St. Louis Cardinals: The St. Louis Service Time Story

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 23: Daniel Ponce de Leon #62 of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning at Busch Stadium on April 23, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 23: Daniel Ponce de Leon #62 of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning at Busch Stadium on April 23, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

In an (un)surprising turn of events, the Toronto Blue Jays continued to manipulate top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s service time as long as they could. Will we see the St. Louis Cardinals do something similar?

In a surprising series of events, it turns out that we might be making some progress in freeing the Blue Jays’ hostage after all. It’s a position that the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans aren’t particularly familiar with, but it’s something that should be learned from, especially given the increased use of the practice of service time manipulation.

The talk of service time manipulations have gone on before this, but it came back into the spotlight when Bob Nightengale originally reported that the word was highly touted number 1 prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. would make his debut Tuesday against the San Francisco Giants.

But it was just too good to be true.

Despite Guerrero being slated to make his major league debut later in the week, the talks about service time will not be quelled for a long time, given this, the potential Tatis Jr. situation, and similar treatment of top prospects.

The St. Louis Cardinals do have some interesting situations regarding service time, but none are anywhere near as controversial or complex as Guerrero. The Redbirds have kept guys like Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce De Leon down in the minors, but it has not been because of service time manipulation. The team has simply made moves as the roster demands.

According to MLB service time rules, being on a roster for 172 days officially marks a player’s first year of service time and starts the clock. If we really look at the way the St. Louis Cardinals have handled both Gomber and Ponce De Leon, it doesn’t seem like it is broken down based on days.

Here is a look at Gomber’s service time broken down.

Stint 1: November 20, 2017 – March 12, 2018 = 0 days (regular season began March 29)

Stint 2: April 29, 2018 – May 4, 2018 = 5 days

Stint 3: May 31, 2018 – July 6, 2018 = 34 days

Stint 4: July 24, 2018 – October 1, 2018 = 72 days

Total: 111 days

And here’s Ponce De Leon’s before his call up this year:

Stint 1: June 11, 2018 – June 14, 2018 = 4 days

Stint 2: July 23, 2018 – July 24, 2018 = 2 days

Stint 3: July 27, 2018 – August 22, 2018 = 26 days

Stint 4: September 1, 2018 – October 1, 2018 = 30 days

Total: 62 days

Do these patterns seem like they are based on service time manipulation? Probably not, but it will be interesting to see exactly how these two inching closer and closer to a year of service time affects the Redbirds way of thinking, especially later in the season.

Future Moves

This isn’t the first time Ponce has been brought up for a spot start either as illustrated in his first two stints of just 4 and 2 days, which makes giving Ponce the spot start here the correct option.

However, ignoring service time, the argument might actually be stronger for Gomber to make the start. He has been pitching quite well, winning the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Week, allowing just a .205/.244/.308 slash line despite giving up 4 runs in 11.1 innings. On top of that, he’s a lefty, which the Cardinals are still craving.

Despite this, I don’t think that Gomber’s service time is close enough to the first year milestone where there would be significant issues, but they are probably saving him for long term stretches down the road.

Speaking of down the road, Ponce and Gomber aren’t the only guys that the Cardinals have in which this conversation is pertinent. For the future, there are three big names to keep an eye on when talking about service time. One hasn’t made the majors yet, one just barely made the majors, and one has been in and out for quite some time now.

Nolan Gorman

The first candidate I am talking about is Nolan Gorman, who is one of the most exciting St. Louis Cardinals position player prospects, but who might also be a candidate for a Guerrero type of situation.

With the Redbirds extending Matt Carpenter through the 2021 season, the team has a vehicle to remain competitive at third base while preventing third base from becoming a position offend before the team feels Gorman is ready.

This should mean that we won’t be seeing Gorman at the major league level for a little while longer. However, it isn’t so much because the organization trying to limit Gorman’s service time as much as possible, but because the team just needs bodies in other positions right now.

However, there is a chance that later down the road, Gorman might become a valuable enough asset that the front office does in fact decide to hold Gorman back. He is young enough where the St. Louis Cardinals can bide as much time as they need. However, with no real tangible plan at third base beyond Carpenter at the moment, it seems unlikely that happens as things stand.

Ryan Helsley

The second man, who just recently made his first of many appearances in a major league game is Ryan Helsley. The young fire baller has made waves in the minors in recent years, and fans are excited to see how he pans out.

However, with Carlos Martinez beginning the season in the bullpen, it becomes more and more unlikely that we see Helsley on the roster for much longer. Despite a poor start, the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen has actually put together a pretty solid season so far, with the top 4 guys in the bullpen giving up just 8 total runs in 53.1 innings so far, for an ERA of 1.36.

Adding Carlos Martinez to that mix would certainly make for a complete bullpen, and given that Andrew Miller is a body that will remain around, this just seems like a perfect excuse for the Cards to demote Helsley when C-Mart returns.

Once again though, this is more because of positional needs rather than being concerned about service time.

Alex Reyes

Finally, Alex Reyes already has a unique situation in of himself, constantly bouncing between injuries, the minors, and glimpses of The Show. While it seems like it would be difficult for Reyes to meet these conditions, the “Super 22” rule that gives the players with between two and three years of service time in the top 22% of total service time early arbitration eligibility is the biggest question mark with Reyes.

Well, almost the biggest question. If Reyes can’t keep his pitches under control and pitch at a major league level, then it won’t really matter how much service time he has.

But if he does get things under control, Reyes does already have over 2 years of service time, which doesn’t give him that much time to correct things before arbitration. If he doesn’t perform soon, then the Cardinals won’t have to pay him all that much through arbitration, which is no big deal considering he doesn’t have significant control over that anyway

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However, I am sure that the St. Louis Cardinals front office would much rather pay a flourishing Reyes in arbitration than keep a struggling one moving slowly along on cheap deals. This is another one of those situations where Reyes is still young, and the Cardinals still have time to rear him.

They don’t want Reyes to be a long time minor leaguer, because he has the talent to be an elite player. However, there’s a huge difference between being a talented player and being a good one. If Reyes can’t turn his talent into success, then this won’t even be a discussion.

But if Reyes does turn into the player the St. Louis Cardinals hope he will be, the Cards might want to make his crawl towards free agency as slow as possible.

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The St. Louis Cardinals haven’t been an organization to manipulate service time, but with more and more teams taking advantage of exploitable rules, we may be seeing the Cardinals dabble in the practice sooner than we think.