The rare, true “it’s not service time manipulation” moment

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Bobby Witt Jr. spent most of spring training exciting Royals’ fans, but he was optioned to minor-league camp earlier this week all the same. Usually, this situation would call for a look at whether a player’s service time is being manipulated or not, but this situation looks a lot more like that of Chris Paddack and the Padres a couple of seasons back than it does, say, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the Blue Jays from the same-ish time period.

Paddack ended up in the minors midway through the 2019 season, but the conversation surrounding him had to do with whether or not it was service time manipulation for the Padres to demote him after beginning the year in the majors, especially if they kept him there. My own take on it was that pretty clear the goal here was to use Paddack’s roster spot while they were giving his young, recovering arm a break during his first full campaign in the majors, but even if they had kept him in the minors to better monitor his usage, it wouldn’t have been service time manipulation so much as looking out for his arm and the big-league roster’s needs at the same time.

Of course, there was room to be concerned about a loophole opening up, because teams love driving through those most of all:

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.

Guerrero’s situation (and Eloy Jimènez, who made his way to the majors after agreeing to an extension that bought out arbitration and free agency years at a discount to the White Sox) was more explicit and obviously wrong, with the team spending their spring defending why Guerrero wouldn’t make it onto the big-league roster to begin the year: a spring injury ended up allowing them to let their foot off of that particular pedal, and Guerrero was in the majors when his injury was over and right when his service time manipulation was complete, anyway.

Unlike with Jimenez, there are no rumors about Witt Jr. having an extension dangled in front of him in exchange for a promotion to the bigs. His time in spring training is not so absurdly good that it was clear to all that he should be in the majors to begin 2021, like with Guerrero. While he’s not in Paddack’s exact situation, which necessitated some roster shuffling for the sake of both player and team, he still fits that kind of bill more than anything else: He’s 21 years old, with 180 plate appearances in the minors to his credit. He spent the 2020 season in the Royals’ reserve bubble of players, racking up more experience with coaches and such, but not in actual game action. Having him start the year in the minors, for his first season of professional baseball above the Rookie League level, seems perfectly fair, both to Witt and to the Royals and their future with him.

It’s not like Witt showed he had nothing left to learn in his pro debut: he hit .262/.317/.354 in 37 games, and is at .289/.325/.526 with three dingers this spring. Obviously, there are reasons to be excited, but this isn’t the Royals saying Witt needs to learn to play defense and also eat vegetables more often. He’s 21, with little experience, and showed promise but nothing approaching a guarantee of performance in spring training. He’ll probably be in the majors sooner than later, but he’ll have to put in some regular work in the high minors first. There shouldn’t be anything objectionable about this, but any raised eyebrows are understandable given how teams tend to treat players like Witt when they are big-league ready.

Now, if the Royals decide Witt is ready for the bigs a couple of weeks into the 2021 season — say, just after they’ve secured another year of team control on him — then that would be sketchy as hell, especially given the start of the minor-league season is delayed… meaning there is nothing Witt could possibly have shown them, competition-wise, that they haven’t already seen. If he obliterates whatever level of the minors he’s in once that season does get going, though, and makes his way to the majors in the first half of 2021, then it’s unlikely it was service time manipulation, so much as the Royals actually making sure that there wasn’t too much on this still relative newcomer’s plate to start the year.

It’s possible that, if the minors had run as usual last year, Witt Jr. would be making his way to the Opening Day roster of the Royals right now. He doesn’t have that age-20 season that could have launched him to that point, though: no one drafted in 2019 or 2020 does. They all lost a year of game action and experience to the pandemic, and it’s to be seen how well the bubble camps helped with player development in their place.

Obviously, you want players like Witt to hit the ground running in 2021, but there is also a part of me concerned that MLB would take that as a sign that their shrinking of the minors is justified and should be repeated again in the future. Let’s save those concerns for another day, though, and for now, just be satisfied that nothing untoward is going on with the Witt Jr. situation.

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