Free agent right-hander Spencer Turnbull has been retroactively awarded a full year of service in 2023 despite being on optional assignment from mid-August until the end of the season. The MLB Players Association released a statement from Turnbull on the matter, relayed by Evan Drellich of The Athletic, explaining the issue. “At the time I was optioned in August 2023,” the statement reads, “I was dealing with a foot injury. I raised this with the Club. After further review of my medical condition, the Club has now agreed to reverse the option and I am receiving full major league service for the 2023 season.”
Turnbull, now 31, seemingly butted heads with the Tigers a couple of times in the past year. He was initially optioned to the minors in May but that option was rescinded less than a week later, with Turnbull instead being placed on the major league injured list due to neck discomfort. “After Spencer left the room I got a call from him directly in which he disclosed some neck discomfort,” president of baseball operations Scott Harris said at that time. “As soon as we heard that, we set up an appointment for him with our doctor. We also had him see a specialist out of state. We had those doctors discuss what’s going on with his neck. They confirmed the injury and we placed him on the injured list as of Sunday.”
He was later transferred to the 60-day IL and wasn’t reinstated until the third week of August, when he was promptly optioned to the minors again. Shortly thereafter, reports emerged that the relationship between the pitcher and the club was fraught, with Turnbull referencing a cracked toenail at that time. Turnbull was just non-tendered by the club last week and reports emerged that he had asked to be traded prior to the deadline in early August. But no deal came together and he stayed on the roster until the non-tender last week.
There are multiple issues at play here. Injured players at the big league level are supposed to be placed on the major league injured list and cannot be optioned to the minors when they are hurt. While on the IL, they continue to collect major league service time and pay. With Turnbull optioned for the final month-plus of the season, he finished just shy of five years of service. By now getting that extra option reversed, his service time will go beyond the five-year plateau.
That is important for Turnbull on a couple of fronts. For one, players with more than five years of service can’t be optioned to the minors without their consent. Prior to this ruling, Turnbull was still going to have an option year remaining in 2024, allowing a club to sign him but keep him as depth in the minors in they wanted. That will no longer be on the table. Secondly, if Turnbull eventually spends all of 2024 in the majors or on the IL, he will get beyond six years of service and qualify for free agency again. Prior to today’s change, a club could have theoretically signed him for 2024 and then retained him via arbitration for 2025, since Turnbull would have been just shy of six years in that scenario. All in all, Turnbull has gained some more control over his future than he would have otherwise had.
Prior to the odyssey of being optioned and then landing on the IL and then the second option, Turnbull’s 2023 season began terribly. He made seven starts to begin the campaign and had an ERA of 7.26. That was on the heels of missing the entire 2022 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he had a good run prior to that. From 2019 to 2021, he threw 255 innings with a 4.13 ERA, 21.9% strikeout rate, 9.1% walk rate and 50.3% ground ball rate.