George Springer, Archie Bradley & The Service-Time Dance

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 LongoriaBaseball 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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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


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saucypony
Member
saucypony
2 years 1 month ago

At the very least, Harrell is still on waivers after being DFA’d. He hasn’t been released yet.

Moranall
Member
Moranall
2 years 1 month ago

Uhh, 107 wRC+? Right now, the Diamondbacks team wRC+ is 82. I don’t think that Wednesday’s game dropped them 15 points.

Leighton
Guest
Leighton
2 years 1 month ago

But maybe 25 points?

Moranall
Member
Moranall
2 years 1 month ago

Haha whoops. Math fail.

Jim
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

Bradley’s command was inconsistent this spring. I think the Dbacks were on the fence about starting the year with Bradley in the rotation and then he laid an egg in his last outing against the Australian National team.

Sour Bob
Guest
Sour Bob
2 years 1 month ago

This. Bradley was awful in that Australian exhibition and in his last Cactus league start, with a combined 9 R in 5 /23 IP, and a WHIP only a bit under 3. I’m all for the conversation about gaming the service time clock, but in Bradley’s case, he earned his demotion the old-fashioned way.

Patrick
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Patrick
2 years 1 month ago

The union isn’t going to challenge this because its members have, by definition, already crossed the threshold and have no motivation, now, to fight for this.

This is an abusive practice, and the only thing worse than the owners who do this is the army of baseball writers who openly condone it, praising the most egregious practitioners for their intelligence instead of castigating them for their lack of ethics.

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter
2 years 1 month ago

If the union doesn’t care enough to challenge it – or to change the rules in their CBA – then why shouldn’t the owners take advantage of it? If there was a similar loophole on the players’ side, they’d unquestionably take advantage.

And if super 2 is the top 22% (i.e. a fixed number), then calling these guys up will just knock someone out of super 2 status. Whether it’s Springer, Bradley or someone else, there will be the same number of super 2’s each year.

oldschoolways
Member
oldschoolways
2 years 1 month ago

The union doesn’t care because they focus on maximizing gains for existing union members. Amateurs in the US and abroad have no actual voice in the union so their interests always get put 2nd. No one is really representing them aside from their agents on an individual level. For these particular prospects it’s not about Super 2 status so much as it is about manipulating service time to delay free agency by a year on the back end.

oldschoolways
Member
oldschoolways
2 years 1 month ago

Should’ve said amateurs and players in the minors in the 2nd line there.

jj
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jj
2 years 1 month ago

Because ethics.

Would players try to take advantage of every loophole? Yeah, but they’re bargaining with mega rich team owners. Owners are using these rules to take advantage of young men with a VERY short window to earn, and who would be paid below market salaries anyway.

Poor, poor team owners. Life is tough for billionaires.

Stickyweb
Guest
Stickyweb
2 years 1 month ago

So only rich owners have to act ethically? Interesting perspective.

These young men have the exact same window to earn as everyone else in the country. Their window to earn ridiculous salaries for playing a kid’s game is somewhat shorter, but they’ve been given everything they ever wanted in life since they were 9 years old due to good athletic ability. Poor, poor players. Envy isn’t pretty, so let’s leave it out of the discussion.

maguro
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maguro
2 years 1 month ago

Pardon me, IANAL, but is there really such thing as the “spirit” of a collectively bargained agreement? I always thought a CBA was enforced to the maximum letter of the agreement by both parties.

Baltar
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Baltar
2 years 1 month ago

The last time I checked, MLB teams are businesses, not charities, which means money will alway trump ethics.
If you haven’t learned that yet, you must be very young.

joser
Guest
joser
2 years 1 month ago

But the players in the MLBPA have agents, and those agents also represent players who aren’t yet in the MLBPA like Springer, Singleton, and Bradley. Agents may not have an official seat at the table, but you know they can make their influence felt in CBA negotiations — if they really think this is a point worth fighting for.

Catoblepas
Guest
Catoblepas
2 years 1 month ago

Nice article Wendy. This does strike me as something that might be difficult to change, because it affects mostly young, minor league players, and therefore not players represented in the MLBPA. This isn’t the QO, which after this offseason is perceived (fairly or not) as a major drag on the value of some mid-career free agents, i.e. the MLBPA’s core constituency. Nothing easily comes to mind for what the players would have to give up in order to get rid of the QO; coming up with two things is even more difficult, and that makes me think service time rules might stay intact for a little longer.
I guess the one caveat is if the players just concede the year, and make it seven years from the first major-league game played, but I don’t know if the teams would accept even that.

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter
2 years 1 month ago

I could see how someone would challenge this, but it shouldn’t be any of the three guys listed. I think it would need to be a more perfect situation, where there’s simply no reason to keep someone down.

Singleton played half a season in AAA last year, and he sucked. As a 1B batting 220/340/347 with a 30% k-rate in AAA, you have no right to act like you’re unquestionably a major league caliber player.

Bradley’s a terrific pitching prospect, but he never pitched in AAA before this year. That alone is justification for keeping down for seasoning.

Springer has crushed the ball year after year, but he strikes out a lot in the minors, so they can justify sending him down if they think major league pitchers will exploit him.

