If the Padres keep Chris Paddack down, is it service time manipulation?

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Here’s a fun thought exercise for your Monday morning.

The Padres sent rookie starter Chris Paddack down to the minors last week, which was always going to happen regardless of how good he was in the majors. The reason is innings limits: Paddack’s career-high is 90 frames, achieved last summer, and that was after not pitching in 2017 due to undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Now, it’s expected that the Padres will bring Paddack back up shortly, and that this is just a way to get him off of the big-league roster for a spell in order to bring in an arm they can use in his absence. Paddack won’t pitch in the minors, or, if he does, not like he has in the majors, where he’s already logged just under 66 innings of work over 12 starts. As long as Paddack returns to the bigs within 10 days of his demotion, there will be no interruption of his service time, which would avoid any service time manipulation problems. However, it’s worth asking if it would actually be service time manipulation if the Padres kept Paddack in the minors long enough to hit pause on his service time clock.

Chris Paddack’s arsenal is ready for the majors, as is obvious from his 3.15 ERA (132 ERA+) and the 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings he’s managed as a 23-year-old rookie who jumped from Double-A to the majors. He’s given up too many homers, sure, but who hasn’t this year with the jump in the long ball once more: the command and control are both there, as is the confidence in his stuff. However, Paddack’s arm, from a durability and fatigue point of view, hasn’t caught up to his repertoire yet. Even if he stayed in the majors all season, he’s looking at a maximum of 130-150 innings over the course of 2019, so there would be lots of time where he’s hanging around in the majors, eating up a roster spot. And that reason would be because he’s not physically ready for a full 162-game season as a starting pitcher yet.

So, is it service time manipulation if Paddack actually isn’t fully ready for the majors because he never built up his arm strength in the minors the way pitchers tend to? It’s much more of a question than the cases of say, Eloy Jimènez or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. from this spring. The worrisome thing for me isn’t so much that the Padres decide Paddack should be down for more than 10 days at a time, because there’s a clear reason for that to occur given they’re halfway to his innings limit and less than halfway through the season. I’m more concerned about future cases where clear is more like clear-ish, and a loophole opens up that will be exploited by teams… teams tired of it being noticed that April’s service time manipulation is so transparent, so they spread it out over the course of the season to achieve the same result.

In the Padres’ case, Paddack will most likely be back up within the 10 days, and they’ll likely be fully out of contention come September, so it won’t matter so much if Paddack is taking up one of the 28 roster spots available to them at that time. The question of service time manipulation will likely only be asked hypothetically, like this. Still, the league does like to copy, and then find ways to be more efficient and exploitative through said mimicry, so Paddack’s case does make me wonder about the next time.

Should this be something that is addressed in the next round of collective bargaining, in order to preempt possible service time manipulation? Some kind of special rule for young pitchers coming back from injuries, who are in the situation Paddack is in, where the stuff is there to get major-league hitters out, but they aren’t in a position for 30 starts or 180 innings just yet because they’re still working up to that. That way the teams can be encouraged to try, as the Padres did by promoting Paddack in the first place, without having to mess around with demoting him to the minors and being tempted to manipulate his service time slowly across the season.

Think of it as an alternative to the injured list: Paddack is healthy, but his arm needs to be protected. A designation that could be slapped on him for 10 days at a time (but only so often, so it doesn’t become another way to shuttle relievers back-and-forth from Triple-A) to get him off of the active roster without cutting into his pay — as a minor-league option does — or forcing him to travel and report to the minors would fit here. Paddack (or whomever fits this designation) could still travel with the big-league team, their coaching staff, their trainers, and so on, and the team would have an open roster spot rather than a pitcher who can’t be used taking it up. And service time would not be impacted in the process, just like if the Padres had decided instead to hide Paddack on the Injured List with a phantom injury instead of optioning him, as they did.

No rules broken or skirted, incentive to call up young pitchers when their arsenals are ready to assist in the majors, and lessened risk of hurting these young arms by pushing them too hard. This is a win for the player and the team, and that’s the goal, isn’t it?

Something like this is far preferable to leaving open a loophole to be exploited by teams in the future. What Chris Paddack is dealing with is unlikely to be service time manipulation, even if his clock is briefly stopped: he’s likely to be in the majors long enough to accrue a full year of service in his first season, which is the system working. Still, it’s unfortunate that his pay is cut into because of the option that opens up a roster spot while he takes a breath, and it’s no guarantee other teams treat their own future Paddacks like the Padres are handling theirs, either. Closing a loophole before it opens would make a lot of sense, and isn’t, when compared to the other conversations the Players Association and MLB need to have before 2022, a major, controversial ask, either.

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