With all the recent call-ups and send-downs, it's a good time to review the service time for our younger players. As first discussed in an article a couple years back, service time considerations can play a significant role in determining the exact timing of who gets to play in the majors when, and for how long. It rarely would play a decisive role, especially for a team in contention, but the Indians keep lots of players hanging around on the bubble — could be up, could be down, no real right or wrong answer — so service time logically becomes a factor. And in any season in which contending starts to look more like a pipe dream — and we're just about there — service time logically becomes more significant, as compared to an all-out win-right-now approach.
All else being equal — and it rarely is — there are two key events a team would rather delay. One is free agency, which occurs when a player ends the regular season with at least six full years of service time; the team can forestall this by making sure a player is set up to end seasons with something slightly less than a full year. The other, arguably more important, is arbitration, which occurs when a player ends the regular season with roughly 2.8 years of service time; the team can forestall this by making sure a player (one who is likely to be in the majors most or all of the following year) ends the current season with 125 days or fewer of service time, in addition to any full years he might have accrued already.
Many of our players will be eligible for free agency at the end of the last guaranteed year of their current contracts, whether this year or many years into the future, so we needn't discuss those players here: Sabathia, Westbrook, Hafner, Byrd, Blake, Martinez, Borowski, Dellucci, Lee, Sizemore, Kobayashi, Peralta, Betancourt, Carroll and Elarton. Rick Bauer, if he sticks — do we ever get that lucky? — will be eligible for arbitration, but he won't be a free agent until after 2010. Brendan Donnelly — remember him? — will be a free agent after 2009, if he can make it back to the majors this season. If not, we will have the option to add him to the 40-man roster anyway, retaining his rights through 2010. (Other minor leaguers like Todd Linden, Jason Tyner and Jorge Velandia are in similar situations but aren't worth detailing.)
Carmona will not be eligible for free agency if his first club option is declined for 2012, but he will be eligible for arbitration of course. Carmona ended the 2007 season with 1.169 service time. (That's one year, plus 169 days — there are 183 days in the major league season, but once a player reaches 172, it counts as a full year.) Essentially, because the Indians opted for a post-closer-implosion demotion back in 2006, he won't be eligible for free agency until 2013, rather than 2012, and yet he was still going to reach arbitration for 2009 as a Super Two, rather than having to wait until 2010 as a fourth-year player. The delayed free agency explains in part why the Indians were able to get him to agree to a club option for 2012 rather than another guaranteed year. On the other hand, his impending Super Two status explains why his salary will shoot into the millions in just the second year of the deal, in contrast with Sizemore and Peralta, who didn't receive that kind of raise until year three of their deals, which were similarly timed. This stuff is arcane and dry, but it always shows up in the multiyear deals.
JEREMY SOWERS — 1.012 to start 2008, 1.105 estimated/best-guess to end 2008, 1.125 max to end 2008. In another piece of cagey roster management, Sowers had spent exactly two days in the majors this season to make his two starts prior to this week, so the most he can finish with this season is 1.125. That almost certainly avoids Super Two status for 2010, pushing arbitration back to 2011 and free agency to after 2013.
AARON LAFFEY — 0.058 start, 1.040 est., 1.040 max. In the majors since April 28, Laffey may well reach that maximum 1.040, given the hits our rotation depth has taken. Still, if Carmona comes back on schedule, don't be surprised if Laffey gets sent down in favor of giving Sowers some extended time in the majors — after all, Sowers' service time is already "optimized," while Laffey's is not. Laffey would need 41 more days in the minors this season, or 52 days in two different seasons, to push his walk year from 2013 to 2014. Now on track to reach arbitration for 2011, he'd have to spend about 85 more days in the minors this season, or 96 days across two seasons, to push that back to 2012.
ASDRUBAL CABRERA — 0.055 start, 0.145 est., 1.055 max. Demoted just this week, Cabrera now has 125 days of service time, but there's a presumption that he'll be in the majors not just for all of 2009 forward, but also for 28 more days in September when rosters expand (or perhaps more like 20 if Buffalo makes the playoffs). If that's the only time he spends in Cleveland the rest of the season, Cabrera will finish with 153 days, putting him on track as a Super Two for 2011 and free agency after 2014. If he spends 47 more days in the majors this season, including September, he'll be on track to reach free agency a year earlier, after 2013. If, on the other hand, he spends the rest of this season in the minors, including September, or 123 days between this season and one other season, he'll fall out of the 2011 Super Two class, reaching arbitration for 2012 and free agency after 2014.
