mike Foltynewicz, who will likely have 2 years and 163 days of service time. While the Super 2 cutoff hasn’t been decided for 2017, it’s unlikely to be higher than 163 days.
The entire reason I bring up service time and arbitration today is related to Dan Winkler. Back in December of 2014, the Braves selected Winkler in the Rule 5 draft. They knew he would miss of the next season after having Tommy John surgery. When a Rule 5 player is injured and misses time the next season, they still have to log at least 90 days on the active roster to fulfill their Rule 5 eligibility. If they fail to reach 90 days in their first season as a Rule 5 guy, they must finish off the remaining time the next season before being eligible to be optioned to the minors. In Winkler’s case, as we know, it gets complicated.
Winkler was activated off the DL in 2015 on September 10. Between that day and the end of the season, he logged 24 days on the active roster. The following season, he was on the active roster for eight days before fracturing his elbow. In two seasons, he had 32 days of service time – or nearly two months short of what he would need to satisfy the Rule 5 requirement of 90 days.
The right-hander is currently on his second rehab assignment this season, which has required approval because pitchers only receive 30 days on rehab assignments. Winkler’s most recent rehab assignment began 12 days ago. If he has been granted a second rehab assignment of 30 days, the Braves would be able to keep him in the minors until September 1 without having to make a move with the current roster. The season runs through October 1, which would get Winkler to 31 days of active roster time for this season and 55 overall. That leaves an additional 35 days of active roster time he would need to reach in 2018 to satisfy his Rule 5 requirements.
But…he’ll also be arbitration-eligible. Yep, even though Winkler has thrown four innings in the majors, he’d be eligible for arbitration even if he went back on the DL for the rest of the year. Earlier, I said players get credit for service time while on the DL. Even though Winkler has pitched 13 times this season in the minors, it’s all came under rehab assignments, which means he’s still on the major league DL. That would mean Winkler would reach 172 days of service time this season on or about September 15, which would give him three years of service time in the major leagues.
But why stop this extra-strength convoluted exercise now? Let’s go over the Braves’ options.
I don’t remember a case even close to this so this is my best-educated guess.
The Braves could non-tender Winkler, but as far as I know it, non-tender players become official in early December. That might be longer than the Braves would like to go with Winkler taking up space on their roster if they already plan on getting rid of him.
Atlanta could outright Winkler to the minors, but there are a few hang-ups there as well. One, to get him off the 40-man roster, they would need to waive him, offer him to the rest of the league, and, provided he passed through waivers, offer him back to the Rockies. If the other 29 teams passed, the Braves could attempt to outright him to the minors, but as an arbitration-eligible player, Winkler would have the right to elect free agency. As a free agent, the Braves could still try to sign him as a minor league free agent if they so wanted. For that matter, they could simplify the process and release Winkler and then sign him. If he accepted an assignment to the minors after being outrighted or signed as a minor league free agent and either came before the Rule 5 draft, he’d actually be eligible in the 2018 Rule 5 draft.
The Braves could also elect to offer arbitration. After all, how much could Winkler ask for and what could his agent argue? That he’s been a good patient? For his part, Winkler has looked much sharper since beginning another rehab stint with Gwinnett and was very impressive to open last season. As he is unlikely to receive significantly more than the major league minimum through arbitration, he still could be a good bet to receive an arbitration tender.
Fortunately, few cases are crazier than Winkler and most are much simpler. Joining Winkler and Foltynewicz among this year’s arbitration-eligible players for the first time will be Sam Freeman, Danny Santana, and Jace Peterson. Another player, Jose Ramirez, seems like a good bet to also reach Super 2 status. Ian Krol, Rex Brothers, Arodys Vizcaino, and Matt Adams will also be arbitration-eligible. Much of this group seems likely to receive a non-tender – including Winkler. Should that happen, the next team won’t even have to worry about Rule 5 eligibility with Winkler. That should keep the complications down to a minimal.