We talk a lot about service time now. Over the past few years, a select group of teams have gotten very aggressive about call-up and demotion timing to “game” service time, to maximize both the six accrued major league seasons before a player can hit free agency and the two to three years where teams control salaries before a player can file for arbitration. The Mets are one of these teams — for example, they’ve repeatedly called up their top prospects in the early-to-mid summer period that maximizes cheap control instead of making them September call-ups or giving them a legitimate chance to make the major league team out of spring training. One of these prospects was Michael Conforto in 2015, and with Conforto now back in the minors, the Mets may face more service time considerations with him..
A player needs to spend 172 days on a major league roster to gain a year of service time. Extra days can carry over from year-to-year, and thus Conforto started 2016 with the 73 days of service he accumulated in 2015. His last day in the majors so far in 2016 was June 24th. 2016 service time started tolling on April 3rd — you might remember that the Mets played on Opening Night — and some simple addition shows us that Conforto has earned 83 days of service time so far in 2016. So Conforto’s service time clock is current stopped at 0 years, 156 days total service. If the Mets can somehow avoid calling him up for more than 15 regular season days between now and October 2nd, they’ll regain a year of team control over Conforto in 2022.
This all sounds sort of ridiculous right now. Both of these are in tiny samples, but Conforto is already beating up the PCL pretty good, and Brandon Nimmo has struggled to hit in the majors. Conforto is almost certainly one of the three best outfielders currently available to the Mets, at least against right-handed pitching. You’d think, all things being equal, that Nimmo and Conforto will probably be exchanged for each other again within the next few weeks. We have no idea what Conforto will look like in 2022 — anything from out of the majors to superstar is in play — and therefore that extra year of control could be anything from worthless to worth tens of millions. But the Mets absolutely could hold him down for the rest of the season, or close enough to have a shot to gain that year back.
To show an example of a prospect not being brought back to the majors at the earliest possible point in September, you need not look further than Dilson Herrera last year. Herrera initially came to the majors as a surprising replacement for an injured Daniel Murphy late in August 2014. Herrera, only 20 at the time, performed admirably for a prospect with only 61 games in the high-minors, and continued to fill-in for a couple of stints in the first half of 2015, while hitting .327 with power at Triple-A. But the Mets initially bypassed Herrera for a 2015 September call-up, only bringing him back on September 8th after the Las Vegas 51s were eliminated from contention in the Pacific Coast League. The 51s are only on the periphery of the PCL playoff picture this year, but were they to advance all the way to the Triple-A National Championship Game on September 20th, and were Conforto to stay with the team the whole way, Conforto wouldn’t be called up in time to accrue his year of service time. Notably, had the Mets sent Conforto down just two-and-a-half weeks earlier, they only would’ve needed to keep him down until the September 1st roster expansion, so perhaps that’s an early sign of good faith here.
If Herrera’s case was a bit of common soft manipulation, Ruben Tejada in 2013 was the hard version, and provides a possible template for manipulating Conforto should the Mets choose to, albeit with an important caveat. Like Conforto, Tejada played poorly in the first half of the season, and was dispatched to Triple-A in favor of journeyman Omar Quintanilla. Tejada, with two years and change of service time, sat in Triple-A into the PCL postseason, until the Mets promoted him on September 10th. Tejada accumulated 171 days of service time, exactly one short of a full year, and in theory the Mets pushed back his free agency back from the 2016-17 offseason to the 2017-18 offseason.
Except Ruben Tejada filed a grievance. MLB labor grievances without time sensitivity tend to take forever — Yorvit Torrealba’s grievance against the Mets from November 2007 wasn’t heard until December 2009 and wasn’t resolved until February 2011, for example. As the Tejada grievance wouldn’t impact anything until the 2017 season, it lingered, until it was settled in Tejada’s favor as part of an arbitration deal before the 2016 season. The Mets largely mooted the point by releasing Tejada shortly thereafter, making him a free agent anyway. To the public knowledge, no service-time grievance for this type of obvious, hard, to-the-day manipulation has reached a final judgment stage in baseball’s system arbitration, though both Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco have filed grievances that could finally provide some clarity here.
There’s one other hanging sword here: injuries. Conforto has battled wrist problems for some time, and there was some suggestion at the time of his demotion that he might file a grievance to force a disabled list stint instead. To our knowledge, he hasn’t. Were that wrist to get worse, or were he to suffer another injury, Conforto would likely land on the minor-league disabled list now instead, accruing no service time and pushing his timetable for return to the majors back and back. One short-to-medium injury absence, and he could easily be held back until mid-September.
The perverse incentives for the Mets to screw Conforto certainly exist here. It is probably in the long-term interests of the Mets franchise to slightly harm both the development of Conforto and their chances of being the wild card in 2016 by holding him back and regaining that year of 2022 control. But it’s also wrong, because the Mets should be trying to put the best product on the field with the best developed Michael Conforto possible. And the league and the player’s union need to come up with some sort of fix in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement so that teams can put things like winning, development, and good faith ahead of the financial ledger six or seven years down the road. There’s no need for us to talk about service time this much forever.
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