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Explaining MLB's service time rules

What is with all of the hubbub surrounding Rockies prospect Jon Gray, and to a much larger degree, Cubs phenom Kris Bryant? Well, a matter of days can mean the difference between millions of dollars in salary, or even an extra year of team control.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We're under a week away from the beginning of the 2015 regular season. That means teams are in the process of finalizing their 25-man rosters while fans and media members are tirelessly discussing who should make the team.

Highly regarded prospects, especially those who are performing well in spring training, are always a hot topic this time of year. The eternal optimism of spring combined with, in most cases, teams lacking in talent at the major league level results in hand-wringing of the highest order regarding young players who can inject excitement, exuberance and perhaps even winning baseball into their organizations.

Power-hitting Chicago Cubs prospect Kris Bryant, who was recently optioned to the minors, and top Colorado Rockies minor league pitcher Jon Gray are two of the higher-profile names being linked with potential service time shenanigans this spring. The problem isn't limited to just prospects who have yet to make their big league debut, though; former Rockies and current Oakland Athletics pitcher Drew Pomeranz could start 2015 in the minors for a roughly a month, which would delay his eventual release into the free-agent pool for another year.

Come June, another set of service time rules -- for the purpose of saving money in one season a couple of years down the road -- will determine when prospects might receive the call to the big leagues.

Service time constraints can be confusing, but we've got you covered. Here's what to look for.

When is a player eligible for free agency?

Major league players are eligible for free agency after accruing six full years of service time. In most cases, the six years a player spends in an organization are comprised of three pre-arbitration seasons, in which a player is owed nothing more than the league minimum, and three arbitration years. Based on performance, players begin incrementally making more money in those arb years, assuming a team doesn't buy them out with an early contract extension or decline to tender the player a contract.

Since free-agency eligibility requires six full seasons, a player can be shorted a full season of service time at any point in his career and wind up spending more than six actual years under team control. This is where players like Bryant, Gray and Pomeranz are affected. In the case of the two former players, their clubs either have already decided, or will likely decide, to wait until 171 days are remaining in the season before adding them to the active roster. That way, the player will have accrued 0.171 -- and not 1.000 -- years of service time. Assuming Bryant and Gray remain in the big leagues for the entirety of their years under team control, they wouldn't become free agents until they reach 6.171 years of service time as opposed to 5.171 (or five full years plus 171 days).

Pomeranz's situation is different but is ultimately affected by the same rule. The 26-year-old left-hander currently has 2.013 years of big league service time, meaning he would need to be in the majors for roughly 159 days in order to reach three years. His case is two-fold; not only would Pomeranz be a year closer to free agency, but he'd also enter arbitration eligibility. To combat that, the Athletics could option Pomeranz to the minors for the first month of the season to keep him under team control for an additional year.

There is also a way to keep Pomeranz making the league minimum for an additional year if the A's play their cards right. That's where the Super Two rule comes in.

What is the Super Two rule?

In some cases, a player can be eligible for arbitration four times instead of the standard three, which is important for the financial reasons outlined above. Here's what has to happen.

A player must ...

  1. Accrue between two and three years of service time;
  2. Be in the top 22 percent in service time of players who reached the required amount in a particular season;
  3. Accumulate at least 86 days of service time in the previous season.
What that amounts to is that, depending on the year, players who accumulate roughly somewhere between 2.120 and 2.140 years of service time earn the Super Two distinction. Going back to Pomeranz as an example, Oakland could keep him in the minors until there are only a little more than 100 days left in the season to keep him under team control for another year and avoid paying him arbitration for an additional season.

Wait, teams can really pull off this nonsense?

Well ... yeah, as long as the players union doesn't file a grievance. Often, clubs will come up with a pretty good excuse for demoting a player or otherwise holding him back from reaching certain service time milestones. For instance, the Cubs say defense is the reason Bryant will start the year in the minors. It would be easier for the Rockies to delay promoting Gray simply because he's a pitcher, and as such, would only need to make about three starts in the minors before the service time "deadline" hits.

MLBPA chief Tony Clark has expressed his displeasure for service time manipulation, vowing to pay close attention to the way clubs are handling such situations. The next collective bargaining agreement could see sweeping changes to the system, but that won't happen until after the current CBA expires on Dec. 1, 2016.

Editor's note: The immense and invaluable knowledge of resident roster and transactions expert Sage Farron was used during the production of this article.