Are the Reds manipulating service time with Matt McLain?

Are the Reds manipulating service time with Matt McLain?

With calls for the promotion of Matt McLain to the Reds roster, speculation has begun that the Reds might be playing “service time games” with the young infielder. Let’s look at what that allegation means and whether the Reds might indeed be up to roster shenanigans.

When teams are accused of service time manipulation, it references two separate issues. One concerns the length of time before a player reaches free agency, the other is about when a player achieves the right to arbitrate salary disputes. Both of those frameworks and their details are agreed to in the Collective Bargaining Agreements between MLB and the MLBPA.

Related History

When professional baseball started more than 150 years ago, players were paid on one-year contracts. At the end of each season, a player could switch from one team to another. It was common for one club to lure players from its competitors. As you would expect, this competition for labor led to higher salaries and often-fatal financial stress for teams.

In 1879, Boston Red Stockings owner Arthur Soden proposed to the other owners that each team be allowed to “reserve” five of its players, about half the team. Under Soden’s proposal, reserved players could not be poached by other teams. Soden had been burned by a couple of Boston’s star players who had jumped to the Providence Grays. Six NL owners adopted Soden’s proposal in secret, giving birth to the “reserve clause.”

Within a decade, owners had expanded the practice to all 14 players on their rosters. The reserve clause was written into every player’s contract. For nearly 100 years, the rule operated as an unbreakable chain binding a player to his team for as long as that owner wanted him. The rule withstood intense opposition from players and legal challenges on anti-trust grounds.

Change began when players voted to form the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) in 1965 under the leadership of Marvin Miller. In 1976, after an owner lockout and commissioner-ordered start to the season, MLB and the MLBPA reached an agreement that limited, but did not end, the reserve clause. The new CBA stipulated players would earn free agency — meaning they could negotiate the terms of their service with any team — after accruing six years of major league service time. Today, players short of that 6-year milestone remain bound by Arthur Soden’s rule from 1879, reserved to their original team.

Around the time Major League players were chipping away at the reserve clause, they were also winning the right to arbitrate their salary disputes in certain circumstances. Prior to 1973, players and owners negotiated over salaries, but owners had final say and players had no recourse. During the 1973-74 offseason, players won the right to have salary disputes arbitrated for the final three years of their six years of reserve time.

Subsequent collective bargaining agreements between MLB and the MLBPA have kept in place those rules, leading to the possibility of two types of manipulation by ownership.

Manipulation 1: Free Agency Timing

It remains the rule that a player achieves free agency when he has accumulated six full years of service time at the end of a season. The details of how that time is measured matter greatly and are agreed to in the CBA. A player acquires “service time” for every day during the regular season he is on a major league roster, including when he’s on the MLB Injured List (IL). A “year” of service time is accrued when the player has accumulated 172 days of service time.

A typical MLB season runs 187 days, measured from Opening Day until the season’s final regular season game. That sets up a situation where if a player is promoted from the minor leagues 16 days after Opening Day, he can only accrue 171 days of service time that season, not a full year. Five full years later, even though the player would have been in service for five years plus 171 games, by rule he would not be eligible for free agency yet.

So, the structure allows a team to reserve a player for essentially seven years instead of six if it waits 16 days after Opening Day to promote the player from the minor leagues. That practice is considered manipulation of the service time/reserve clause rule.

Manipulation 2: Arbitration Timing

Players qualify for arbitration settlement of salary disputes after acquiring three years of service time. Prior to that, the team is constrained only by league minimum salaries negotiated in the CBA. For 2023, the minimum salary is $720,000.

A major exception to the three-year arbitration milestone is known as the “Super Two” rule. The pool of players eligible for consideration for Super Two status are those who have more than two years of service time but fewer than three years. Out of that pool, the 22 percent of players who have the most service time qualify for arbitration one year early, meaning a total of four seasons. In the most recent CBA negotiation, the players tried to get the owners to increase that number from 22 percent to 75 percent, but the owners wouldn’t agree or even compromise.

New CBA Incentives

The latest CBA, covering the 2022-2026 seasons, included a provision that gives clubs incentive to promote certain star players earlier. Teams who promote new players early enough to qualify for a full year of service may receive additional draft picks. If one of those players goes on to win Rookie of the Year, finish in the top three in MVP or Cy Young voting, their team gets an extra pick at the end of the first round, up to one bonus pick per player. The Reds would have qualified for this bonus when Jonathan India won the 2021 ROY award if the CBA had been in place a year earlier.

Target Dates

The cutoff date for the first kind of manipulation is calculable and known. The 2023 baseball season is 186 days long, spanning from March 30 to October 1. That means a new player who misses the first 15 days can only accrue 171 service time days, short a full year. So, players who were called up on or after April 14 would fall short.

The cutoff date for Super Two manipulation is unknown ahead of time. It depends on the actions of all 30 teams – who they call up and when. So, the cutoff date isn’t known until the end of the season when service time numbers can be established and that pile of 2<X<3 players created. The Super Two cutoff date has typically fallen in the last week of May or first two weeks of June.

What About Matt McLain?

The most recent service time controversy for the Reds was in 2019 with Nick Senzel. Senzel was the Reds #1 prospect and MLB Top-20 on every list. He had dominated every minor league level including mashing Triple-A in 2018. Despite his apparent readiness, Senzel didn’t make the Reds 2019 Opening Day roster. It looked like service time manipulation.

The Reds had an excuse. Senzel was switching from infield to outfield and could use practice. The Reds had Yasiel Puig, Scott Scheffler and Jesse Winker who could cover center. Senzel ended up getting hurt and not starting for Louisville until April 23. The Reds called him up May 3. He did qualify as Super Two.

More recently, the Reds have chosen not to manipulate service time. In 2021, they called up Jonathan India for Opening Day instead of waiting. He qualified for a full year of service that season. In 2022, the Reds put Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo and Alexis Diaz on the Opening Day roster, so they also had complete service time seasons. If the Reds had held any of those players out for a couple weeks — in the case of the starting pitchers, maybe just two starts — they would have locked in an extra year of reserve. But they didn’t.

Regarding Matt McLain (who has a double and single in his first two AB this afternoon), the first cutoff passed a couple weeks ago. Regarding the Super Two issue, while we may not agree, the front office has decent baseball reasons to hold him back for now. They might feel Jose Barrero deserves a longer look at shortstop and don’t want McLain up until they can play him every day. McLain has had only 22 games at the Triple-A level.

Of the two kinds of manipulation, free agency timing is the biggie. Gaining an extra season for a top player has great value, whether that’s on the field or to trade. Super Two timing is about money, but not a huge amount for most players. Nick Senzel only made $1.25 million his bonus arbitration year, about a half-million more than if he wasn’t Super Two. Other players do better financially with Super Two than Senzel did and that increment compounds as years go on, but even at max we’re looking at a small amount compared to keeping around a 3-4 WAR player another season.

Are the Reds are delaying McLain’s promotion until June or later for Super Two reasons? We don’t know. But given their recent track record of ignoring the service time stuff, I’d say it’s probably not the case. (Note: They could remove all further suspicion by calling up Mr. McLain right now.)

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.