Eugenio Suarez’s fractured thumb raises anew the issue of when the Reds should call up their top prospect, Nick Senzel. Borrowing from an old post, here’s a quick refresher of the labor framework and math of service time considerations and how they relate to Senzel.
Years of Team Control
As determined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed by owners and the players union in 2016, the team owns the right to a player until that player accrues six full years of MLB service time, assuming the club offers a contract each year. After that, the player earns the right to free agency.
Service time is the number of years and days a player spends on the 25-man roster of a major league team or major league disabled list during the regular season. Example: If a player gets called up for a game on July 1 and sent back down to the minors after the game on July 8, the player has earned eight days of MLB service time. The unit counted is calendar days, not games played. The player doesn’t have to get on the field and off-days count as service time as well. The clock stops when the player is sent back down.
Including off-days, there are 186 days in the 2018 MLB season. According to the CBA, players can earn a maximum of 172 days per year. After 172 days in a given season, that’s it until next year. One year of service time is 172 service days. Example: A player on the roster for 175 days in a single season earns one year of service time. A player on the roster for 179 days also earns one year of service time. A player on the roster for 171 days has not accrued a year of service time.
Note the agreement says six full years of service time must accrue before a player becomes a free agent. There’s no rounding up. If a player ends a season at 5.170 (five years, 170 days), he is still under team control the entire next season.
In a sense, it’s misleading to say a team has six years of control over a player. If the club takes the simple and modest step of delaying the big league debut of a player for two weeks into a season, it is impossible for that player to accrue a full year. It’s more accurate to think of team control as seven years, unless you’re the Reds and Mike Leake.
Calculating the date when a club can call up a minor league player and avoiding a full year of service time is pretty straightforward. The 2018 season ends on September 30. Counting backwards 171 days (again, we’re counting days, not games) means a player could start on Friday, April 13 and it would be impossible to accrue 172 days of service time.
Senzel Situation: The Reds can call Nick Senzel up to start this Friday in St. Louis and not risk losing a year of his service time. Assuming no contract extension was signed, Senzel would be eligible to become a free agent in 2025.
Super Two Status
A player has no power to determine his salary in his first three major league seasons. With few exceptions, he receives the league-wide minimum set by the CBA. That number is $545,000 in 2018. Teams generally offer modest raises for second- and third-year players.
After three years, the player earns the right to negotiate his salary with the team. If they don’t agree, the player has the right to arbitration. Arbitration is neutral decision-making based on comparisons to how players with similar playing time and stats have been paid. Most good players have three years pre-arbitration and three years of arbitration. They typically see a large increase once they earn the right to arbitration. For example, Billy Hamilton earned $570,000 in 2016, his final year of pre-arbitration, and $2,625,000 in 2017, his first year with arbitration rights.
As stipulated in the CBA, a certain percentage of players enjoy a major exception to the three-full-year requirement for arbitration. It’s called Super Two status. And it can influence when a player is called up to the major leagues. Each year, players with more than two and fewer than three years of service time are placed in a group and ordered based on who has the most service time. Players in the top 22% of that group are eligible for arbitration. They are called Super Two because they don’t have to wait three full years of service time to access the financial benefits of arbitration.
The Super Two rule incentivizes organizations to hold players in the minor leagues for about two months.
Unlike the cutoff for years of team control, the Super Two deadline isn’t fixed or known ahead of time. It’s based on looking back. Teams don’t know when the cutoff will be in any given year. The date moves around. In 2017, the cutoff was 123 days of service time. In 2016, it was 131 days. In 2011, it was 146 days, almost a month earlier than 2017.
A cutoff of 122 days of service time for the 2018 season would be June 1, 135 days would be May 19, and 145 days would be May 9.
The Super Two delay is about money, not duration of team control. Super Two players still fall under the same service time rules (six full years before free agency). But they are eligible for arbitration four times instead of three. That means more money in year three, a bonus that compounds the next three seasons based on percentage increases on a larger base. Over a career, that might mean a difference of $10 million to a club and player.
For example, the Reds called up Jay Bruce on May 27, 2008, which was not quite enough of a delay in his service time to avoid Super Two status. The Reds right fielder later became eligible for arbitration in 2011 as a Super Two with service time of 2.125 and earned $2.8 million instead of $450,000.
Senzel Situation: If the Reds want to avoid Nick Senzel earning Super Two status, they’ll delay his call-up to sometime in June.
None of this speaks to when the Reds should call Nick Senzel up to the major league club. It just explains part of the framework in which that decision is being made. In theory, you could call Senzel up now and send him back down when Suarez is ready to return. Burning an option year isn’t much of a consideration for a player of his caliber. But if Senzel plays really well, it could lead to pressure on the club not to send him back down.