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On Tuesday, Blue Jays GM said on MLB Network Radio about super-prospect and third baseman Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., “I just don’t see him as a major league player.” It was seen as a precursor for Guerrero — son of the Hall of Famer who played for the Expos — to begin the season in the minors for the first two weeks or so of the regular season, a common theme with baseball’s top prospects. MLB Pipeline deems Guerrero the No. 1 prospect in baseball ahead of Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Eloy Jiménez.
The way service time works, teams are incentivized to hold their best players in the minor leagues for the first 10 games or so. In doing so, the player is unable to accrue a full year of service time, which means the team gets to control that player for an extra year, delaying his eligbility for free agency. Typically, a player’s first three years in the majors are known as “pre-arbitration years,” which results in being paid the league minimum or slightly above. Then a player has three years of arbitration eligibility which typically sees the player make a significant jump in salary. After six years, a player finally becomes eligible for free agency.
Technically speaking, teams are not allowed to fudge with their players’ service time, as they would be acting in bad faith. However, intent is notoriously difficult to prove, so teams skirt around the issue by making up nebulous reasoning to keep a star prospect in the minors. Usually, the representative says the player needs to work on his defense. That’s what the Cubs said about Kris Bryant in 2015 when they had him start the year at Triple-A despite torching minor league pitching in 2014 and follow up with an even more bonkers spring training showing. Bryant said he saw three ground balls in games before he was called up to the majors after the cut-off that granted the Cubs another year of control over him.
Service time manipulation has gotten more and more attention, especially as teams have become more brazen about it. The MLBPA is keeping an eye on the way the Blue Jays handle Guerrero, Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun reports. Longley’s source with the MLBPA said, “It’s something we are following and it’s going to be an issue. Service time manipulation has been a prominent theme that the players association has emphasized in its talks with Major League Baseball.” The source added, “It’s fair to say it has been a prominent issue raised by the players association.”
Guerrero, 19, decimated the competition last season, batting an aggregate .381/.437/.636 with 20 home runs and 78 RBI in 408 plate appearances in the minors. He has done nothing but hit since he debuted in professional baseball at the age of 17. Some players certainly need to stay in the minors to work on certain skills; Guerrero, however, is not one of them. Take Juan Soto as a recent example of a 19-year-old who can handle major league competition. Soto posted a 1.218 OPS in 39 minor league games last year, prompting the Nationals to call him up to the majors. Soto went on to post a .923 OPS with 22 home runs in 116 games, finishing second in NL Rookie of the Year balloting.
The Blue Jays are in the middle of a rebuilding process, so the front office is not exactly champing at the bit to rush Guerrero to the big leagues and start his service time clock. They weren’t motivated to call him up when rosters expanded in September last year, either. The front office is perfectly content to watch Brandon Drury man third base in 2019. Jays fans, however, may not be enthused enough to buy tickets or tune into games the way they did when the club was contending.