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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Figuring out service time in truncated MLB season will be difficult

A general view of Clover Park prior to

A general view of Clover Park prior to a spring training game between the Cardinals and the Mets on March 4, 2020 in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Credit: Getty Images/Joel Auerbach

During a time that now feels like decades ago, on a sunny, pre-coronavirus morning at Clover Park, I had a discussion with a baseball official about the financial logistics of the Mets’ roster. In that conversation, I asked about the sensibility of locking up some of the rising stars, like Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil, through their arbitration years and into free agency.

Sure, there was a rationale to do so. But in the Mets’ view, a quick glance around the diamond showed they already had what amounted to a number of key players on low-cost, team-friendly extensions, based on service time.

The closest of that position-player bunch to free agency is Michael Conforto, and he’s not up until after the 2021 season. As far as the pitchers, Marcus Stroman is entering his walk year and Noah Syndergaard is in Conforto’s class.

That conversation came to mind again Thursday in light of the news that MLB and the players association have begun to discuss a number of thorny issues surrounding the delay of the 2020 regular season because of the coronavirus outbreak. One of the more complicated matters to resolve is service time, because that is based on a system that isn’t going to function so well in this truncated year.

An MLB season officially lasts 187 days, but a player is given credit for a full year of service time if he is on the 26-man active roster (or injured list) for a total of 172. The expectation is that none of the players will get close to full credit -- through no fault of their own -- and therein lies the problem.

Commissioner Rob Manfred already has dismissed the original April 9 projection for Opening Day. Beyond that, Memorial Day (May 25) could still be in play, but June seems more likely. At this stage, however, we also can’t rule out the possibility of the season being canceled entirely.

So you see where this is going in terms of a player’s eligibility for arbitration (three-plus years of service time) and free agency (six-plus years). Last March, the debate raged on whether or not the Mets should delay Alonso’s promotion by roughly two weeks in order to get an extra year out of him before free agency. But general manager Brodie Van Wagenen stuck to his word and put Alonso on the Opening Day roster, starting a clock that wound up getting stopped again this March.

Given the massive financial ramifications, and the worrisome economic future overall, both MLB and the players association could wait to craft an amendment until they get a better handle on the virus’ longer-term impact for 2020. Obviously, we all have more immediate, pandemic-related issues with which to deal, but this service-time conundrum is something that needs to get ironed out if we ever do get close to a real Opening Day.

Ultimately, both sides likely would need to agree on some sort of cutoff number, significantly less than 172, to determine a full year of credit and MLB has proposed 130, according to The Associated Press. But with such a fluid, unprecedented situation, how do they ever come to that conclusion? It’s only been a week since spring training was suspended and Opening Day was first pushed back, but every day brings another new development, with the CDC trimming crowds from 250 to 50 to less than 10 for the next eight weeks.

MLB and the players association also have to figure out what to do with contract incentives, such as the details built into the final year of Yoenis Cespedes’ reworked deal. Cespedes, who was making progress this spring coming back from double-heel surgeries and an ankle fracture, only has a $6 million base salary for this season with another $17.5 million in incentives. He’s scheduled to earn $5 million upon making the team (prorated to the date of his call-up) with $9 million linked to progressive milestones of plate appearances and an additional $3.5 million in award bonuses.

Also, players don’t get paid until the regular season starts, and in this case of a national emergency -- as declared by President Trump on March 13 -- Manfred can “suspend” their contracts until games are played, based on Paragraph 11 in every contract’s language. With the original Opening Day scheduled for March 26, players are expecting checks soon, but there has yet to be a resolution on how salaries will be paid without any games.    

MLB also is leaning toward eliminating the amateur draft this year and delaying the international signing period, according to The Associated Press, in an effort to save money with no revenue coming from the postponed schedule. So having a baseball season again is far more involved than merely beating back COVID-19 and getting a green light from the CDC for an Opening Day. We already knew the virus would have a permanent impact on everyone’s lives going forward. But to what degree remains anyone’s guess.

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