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The Cincinnati Reds, Jonathan India, and service time manipulation

Is an Opening Day roster spot really in the cards?

Cincinnati Reds v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Kris Bryant showed up to Mesa, Arizona in 2015 and promptly swatted nine dingers in 14 games for the Chicago Cubs in Cactus League play. Then 23 years of age, the former top five pick showed he was ready for the challenge of mauling big league pitching and, as a result, the Cubs rewarded him with that opportunity.

Of course, they waited until April 17th of that year to do so, giving Bryant his big league debut on a 5-4 club that was playing host to the San Diego Padres in their fourth series of the year. In fact, those Cubs had dropped two of three to the Cincinnati Reds in the prior series, and I suppose all the banners hung by those 2015 Reds owe thanks to Theo Epstein for his roster management that year.

Nine games. Those Cubs waited nine games between Bryant’s dinger-socking spring and his big league debut, and those nine games are the reason he’s still under contract with the Chicago Cubs today. Those 2015 Cubs, you’ll recall, went on to win 97 games and a playoff series, going 92-61 in games played after Bryant’s call-up. They aligned things so that 94.4% of their season came after Bryant joined them in the big leagues, and for that they held control over him through the 2021 season, not just the 2020 season as would have been the case if he broke camp with the Cubs for that Opening Day.

Working on his defense, or some bullshit excuse, was the reasoning at the time, seeing as ‘reasoning’ is something Major League clubs need to be able to justify any would-be manipulation of service time. It’s a tactic that’s long been pervasive in the game, with 172 days of service clock constituting a ‘year’ of work gained, knowing full well playing 162 games takes just a tad bit more than that. As a result, finding creative ways to slide certain promising young players back to the minors for time they might not otherwise need has long become a way of ensuring clubs keep their best players for the longest possible times before they become free agents.

Bryant, you’ll recall, lost a grievance back in February of 2020, one that was filed as a result of that entire escapade back in 2015. An arbiter ruled that there wasn’t enough proven on his behalf, and the Cubs gained the 7th year of team control they knew they’d have all along. And as a result, one of the single largest gripes the MLB Players Association has had with the 30 MLB franchises was again cemented as a qualified tactic among front offices, with little chance of it evolving without a significant legal fight, or labor stoppage.

The Reds have been privy to that tactic too, of course. Nick Senzel’s first trip to a big league batter’s box was put on hold back in 2019 for similar reasons, a card I’m sure he’ll carry with him for the rest of his career as contracts are sorted. In a bit older history, the Reds opted against burying Mike Leake for a few trips through the rotation in 2010, instead rolling with him from Opening Day onward, a decision that eventually led to him being a free agent after 2015 instead of after 2016.

This has either been a long-winded intro about a specific situation or a scant recounting of one of baseball’s largest divides between owners and players. Regardless, there’s a looming chance we see another chapter in its history in the next two twelve days again with the Reds, as 24 year old Jonathan India has pretty well played his way into forcing said decision.

The team’s 1st round pick from 2018, has been perhaps the single biggest dynamo and domino in Reds camp this spring, his stellar play not only prompting talk of him cracking the big league roster but also causing a roster ripple-effect, too. Finding room for his bat was one of the key factors in the decision to ultimately shuffle the infield, something that has seen the newly-svelte Eugenio Suarez move to shortstop and incumbent 2B Mike Moustakas backfill at 3B, moves that should allow for India to slide into what appears to be a very regular opening at the keystone as early as the Reds so choose.

Will they, though? Will the same Reds that threw away players all winter solely because they were making normal big league dollars do something that, in theory, jeopardizes their long-term ability to squeeze out the most bang for their dollars? Will they view India’s $5.3 million signing bonus as an economic sunk cost on the path to future success, or will they take the view that they’d like to amortize it over seven big league years instead of six?

Will this club take the best roster to the GABP dugout on Opening Day, even if it means future Jonny India can hit free agency at age 29, instead of at age 30?

It may be a slightly less high-profile case than Bryant or even Senzel, and that may end up working in the Reds favor. Despite all three being top five overall picks, each of Bryant and Senzel entered their service time manipulation sweepstakes as consensus top ten overall prospects with spotlights firmly on their eventual call-ups, but India’s path has been a tad different. Highly rated out of the University of Florida, he’s had a few more hiccups on his path to the bigs, and that has dented his overall prospect status in the minds of many. Those hiccups, though, might be pretty easily written off in hindsight, as a combination of extreme pitcher-friendly environments, a wrist injury, and an entire minor league season lost to a pandemic having sapped him of chances to put his full arsenal on display.

Said arsenal has been there in the spotlight in camp in Goodyear this year, though, and he’s again showing the world the kind of talent that warranted that high draft pick three years ago. On top of that, he’s in precisely the kind of situation that could make these Reds actually, mercifully look rosy for once with their decision making after a winter of pitfalls and austerity that, frankly, was an embarrassing look for them.

They spent no money. They signed no shortstop. On top of that, this is a club that has gotten off to horrendous starts for several years running, something that has twice torpedoed any chance they might have had at competing in the NL Central.

Roll those three scoops of input into a blender, hit puree, and what milkshake does that give the front office and ownership of the Reds? Hey, we didn’t need to add an infielder, we had Jonathan India the whole time! And we know how important getting off to a quick start is based on our last few frustrating years, so we’re going to make sure he’s a part of these Reds from the get-go!

It might sound like a PR stunt, and it could be. It might give the Reds the kind of credit they don’t deserve, since you can scour quotes from all up and down the front office since last November and never once did India’s emergence get cited as a cornerstone of their offseason strategy. Still, they just might’ve lucked into an opportunity to save a tad bit of face with their fans thanks to the emergence of a kid who actually, tangibly looks the part of a player who can directly impact the franchise both now and for the next six years.

And hell, if they really want him around for a seventh year, offer him enough money to say yes.