JOSH BARFIELD — 2.000 start, 2.112 est., 2.112 max. In demoting Barfield to start the season, the Indians pushed his free agency back a year by mid-April. Having just been called up a week into June, he'll end the year with no more than 2.112 — less than three weeks shy of the arbitration threshold. This is not entirely a coincidence, a tangible element in the organization's desire to increase his trade value. Barfield is a valuable trade chip, but his up-and-down track record carries an element of risk. Keeping him out of arbitration makes him more attractive by reducing risk on the payroll — the Indians can say, essentially, that this player will still be making the minimum in 2009, so if he doesn't work out, the sunk cost is minimal, and if he does work out, the team still keeps the player for three additional seasons. Of course, the same is true if the Indians keep him.
So basically, for both our pair of soft-tossing lefties and our pair of soft-hitting middle infielders, we have a presently less-shiny guy whose status is totally conducive to keeping him the majors, and a presently more-shiny guy whose status would improve substantially with a little more time in the minors. Sowers and Barfield are "optimized," while Laffey and Cabrera are tantalizingly close to the thresholds for extending the team's rights. Moreover, given the youth of the non-optimized, the walk-year seasons that hang in the balance are pretty likely to be valuable ones — in 2014, Laffey will be 29, and Cabrera will be 28. That extra season under team control will significantly raise the value of each of these guys as an asset — not enough to avoid trading a starter, mind you, but we want it.
BEN FRANCISCO — 0.071 start, 1.049 est., 1.049 max. Ben is looking unlikely to be optioned to the minors this season, although as one of the only position players with an option remaining, some combination of a short-term roster crunch and/or a slump could still make it happen. Assuming he stays all season, he'll accrue 150 days of service time. (That's 4 in April + 26 in May + 120 from June through September 28), which will put him at 1.049 (71 + 150 = 221, 221 - 172 for the full-year rollover = 49, thus 1.049.) That will have him reaching free agency after 2013, unless he spends another two months in the minors at some point, which would push it back to after 2014. He's on track to reach arbitration for 2011, unless he spends another 105 days in the minors at some point, pushing it back to 2012.
RYAN GARKO — 1.091 start, 2.091 est., 2.091 max. Garko is pretty ideally lined up in that he'll fall short of the arbitration threshold for 2009 by 30-40 days, so in that sense at least, there is no incentive for the Indians to demote him — it would take more than 100 days in the minors to push his free agency back and some five months to delay arbitration any further. He's basically a lock to reach arbitration for 2010 and become a free agent after 2012.
KELLY SHOPPACH — 2.021 start, 3.021 est., 3.021 max. Shoppach is on track to reach arbitration for next season, unless he spends 75 days in the minors this season — technically possible, as he does have an option remaining, but highly unlikely. The Indians seemed to commit to his current course when they called him up for good in late June, 2006. Now set to be a free agent after 2011, that would be pushed back to after 2012 if he spends about 40 days in the minors over 2008-2010.
At the risk of being unkind to Ben, Ryan and Kelly, it's pretty clear that the Indians (appropriately) exhibit less concern about service time issues for those who aren't viewed as impact players. The salary risks are far lower with respect to arbitration — no real risk of a $10 million first-year arbitration-bomb a la Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols — and in terms of stretching out team control prior to free agency, unlike Laffey and Cabrera, we're talking about post-peak seasons of players who aren't necessarily expected to have very long careers.
Looking at the "delayed walk years" that the Indians theoretically could get out of these three players, Shoppach will be 32 in 2012, Garko will be 32 in 2013, and Francisco will be 32 in 2014. This season, those same players are 28, 27 and 26 — they're in their primes, right now. It just would not make sense to fiddle around with losing their service to the big-league club smack in the middle of their primes just to gain control over them for their age-32 seasons — it would be self-defeating. That's a stark contrast to Cabrera and Laffey, who at 22 and 23 are almost certainly pre-peak, and at 28 and 29 in their "delayed walk years" will still be very much in their peaks.
Of these three older guys, if you had to pick one guy to try to get that extra year out of, it would be Shoppach, who's closest to the delayed walk-year threshold, and whose walk-year is coming up the soonest, and who will be a 32-year-old catcher, possibly a starting catcher at that point, but with minimal wear on his knees having served as a backup for much of his mid-to-late 20's. Of the two younger guys, the one to worry less about extending is Laffey, simply because the high attrition rate of pitchers in general makes the 2014 season much less valuable, way back here in 2008.
