This morning, Reds brass addressed two questions about Nick Senzel. Manager David Bell was asked for his first impression of Senzel in centerfield. Bell said it’s “more than possible” Senzel could work out. Bell said it would take a lot of work, but he liked Senzel’s athleticism. (reported by Bobby Nightengale)

That’s encouraging. If Senzel can play capable-to-good CF, it’s an easy ticket to get his bat in the lineup.

Dick Williams was asked about Senzel and service time considerations. “I anticipate putting the best team out there that we can [on Opening Day]”, Williams said. The Reds President of Baseball Operations elaborated that he wants the team to get off to a good start. (reported by John Fay)

Senzel’s debut may become an issue that divides Reds fans, although it shouldn’t.

What’s At Stake

Here’s what’s at stake.

“As determined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed by owners and the players union (MLBPA) in 2016, the team owns the right to a player until that player accrues six full years of MLB service time, assuming the club offers a contract each year. After that, the player earns the right to free agency.

Service time is the number of years and days a player spends on the 25-man roster of a major league team or major league disabled list during the regular season. Example: If a player gets called up for a game on July 1 and sent back down to the minors after the game on July 8, the player has earned eight days of MLB service time. The unit counted is calendar days, not games played. The player doesn’t have to get on the field and off-days count as service time as well. The clock stops when the player is sent back down.”

The CBA stipulates a year of service time means 172 days. Further, a player cannot accrue more than 172 days of service time in any single season. There is no rounding up. If a player has 5 years and 171 days of service time (often expressed as 5.171) at the end of a season, tough luck. He has to play for the team the entire next season, if he’s offered a contract. Those are the rules.

As of right now, Nick Senzel has no major league service time.

If the Reds assign Senzel to the 2019 Opening Day roster, and he remains there the entire season, meaning no demotion back to AAA, he’ll accrue a full year of service time. If Senzel stays on track in the major leagues, he will be under the Reds control through the 2024 season, playing six seasons for the Reds. Assuming no contract extension (more on that in a minute), he would become a free agent in 2025.

But they can handle Senzel’s debut slightly differently and gain an entire extra season of his services.

The Kris Bryant Parallel

What many teams do with obvious superstar players like Senzel, is hold them back in the minor leagues for a couple weeks so they can’t quite accrue 172 days in their first year. This essentially gives the team a seventh full season of the player’s service.

This is exactly what the Chicago Cubs did with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015. Coming into that season, Bryant was the first, second, and fifth-best prospect as ranked by Baseball America,, and Baseball Prospectus. Opening Day was April 5, but the Cubs delayed Bryant’s debut until April 17. That meant Bryant earned exactly 171 days of service time in 2015 and now he can’t become a free agent until the 2022 season.

Bryant missed the Cubs first eight games (including 3 against the Reds) and they went 5-3. The Cubs went 97-65 and finished third in the NL Central. Kris Bryant won the NL Rookie of the Year. The Cubs beat the Pirates in the play-in game, beat the NL Central champion Cardinals in the NLDS and lost to the New York Mets in the NLCS. If the Cubs had called Bryant up one day earlier, he’d be a free agent for the 2021 season. His service time currently stands at 3.171.

The Reds face a similar decision with Nick Senzel, who turns 24 on June 29.

The last day of the regular season is September 29. That means a player called up on April 12 would be able to earn only 171 service time days. If the Reds delayed Senzel’s debut until April 13 (April 12 is an off-day), he would miss the first 13 games.

The Reds would be crazy if they don’t do exactly that.

This Is About Baseball, Not Money

There is a separate debut-related issue that is often confused with this one. It’s about a player’s arbitration clock and Super Two status. In that case, a team that delays a player’s debut until late May or early June can assure the player won’t qualify for Super Two status which would allow him to have four years of arbitration instead of three. That’s entirely about money.

Holding players like Nick Senzel back for two weeks is not about money. It’s about baseball and math. 162 > 13.

13 games of Nick Senzel is a lot less valuable than 162 games of Nick Senzel, both to the team and fans.

It’s possible the issue could become moot if the Reds and Senzel reach an extension agreement. By that time, baseball will have a new CBA and the relevant rules might be different. But there’s a decent chance that Nick Senzel, who has Scott Boras as an agent, might not want to sign an extension that would tie him up beyond his age-30 season. With teams showing an increasing unwillingness to pay players much beyond age 32, that could come into play. With the Reds having control over Senzel’s age-30 season, he might be more likely to sign an extension.

Assuming players stay healthy, Senzel’s brief absence would allow Matt Kemp and Scott Schebler more playing time the first two weeks. That’s not a huge drop-off. Nine of those 13 games are at home. Schebler and Yasiel Puig could manage GABP’s comfy centerfield. The four away games are in Pittsburgh. PNC park has a larger left-centerfield, but straight-away center is five feet shorter than it is at GABP.

Seeing the Big Picture

Of course, everyone wants to see the Reds get off to a good start. It’s natural for some fans to call for Senzel to come north with the team. His appearance in the lineup batting second between Jesse Winker and Joey Votto would add tremendous excitement to Opening Day.

But fans should also want to see Nick Senzel play 149 more games for the Reds, all things equal, including Opening Day 2025.

Just because Dick Williams answered a question in a certain vague way on Feb. 14 doesn’t mean that’s what the club will eventually do. Seriously, how else would we expect him to address that now? Tissue paper-thin pretext can come later. But the Reds front office can’t let bravado inspired by the nice offseason cause them to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Complain all you want about the rule. It’s unfair to the player and fans. It’s a little bit anti-competitive. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they change it in the next CBA. But it’s black letter law that covers Nick Senzel this spring and the Reds should take advantage of it.

Remember when Mike Leake started his first game on a sunny April 11, 2010? I do, I was there. If the club had delayed Leake’s debut to April 16 (one lousy start), Mike Leake would have remained under Reds control an entire extra season. 1 start vs. 32 starts.

This is easy. Let Nick Senzel log two weeks of games in his new position at Louisville. Call him up to start April 13 for the 2-game series against the stupid St. Louis Cardinals and don’t look back.