On Thursday, the Dodgers recalled Walker Buehler from the disabled list without sending him out for a rehab assignment. Buehler had last pitched three weeks prior and was then placed on the disabled list due to a microfracture in his ribs. Rather than the standard rehab assignment, they elected to “rehab in the majors” in a relief role, piggy-backing Clayton Kershaw‘s start. Kershaw himself followed a similar path five days prior. However, Buehler did not fare nearly as well, allowing five runs in an inning-plus of work. Following the poor performance, Buehler was optioned to Rancho Cucamonga to be further monitored while ramping back up to a starting role. In this weird sequence of events (which culminated in the Dodgers playing one man down last night), the Dodgers have essentially pried a year of free agency away from Buehler.
In order to get credit for one full “year” of service time, a player must spend at least 172 days on an MLB roster or the MLB-level disabled list. Since the MLB season is 187 days long, this has led to teams holding back top prospects for a few weeks to start a season. The Cubs famously did this with Kris Bryant in 2015, as did Atlanta with Ronald Acuna this year. After being held back in 2015, Bryant will finish the 2020 season with five years and 171 days of service time (one day short of a full sixth year), and thus must play out the entirety of the 2021 season before reaching free agency.
This tactic rightfully draws ire from pro-labor parts of the internet because it doesn’t even try to conceal its true purpose. It’s exploiting the difference between the definition of a year (172 days) and the length of a season (187 days) in order to move back a player’s bigger payday. It’s a bad rule in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but that doesn’t mean that a team shouldn’t be called out for exploiting it. Saving money doesn’t make a practice “correct,” a connection which is drawn too often.
This brings us back to Buehler. The Dodgers called him up in September of last year, and he accrued 26 days of service time in his cup of coffee. If Buehler stays on the major league roster or disabled list for 146 days this season (146+26=172), the combined efforts between his 2017 and 2018 season would count as a full year of service. Phrased another way, if Buehler spends all but 41 days on the MLB roster or disabled list this year and isn’t optioned in the future, he would reach free agency after the 2023 season. If not, he would not reach free agency until 2024 at the earliest.
Buehler spent the first 25 days of this season in AAA because the MLB roster was full and because his spring-training ramp-up was slow in an effort to manage his innings limit. After his first promotion of 2018, Buehler’s service time “buffer” was reduced to 16 days. However, Buehler was optioned after his first start, re-called as the 26th man for the double-header in San Francisco later that week, sent back to the minors after that game, then recalled for “good” on May 4th. That resulted in another nine games of buffer lost, giving Buehler seven days remaining.
Once Buehler cemented himself on the roster in early May, just one more week in the minors would push his free agency back another year. After being optioned yesterday, Buehler cannot be recalled for another 10 days unless another player is sent to the disabled list. Barring another injury, Buehler’s free agency has indeed been pushed back a year.
Given the bizarre sequence of events which led to Buehler’s demotion, it’s fair to wonder about the Dodgers’ motives here. If Buehler went through a standard rehab assignment, he would still be accruing major league service time. Buehler was optioned partially because he was not effective in his outing, but it was not necessarily a reasonable expectation for Buehler to be effective in the first place. This is why rehab assignments exist, because pitching effectively for the first time in three weeks is not easy.
The Dodgers’ bullpen was taxed going into Kershaw’s start, but the Dodgers calling up JT Chargois today (and the existence of Pat Venditte) reveals the presence of options they could have used over Buehler on Thursday. Given how strange this sequence of events looked yesterday, is the delay of Buehler’s free agency really a more unreasonable explanation than the Dodgers being flatly incompetent? Does an explanation of incompetence really make the end result better?
Of course, the standard counter to this is just a shrug and the phrase “baseball is a business.” This is ultimately true, but that doesn’t mean that a team shouldn’t be called out for manipulating the rules to their advantage at the expense of their players. Either through mismanagement or more malicious intent, that’s exactly what the Dodgers have done, and in all likelihood Buehler will have to cash in on his talent one year later. It’s not as blatant as the service time manipulation performed by the Cubs or the Braves noted above, but it absolutely should be noted. The Dodgers could — and should — have done better.
Update – 7/3/18
Today, it was revealed that the Dodgers placed Buehler back on the disabled list after his outing rather than optioning him, counter to what the team’s transaction log had indicated. As a result, Buehler is still currently on track to reach his first full year of service time this season, though he is still extremely close to not making that cut. It will be something to keep an eye on going forward.