If Springer had similar #’s with a solid K rate, or Bradley had similar #’s but in AAA instead of AA, then it would be easier to justify. But from the team’s perspective, there’s a legit reason to keep them down. That’s not to say they aren’t ready for the majors – just that I could see the team’s justification, if it was in front of an arbiter.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 1 month ago

No one has any legal case. If there was any possibility at all, someone would’ve challenged long ago. No shortage of lawyers in the US of A.

Teams don’t conjure up reasons to create a legal fiction, but for PR reasons. “Yes, we’re trying our very hardest to win right now, so come out to the ballpark today!”

Utah Dave
Guest
Utah Dave
2 years 1 month ago

First of all, I think Wendy writes very informative and balanced articles about the economics of baseball. So thanks.

I’m not sure that I see management or GM’s doing anything wrong here. Especially when it comes to smaller market teams, there is a need to balance this season’s winning potential with the financial concerns of the future. Ownership/management is under no binding agreement to promote any player any time other than when they feel it is best – for whatever reason. While I doubt that any GM is going to say that they held back Player X so as to prolong team control, they are quite entitled to do so. There are always going to be shortcomings in the CBA that need to be addressed the next time around from both sides. Perhaps this is an area that the players need to make a point of negotiation the next iteration. I’m guessing that the QO will also be brought up. In some ways the creation of Super 2 probably cuts both ways for players and owners.

Richie
Guest
Richie
2 years 1 month ago

Wendy’s the staff lawyer. Dave’s the economist. (maybe they got another one on staff, too, so far as I know)

pinch
Guest
pinch
2 years 1 month ago

jeff is the… chemist? hmm.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
2 years 1 month ago

The volcanologist.

Matthew Murphy
Member
2 years 1 month ago

Keeping players in the minors for a few extra weeks/months to extend team control is nothing new, and it falls perfectly within the rules of baseball, so I wouldn’t exactly call the practice abusive. Also, there’s not really any way to prevent it without a complete overhaul of the rules. The simplest way would be to say that once the player is called up, outside of September with expanded rosters, their clock starts ticking. However, while this would help some guys on competitive teams who might get called up in April instead of July, someone like Springer on a team that has zero playoff aspirations this year might be stuck in the minors until September.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 1 month ago

A major part of the beef the Springer and his agent have stems from the perception that if he had signed the seven year deal, he would have started the year in the majors, ergo he should start in the majors without the deal. But I recall that draftees can negotiate to be on the active roster during September as a part of their initial contract. How is that different? It’s still “sign this now, and get on the major league roster today – don’t, and you have to wait.” Why can’t teams make part of the reward for signing a contract be being placed on a major league roster?

Teddy Wolvesevelt
Member
Teddy Wolvesevelt
2 years 1 month ago

great stuff. thanks!

Belloc
Guest
Belloc
2 years 1 month ago

“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.”

Sure, because sending a 21-year-old man down to the minors because he failed at the Major League level would do wonders for his confidence.

Baseball players are human beings. They have egos and psyches just like everyone else, only their failures are very public.

Johnny Sain, a very good pitcher and perhaps the greatest of all pitching coaches, said, “Pitchers, even big strong pitchers who can throw fast balls through the Washington monument, are at their core delicate flowers. They need to be nurtured, encouraged, supported, admired.”

Bradley has always had issues throwing strikes. He isn’t exactly tearing things up in Reno. He’s only 21. The D-Backs can please limits on his workload in the minors that would be more difficult to enforce in the Majors when winning games actually matters. And, yes, the D-Backs have a legitimate business interest to boost Bradley’s confidence, and not shatter it. There are many sound reasons for keeping him in Reno.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 1 month ago

Sure, because sending a 21-year-old man down to the minors because he failed at the Major League level would do wonders for his confidence.

He certainly wouldn’t be the first player to get a call up, perform poorly, and get sent down. Many of those players turned out just fine.

Even if they didn’t send him down, sooner or later he’s going to experience some failure. Understanding how to handle struggle and failure is a critical part of being a professional athlete, and there isn’t much a team can do to shield a player from that. How Bradley handles adversity not if but when he faces it will be important factor in his career trajectory.

Wayne Provost
Guest
2 years 1 month ago

Prediction…Bradley makes his debut with the D Backs when they return from their current road trip. He pitches against Philly at home in the warmth of Arizona…the Diamondbacks are in Chicago before that and it’s still cold there. Bradley will not be exposed to that weather…

tullythomas
Guest
tullythomas
2 years 1 month ago

The counter example is Jason Heyward. The Braves broke camp with him –due in part to broken windshields in the right bleachers parking lots–instead of doing the “Longoria/Springer dance”, and now will lose him after 2015 for six full protected seasons.

JKA
Guest
JKA
2 years 1 month ago

One additional note regarding Springer – I believe he hit about .190 in spring training, while Robbie Grossman raked all spring and won the job on merit. Everyone knew that Springer would be up fairly quickly, but had the team simply awarded him the spot out of spring training, the clubhouse could have gotten a little tense. Players know the top draft picks and prospects will always get a longer look (Brett Wallace ?!?),but forcing in the young guys based purely on potential might eventually backfire, especially on a young club that is being built for the long term. Grossman (and perhaps Marc Krauss, who also shined in spring training and may soon see Singleton in his rear view mirror) can’t say they didn’t get the chance they earned; now Springer, who to his credit went to AAA and forced his way up to the majors, will get his chance. Just suggesting it’s not completely a service-time conspiracy…..

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