On Wednesday, the Chicago White Sox announced a series of roster moves … 

Most notably, phenom outfielder Eloy Jimenez has been optioned to Triple-A. The 22-year-old Jimenez’s lowest ranking on any of the major prospects lists is No. 4. That is to say, he’s among the very best in the business. He’s coming off a 2018 season in which he batted .337/.384/.577 across Double- and Triple-A with 53 extra-base hits in 108 games. Frankly put, Jimenez is ready for the majors, but he’s not going to open the season in the majors. The White Sox have something of a tidy excuse, in that Jimenez struggled across 26 Cactus League plate appearances, but they of course know that’s all but meaningless. 

Really, this is very likely about manipulating Jimenez’s service time. Astros pitcher Collin McHugh was among those calling the Sox’s bluff … 

A player who spends at least 172 days on an MLB team‘s active list is credited with a full year of service time. From that, things like arbitration eligibility and free agency — when a player comes much closer to being paid market rates for his services — flow. In other words, service time and the accumulation thereof is what unlocks a player’s earning potential. By keeping Jimenez in the minors until mid-April or so, the White Sox can delay Jimenez’s eventual free agency by a full year. 

This isn’t unusual, unfortunately. It was going to happen to the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. before he suffered an injury, and it famously happened to Kris Bryant of the Cubs at the outset of his rookie season. As Bryant not long ago pointed out, the Cubs cited a need for him to work on his defense, but they promoted him after he’d had just a handful of ground balls hit to him at Triple-A to start the 2015 season. 

The problem is that sports at this level are premised on merit. Indeed, teams are quick to cite merit and its constituent elements like hard work and dedication when making decisions. Service time manipulation, however, undermines such claims. If merit carried the day, then talents like Jimenez and Bryant would be on their respective Opening Day rosters as rookies. 

Fortunately, MLB and the MLBPA as part of some sweeping changes to the game will reopen collective-bargaining talks, and it’s likely that service time manipulation will be addressed in some form or fashion in those discussions. Unfortunately, change won’t come soon enough for Jimenez. 

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