SHIN-SOO CHOO — 0.119 start, 1.119 est., 1.119 max. The Indians lucked out here, optioning Choo to Buffalo seven weeks before he started having elbow problems. Had he been in the majors when he went on the DL, he'd have accrued service time through his rehabilitation. As it is, since he was out of options this season, he accrued time starting on the first day of the season, including his rehab assignment — basically, since he's wasn't optionally assigned to the minors, he must be accruing service time as a major leaguer. Fortunately, coming in with 119 days, the Indians would have had no real reason to suppress his service time anyway. He'll finish the 2009 season at 2.119, probably 10-20 days shy of the Super Two threshold, so he won't reach arbitration until 2011, and he'll be a free agent after 2013.
FRANKLIN GUTIERREZ — 1.080 start, 2.080 est., 2.080 max. Also out of options, Gutierrez too can't spend any more time in the minors without clearing waivers, which he wouldn't, and since it's hard to imagine his ever being unworthy of at least a 4th outfielder slot, there'd be no real reason to try. He'll also reach arbitration in 2010, free agency after 2012.
ANDY MARTE — 1.038 start, 2.038 est., 2.038 max. Basically the same situation as Gutierrez, until and unless Marte clears waivers with the Indians or some other team, he'll be on track to reach arbitration for 2010 and free agency after 2012.
BRAD SNYDER — 0.031 start, 0.060 est.., 0.140 max. Snyder is basically at the zero point — even his 31 days last year weren't real, they were a roster manipulation to allow the Indians to sneak an extra player onto a postseason roster if they wanted. He was promoted to the majors and immediately placed on the DL — but hey, at least he got paid big-league money. His first real callup was in the last week of April, this season, and it lasted one day. Out of options after this season, if he can get himself a 4th outfielder spot, it's arbitration for 2012, free agency after 2014.
MICHAEL AUBREY — 0.000 start, 0.030 est., 0.124 max. Although now in his third option year, Aubrey will be granted a fourth option for 2009 given the amount of playing time he's missed. You'll note the 0.124 max for the end of the season, which means he already is beyond the threshold for being a Super Two in 2011. As a better-late-than-never arrival, Aubrey is in the same situation as Francisco — the team can't possibly be concerned about not having control over his age-33 season in 2015. Despite this, given the small crowd around 1B/DH, I think it's better than 50/50 that he won't even reach 130 days by the end of 2009, in which case ... arbitration for 2013, free agent after 2015.
RAFAEL PEREZ — 1.028 start, 2.028 est., 2.028 max. Not looking like he'll be demoted any time soon, Perez is lined up to reach arbitration in 2010 and free agency after 2012. He'd need to spend more than 40 days in the minors to push back his free agency a year, and more than 110 days (this year and next) to push back arbitration. I wouldn't bet on either happening.
JENSEN LEWIS — 0.080 start, 0.168 est., 1.070 max. Lewis is already up to 134 days as of today, but call me crazy, I think they'll keep him down in the minors for a couple months. If he spends 71 more days in the minors this season, or 82 days this season and next, his free agency will be pushed back to after 2014. He likely will reach arbitration for 2011, however, unless he spends more than four months in the minors from this point on. He has two more option years after this season.
ED MUJICA — 0.159 start, 1.115 est., 1.115 max. Eddie hit the magical one-year mark one week ago — he's now spent 180 days on the big-league roster, meaning he's been in the majors exactly half the time since his first callup in June 2006. Isn't that weird? If someone had asked me, out of the last two seasons, how much time Mujica had spent on the team, I probably would have said "about two months" — definitely not six months. Anyway, looks like our Eddie is out of options after this season, so it stands to reason he'll get a nice long look in the majors this season, unless for some reason we charge back into contention and he totally blows. Arbitration for 2011, free agency after 2013.
TOM MASTNY — 1.070 start, 1.168 est., 2.032 max. Mastny has been lights-out in Buffalo and probably won't be there long. I don't know if it really makes sense to worry about service time for a reliever, but just 33 more days in the minors would push his free agency back to 2013. Already at 1.096 at this point in the season, it seems likely that one way or another, he'll get arbitration for 2010.
BRIAN SLOCUM — 0.038 start, 0.068 est., 0.148 max. Also out of options after this season, Slocum also has seemed to be out of usefulness this season and is a likely candidate to be released in the offseason. It's not easy to lose your job as an 8th starter, but he did it, and 40-man roster spots aren't reserved for such players. If somehow he can make it back to the majors and stay, he's looking at arbitration no sooner than 2012, free agency no sooner than 2014.
ADAM MILLER, SCOTT LEWIS, ONELI PEREZ, REID SANTOS, TONY SIPP, WYATT TOREGAS — 0.000 start, 0.000 est., 0.108 max. Rounding out the 40-man roster, none of these guys are likely to spend more than four months in the majors before the end of 2009, so they're looking at arbitration no sooner than 2013 and free agency after 2015.