The Houston Astros added outfielder George Springer to their major league roster on Tuesday night and batted him second in the lineup in their game on Wednesday against the Kansas City Royals. Springer had an infield hit in five at-bats plus a walk in his debut.
Astros fans — indeed, fans of young baseball talent — have been pining for Springer’s call up since last season when he batted .301/.411/.600 in 589 plate appearances with 37 home runs and 45 stolen bases between Triple-A and Double-A. That followed his successful 2012 campaign in Double-A and high Single-A, when he posted a .302/.383/.526 line in 581 plate appearances. In February, Baseball America ranked Springer as the 18th best prospect. My colleague Marc Hulet put Springer at No. 14 on his Top 100 prospect list.
Yet Springer remained in the minors, without even a whiff of the big leagues last September, when the Astros expanded their roster. And he was sent back to Triple-A during spring training, with no place on Houston’s 40-man.
Then we learned from Ken Rosenthal that the Astros had offered Springer a seven-year/$23 million contract last September, which Springer turned down. That led to reports that his agent was in discussion with the MLBPA on whether to file a grievance against the Astros for improperly manipulating Springer’s major-league service time because Springer had turned down the seven-year contract offer.
After Rosenthal’s report, Dave Cameron looked closely at the CBA and explained that claims of service-time manipulation are quite difficult to prove. That’s because the CBA says players are entitled to free agency after six or more years of major league service time, with one year of service time defined as 172 days on a major league roster. A typical season lasts 183 days.
In recent years, as Dave noted, few rookies have broken break camp on their team’s 25-man roster — whether highly-touted prospects or otherwise. The Rays, for example, didn’t call up Evan Longoria — Baseball America‘s No. 2 prospect — until April 12, 2008. That left Longoria with 157 major league service days at the end of the season, 15 shy of a full year. And it didn’t hurt the Rays in the standings. They played in the World Series in 2008. The same was true with Buster Posey and the San Francisco Giants in 2010. Posey toiled in Triple-A until the end of May, and then led the Giants to their first World Series Championship since moving to San Francisco. Both Longoria and Posey were Rookies of the Year in their respective leagues.
The Astros don’t expect to compete for a spot in the postseason this year, or next. They are in the midst of a well-known tear-down and re-build of the entire organization. Their minor league system is stocked with well-regarded prospects but the major league roster is still a work in progress. Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Royals, Astros outfielders were hitting .184/.245/.374, good for a 73 wRC+. Even if George Springer produces for the Astros this season the way he did for the Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, he’s not going to carry them into the 2014 postseason.
By waiting until Tuesday night to add Springer to the 25-man roster, the Astros didn’t act entirely in their own interest. They could have waited longer, into July, when Springer wouldn’t have been able to accrue enough service time in 2014 to qualify as a Super Two. Typically, a player doesn’t become eligible for arbitration until he’s accrued at least three years of major league service time. Players with two-plus years of service time in the top 22% among the two-plus group earn Super Two status and become eligible for arbitration in the winter between their second year and third year. If he stays in the majors the rest of 2014, Springer will be eligible for arbitration after the 2016 and become a free agent after the 2020 season.
If Springer ultimately pursues a service-time grievance against the Astros, he might have support from Jon Singleton, another well-regarded prospect in Houston’s system. Singleton is the Astros’ first baseman of the future; the question is when the future will arrive. He had a tough 2013 at Triple-A with a .220/.340/.347 slash and suspension for marijuana use. But, like Springer, he’s knocked the leather off the ball at Triple-A this season. By comparison, Astros first basemen were hitting .168/.240/.295 for a 51 wRC+ through Tuesday’s games, the worst in the majors.
So why wasn’t Singleton called up with Springer? Singleton is already on the 40-man roster and is in Triple-A on an option. As Astros beat writer Evan Drelich explained, if Singleton spends fewer than 20 total days at Triple-A, those count toward major league service time. After 20 days, they don’t. So to keep Singleton from accruing a full year of service time in 2014, the Astros aren’t likely to call up Singleton until at least April 19.
