Mookie Betts: How a shortened season could impact free agency

Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

Mookie Betts is set to become a free agent in 2021, unless a shortened season results in a new service time calculation.

Note: This article was written before Major League Baseball and the Players Association reportedly reached a tentative agreement on service time in the event of a shortened season. Under the agreement, Betts would qualify for free agency in 2021 regardless of the number of games played in 2020. 

When the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Mookie Betts from the Boston Red Sox, the motives behind the deal, while unpopular on one side, were pretty simple, and rooted in 2021 free agency. The Red Sox were looking to cash in on a superstar player who they were unsure of being able to pay beyond this season, while the Dodgers were looking for a final piece that could help bring them that elusive modern-day championship, willing to gamble on his upcoming free agency status.

With the 2020 season on hold and Opening Day months away, it is possible that Mookie Betts could become even more of a value play for the Dodgers. Major League Baseball and the Players Association are currently in a battle over how to calculate service time for a condensed schedule.

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Players receive service time based on the number of days they spend on the 26-man active roster, or Major League injured list. Once they reach certain service time thresholds, they become eligible for arbitration or free agency.

A player earns one full year of service after spending 172 days in a big league uniform. Players become eligible for free agency after six years of service.

Why does service time matter to the Dodgers and Mookie Betts? Well, Betts is 102 days short of qualifying for his sixth year of service, and thus, becoming eligible to enter free agency next winter. Just how service time is calculated over a shortened season (if there is a season at all) could potentially delay when #50 receives his expected monumental payday.

A recent report by Joel Sherman of the New York Post outlines the Union proposal for the event there is no 2020 season, in which case, the players would receive full service time in 2020 if they were credited for 60 days of service the previous season. MLB has countered with a proposal that would require players to have played in at least 130 games in 2019, and after that, they would only be credited for actual days played in 2020.

Betts played 150 games for the Red Sox last season, so he would qualify for his sixth year of service under both proposals contained in Sherman’s report. However, negotiations are fluid, so it’s anyone’s guess what the actual agreement will be. If the season is shortened to a 90-day sprint, and actual days are counted toward service time, Betts could fall just short of the 102 days he needs to qualify for free agency. Obviously, the superstar center fielder represents a mile marker for the Union to make sure the owners don’t use the current crisis to escape paying top-dollar players what they are owed.

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While I wouldn’t expect a scenario to develop where the league decides to delay service time for players close to the threshold this season, if no season is played at all, there are legitimate questions on how service time should be calculated. For the Dodgers, it could mean they negotiated a trade on terms that assumed they were carrying greater short-term risk than eventual reality.