Service Time

If you’ve ever spent hours pouring over Cot’s Baseball Contracts trying determine how many years a specific team controls a player – or when a player will become eligible for arbitration – you certainly know how tricky and confusing untangling service time can be. In short, service time is a way to measure how much time a player has spent at the major league level. Players accrue service time each day they are on a team’s 25-man roster, even if they are on the 15-day or 60-day DL.

Service time is important to understand, as it affects how long players are under team control. In general, prospects that are called up to the majors are under team control for six years of service time; almost always, three of these years they are paid at or near the major league minimum and three of them they are eligible for arbitration. However, teams can be creative, promoting prospects to the majors late enough that they don’t accrue a full year of service time and therefore are under team control for one extra year.

A year of service time is equal to 172 days, and there are normally around 183 total days in the major league calendar. This means that if a team wants to keep a prospect from accruing a full year of service time, they simply need to leave that player in the minors for around 15-20 days out of the entire season. For example, the Rays left Evan Longoria in the minors for the first two weeks of the 2008 season; as a result, if Longoria hadn’t signed his long-term contract, he would have been under team control through the 2014 season instead of the 2013 season. Technically, this demotion could happen at any point of the year, but it’s most common for teams to leave a prospect in the minors for the first month or so of the season before calling them up.

Also, you can only earn 172 service days per season no matter what, so if you’re only down for four or five days, you’re going to accrue a full year of service time. Service time is also important when considering a player’s Super Two status. See that page for more details.

So the next time you’re on Cot’s Baseball Contracts trying to figure out how much service time a player has, take a look at the section below their contract information that says “Service Time: 2.130″. In this example, it means the player in question has accrued 2 years and 130 days of service time (as calculated during the most recent off season, I believe). While before that may have been indecipherable gibberish, now you should know enough to say, “Oh, that player is under team control for another four seasons.” Player’s don’t become free agents until the winter after they roll over to 6.000, so if you end they year at 5.171, your rights belong to your team for another full season.

There are three important implications of service time. The first is how many seasons a team has control of a player, as players can’t be granted free agency (the right to sign with anyone) until after they have earned six full years of service time. Second, service time determines when a player reaches arbitration, which will increase their salary. Any player with three or more years of service time entering the winter will have the option of going to salary arbitration (as will a few 2+ players, see Super Two). Finally, as a result of those first two factors, service time dictates your trade value and the amount you will likely earn in contract extension talks.

Links for Further Reading:

Service Time – Biz of Baseball

Death, Taxes, and the Major League Waivers – Baseball Analysts