In recent years, a major source of contention between MLB teams and players has been service time manipulation. In baseball, each day spent on the active roster is counted towards a player’s service time. The Major League Baseball season is typically 186 days long and a “full year” of service time is defined as 172 days. A player kept in the minors for a few weeks to start the season cannot accrue a full year of service time, thus delaying his free agency by an extra year. The most egregious and frequently cited example of this is Kris Bryant. Despite being considered one of the best, if not the very best, prospects in baseball, he wasn’t called up to start the 2015 season. That year, he spent 171 days on the roster, falling exactly one day short of a full year, which allowed the Cubs to control him through the 2021 season, instead of 2020.
Bryant was just one of many examples around the league, with service time manipulation becoming one of many issues that had eroded the trust between the league and the players, making the most recent lockout so prolonged and contentious. In an attempt to improve the situation going forward, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement features a provision that will potentially reward teams for promoting prospects for the full year. Under the Prospect Promotion Incentive, teams can earn an extra pick in the draft if a rookie-eligible player with 60 days or fewer of major league service who is included on a preseason top 100 prospect list by two or more of Baseball America, ESPN.com or MLB.com is promoted and finishes high in award voting in any year before he is eligible for arbitration. A Rookie of the Year win or a top three finish in MVP or Cy Young voting in his pre-arbitration seasons would net the team that extra draft pick. If the international draft is implemented, he could earn the club a selection if second or third in Rookie of the Year, or fourth or fifth in Cy Young. A team can gain at most one PPI pick in the amateur draft and three total PPI picks for any individual prospect, two international and one amateur, with a max of one such pick per year. (Further details about the incentive are laid out by Evan Drellich of The Athletic.)
This year, it has certainly felt like more top prospects were cracking Opening Day rosters, with Bobby Witt Jr., Julio Rodriguez and Spencer Torkelson being some of the high profile examples. Matt Eddy of Baseball America took a look at the data from this year and compared it to previous years to see if any meaningful conclusions could be drawn. Ten of BA’s top 100 prospects made Opening Day rosters this year, which is the second-largest such number in their data set, which goes back to 1990. (The piece points out that Riley Greene could have made it 11 if he hadn’t got injured, and the same could possibly be said of Adley Rutschman as well.) The only year with a larger crop was 1995, where 12 guys made the cut. As pointed out in the piece, the 1995 season followed the extended layoff of the strike that began in August of 1994. Presumably, that would have delayed the debut of any prospect that was on the cusp of debuting in August or September of ’94 until the start of the ’95 season, artificially inflating that number. Therefore, it can be argued that this year’s group of rookies is the largest in the past 33 years.
Of course, this is just a single year of data and it would be unwise to draw far-reaching conclusions from it. However, another reason for optimism in the piece is that the trend in recent years had been for fewer prospects to crack the Opening Day rosters. Eddy breaks the recent past into five year buckets and looks at how many top prospects played in the first week of a season. From 1995-99, there were 35, followed by 26 in 2000-2004, then 22 in 2005-2009, 16 in 2010-2014 and just 14 from 2015-2019. “The number of qualifying prospects has declined by 60% in the past 20 years,” Eddy says. Now there are ten in just this year alone, eleven if we add in Roansy Contreras, who was recalled today after Duane Underwood Jr. was injured in the team’s first game. (The Pirates, incidentally, were the one team who appeared to still be trying to play the service time manipulation game, with both Contreras and Oneil Cruz being left off the team’s Opening Day roster, despite both getting brief MLB experience last year.)
It’s worth reiterating that this is just a single year of data and it can’t be hastily assumed that the new CBA has improved the situation. It’s entirely possible that this was just an incredibly strong class of prospects that would have bucked the trend with or without the changes to the CBA. However, it’s at least encouraging for those fans that want the best baseball players to be playing in the majors as soon as they are deserving that the trend has indeed been bucked for this year.