Roster machinations, for sure. Improper under the current CBA? Probably not, and difficult to prove even if the Astros violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement. But in no event will the delays in bringing up Springer and Singleton change the outcome of the season for the Astros.
The same cannot necessarily be said about Archie Bradley and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The D’Backs are off to a dreadful start. At 4-14, they’re 10 games under .500 less than three weeks into the season. It’s a stunning turn of events for a team that was expected to contend in the National League West — if not for the division title, at least for a wild card spot. Even after expected Opening Day starter Patrick Corbin suffered a tear in the UCL of his pitching elbow and was lost for the season, nine ESPN baseball experts (including our own Dave Cameron) picked the D’Backs to make the postseason.
The offense hasn’t been a problem. Through Tuesday’s games, Arizona had scored 65 runs in 17 games with a team-wide 107 wRC+. The problem — the really big problem — has been the starting rotation. In 89 1/3 innings through Tuesday, the Diamondbacks starters had allowed 76 runs — the most in the majors and 24 more than the Rockies’ starters. Randall Delgado‘s already been replaced in the rotation by Josh Collmenter. But that still leaves four starters all with ERAs over 5.00.
Enter Archie Bradley. Or rather enter his agent Jay Franklin, who’s raised questions about why the Diamondbacks haven’t called Bradley up to the majors to try to stabilize the rotation.
Bradley is No. 9 on Baseball America‘s Top 100 prospects list, the highest ranked pitcher not named Masahiro Tanaka. Marc Hulet has Bradley at No. 5. The right-hander is 21 years old with an ERA below two since the beginning of 2013. But he has just two starts above Double-A in his career and they’ve both come in the last two weeks. He struggled with command in spring training.
D’Back’s GM Kevin Towers moved Collmenter to the rotation and called up Mike Bolsinger this week. Towers told reporters before Tuesday night’s game that Bradley’s service time clock has nothing to do with the decision.
“I think he needs more time down there as well as I don’t think it’s a proper environment,” Towers said. “With what’s going on with our ball club, throwing him in here, he would be viewed as the savior. I don’t think it’s the right time. If we were playing a little better baseball, maybe. But right now I don’t want to put that on him. That’s not to say he couldn’t come up here and perform like we hope Mike does, but we don’t like the environment based on who he is and what people will think once he comes here.”
Bradley’s agent Jay Franklin has a different view, as D’Backs beat writer Nick Piecoro reported:
“Archie Bradley has proven to the Diamondbacks organization that he has deserved that opportunity by keeping his mouth shut and letting his numbers speak for his chance to pitch in the major leagues.”
With Springer’s potential grievance in the news, it’s no surprise to see an agent saber-rattling over service-time issues with a top prospect. It’s also no surprise to see a GM be cautious with a prized young arm — whether that caution stems from his concern for the pitcher or for the team’s pocketbook.
But are the D’Backs ready to just throw in the towel on the season? Is the atmosphere so negative that’s it’s not even worth the risk of a few major league starts for Bradley to see what he can do? See if he can help settle things down. There’s no obligation to keep Bradley in the majors for the full season if it doesn’t work out.
As with Springer before his call-up, Bradley isn’t on the 40-man roster, so the D’Backs would have to make room for him. (The Astros released Lucas Harrell and optioned Robbie Grossman to Triple-A). Corbin and reliever David Hernandez, both out for the year after Tommy John surgery, have already been placed on the 60-day disabled list. The fear of losing a more experienced player off the 40-man may be another reason the D’Backs aren’t ready to bring Bradley to the majors.
Indeed, as long as the service-time/arbitration-and-free-agent clock structure remains in place, GMs will always be able to find a baseball reason for delaying a prospect’s major-league debut. Pitchers are always working on their stuff, their command, their location. Hitters are always trying to perfect their swing, make adjustments, find more power. If the players’ association wants to stop teams from using the current rules to their advantage, it should bargain for better rules in the next CBA.
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