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Marlins enter 2018 season with awkward, service-time-related decisions

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Across Major League Baseball, it’s rarely a question of when top prospects are ready to debut, but rather, when teams are ready to pay them their worth.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Marlins begin the 2018 regular season on March 29 against the Chicago Cubs in what figures to be their best-attended home game of the year. It will definitely be the most-watched game of the entire campaign, considering that ESPN is bringing in a national television audience.

Under such a bright spotlight (competing in the earliest game on MLB’s Opening Day schedule), our very first impression of the Fish could be...J.B. Shuck and Peter Mooney? No offense to those veterans, but that’s a slap in the face to all the folks expecting to see top prospects like Lewis Brinson and Brian Anderson, who excelled in spring training.

Welcome to the new norm: a league that delays gratification for its most talented young players solely because of service time concerns. Not just for Game No. 1, but several weeks—or even months—beyond that “in the best interest of the organization.”

We see examples of this rules manipulation right now with Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña and Yankees infielder Gleyber Torres. The Rays had every intention of giving Brent Honeywell the same treatment (before he blew out his elbow). The most contentious case involved Kris Bryant and the Cubs in 2015, which led Bryant to file a grievance.

Bryant and Bryce Harper were left off their teams’ Opening Day rosters in 2015 and 2012, respectively, to limit service time.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Once a can’t-miss prospect is promoted to the big leagues, there’s a strong possibility that he never goes back down. With that in mind, teams always have two milestones in mind:

  • Service time needed to be eligible for arbitration
  • Service time needed to be eligible for free agency

The latter is clear cut: players with at least six years of service (6.000) can test the open market. A club can extend those six years to last beyond six seasons by simply holding off on the initial call-up for a few weeks. Players are credited with a year of service once they accumulate 172 days on the active roster (or MLB disabled list) out of a possible 187 total days. Debuting prospects with 171 or fewer days remaining essentially adds a full seventh year of control.

Only the top 22 percent of players with between two and three years of service time qualify for “super two” arbitration status. This cutoff has fluctuated between 2.122 and 2.133 since 2013. It determines when they get their first opportunity to earn significantly above the league’s minimum salary. Naturally, teams feel tempted to keep their potential difference-makers down on the farm deep into the summer if it means saving millions of dollars in the future.

Here’s the awkward twist for the Marlins: their top prospects battling for 2018 major league jobs all have some service time already. Brinson has 25 days, Anderson and Sandy Alcantara each have 31, while Magneuris Sierra has 42.

Letting these kids compete at the highest level right away would put them on track to reach free agency after the 2023 season. Maintaining control through 2024 isn’t guaranteed unless the Marlins employ delay tactics for an extended period.

Marlins service-time manipulation cases for 2018

Player Service Time Club control extends if kept in minors until...
Player Service Time Club control extends if kept in minors until...
Lewis Brinson 0.025 May 9
Brian Anderson 0.031 May 15
Sandy Alcantara 0.031 May 15
Magneuris Sierra 0.042 May 26

On Tuesday morning, they delivered the tough news to Alcantara, optioning him to Triple-A New Orleans despite a 3.38 earned run average and team-leading 16 innings pitched in the Grapefruit League. The move blatantly prioritizes greed over ability, but hey, everybody does it!

Sandy Alcantara is the first Marlin affected by service-time manipulation so far in 2018.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

With so many deficiencies on the active roster, there should be plenty of early-season losing, regardless of whether the front office plays the service-time game with its other candidates.

However, Marlins fans would probably prefer to get a glimpse of the future as a much-needed distraction from this offseason’s painful departures. Certainly beats rooting half-heartedly for stopgaps like Shuck and Mooney (again, no offense to those guys).

It’s an awkward situation, but get used to it—we’re still several years away from the next MLB collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Only then can the Players Association demand reform.