Every year around this time, the cries grow louder for teams to call up top prospects from the minors. Sluggers are raking, pitchers are dealing, yet fans don’t get to see their team’s best young players at the major league level. We can thank the dreaded Super Two rule of salary arbitration eligibility for that.
The good news is that Major League Baseball is, if you believe the rumors, possibly considering scrapping or at least reforming the Super Two rule this offseason, as part of the next round of collective bargaining with the players union. Some teams are operating as if the rule will go away. For instance, Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore sits on MLB’s Rules committee, and he had no qualms about calling up top prospects Eric Hosmer and Danny Duffy before the likely Super 2 cutoff date. The Seattle Mariners didn’t look like contenders at the start of the season, but M’s GM Jack Zduriencik called up stud starter Michael Pineda anyway, to great results.
Still, many teams are carrying on as if the rule won’t change, in the process holding back players who by most objective standards should be playing in the big leagues.
Here are four of the top position players prospects we’re watching, how their absence is affecting the big club, and when we might expect to see them crack the majors.
Brett Lawrie, 3B, Toronto
Cathal Kelly has a good rundown of the Lawrie situation in today’s Toronto Star. In a nutshell:
—Edwin Encarnacion has zero homers and minus infinity defensive value at third base, such that in the span of mere weeks, manager John Farrell has all but abandoned his vow to stick with E5 as his third baseman.
–Lawrie’s hitting .342/.401/.638 at Triple-A Las Vegas, impressive numbers even in a hitter’s park and a hitter’s league, especially since Lawrie’s just 21 years old.
–A June 1 callup would put Lawrie’s service time at 2 years, 120 days at the end of the 2013 season, assuming he stayed on the big league roster throughout. As Kelly notes, player agency CAA did a study and estimated the 2012 Super 2 cutoff at 2 years and 146 days of service. The preceding season, the cutoff was 2 years, 122 days.
Though you’d expect the Yankees and Red Sox to improve and separate themselves from the pack, for now the Jays are in the thick of a muddled AL East race, just 2.5 games out. If Jose Bautista continues his vintage Babe Ruth, ~13 WAR pace, the Jays could be a surprise contender. Given the alternatives are Encarnacion and career utilityman John McDonald, getting Lawrie in the lineup ASAP can’t help but improve the team’s chances.
Brandon Belt, 1B/OF, San Francisco
Funny thing about sample sizes. Teams will dismiss them as too small when it’s convenient for them, only to attach huge significance to them when a younger player is involved. Thus we have 23-year-old Brandon Belt, smiter of minor league pitching (still a small sample, but at least it’s a year-plus), demoted after 60 plate appearances, with manager Bruce Bochy proclaiming his young slugger has lots of work to do before he can be ready.
All Belt has done since then is hit .351/.484/.553 in 124 plate appearances at Triple-A Fresno. Belt is ready, and the Giants are running out several players at the corners who shouldn’t be playing much at all, let alone nearly every day. The Giants got swept up in post-World Series glow when they re-upped Aubrey Huff for two years, $22 million; he might not be 631 OPS bad, but Belt’s likely a better option at first base by now. Nate Schierholtz (offense) and Pat Burrell (defense) also have major holes in their game. And while the Jays might be fringe contenders for the moment, the Giants sit in first place, with legitimate hopes for a repeat. Shortstop is the bigger problem right now, but calling up Belt is an easier path to improvement given who the Giants currently have in the organization.
Desmond Jennings, OF, Tampa Bay
You know we’re bros, Sam Fuld. But it might be time for you to reclaim that role as Baseball’s Most Fascinating 4th OF. The Rays have one of the most top-heavy offenses in baseball, with particularly large (current) offensive holes at shortstop and sadly, left field.
Super Two considerations aside, the Rays have long vowed not to call up a player until they feel absolutely certain (or as certain as can be with a young player) that their prospect is ready for the show. Rays fans shrieked in agony as Matt Joyce destroyed Triple-A while Hank Blalock destroyed rallies, then clamored for Jeremy Hellickson to get his dominant arm up to the Trop. The 24-year-old Jennings may have been a reasonable send-down to start the year, having not yet shown he can hit for power in the high minors. But he’s showing it now, hitting .272/.383/.455 at Triple-A Durham, rounding out a talent base that includes excellent defense and baserunning and a fine batting eye. The Rays can look especially overmatched against left-handed pitching as currently constituted, and Jennings’ right-handed bat would surely help. Nestled right between the Jays’ slight longshot status and the Giants perhaps growing more comfortable with a three-game lead and the Rockies likely losing Jorge de la Rosa for the year, the Rays’ great pitching and defense makes them contenders, but their offense leaves them lacking.
Make the move, Andrew.
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, San Diego
The player performing best in this foursome is also the one who can probably be kept in dry dock the longest, all things considered. The 21-year-old Rizzo is hitting a Nintendo-like .368/.441/.724 at Triple-A Tucson and would be a gigantic no-duh upgrade over the dynamic duo of Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu at first base. But the Padres aren’t contenders this year, so being extra-cautious with service time makes sense in Rizzo’s case.
There’s also the matter of Kyle Blanks, the 6’6″, 270-pound first baseman who’s hitting well at Double-A (.311/.373/.515) after battling early injuries. Blanks turns 25 in September and has already tasted the big leagues. Even if he’s likely trade bait once Rizzo does come up, the Padres should at least give Blanks a shot to see what they have, and to showcase him for a deal. If Rizzo gets a September cup of coffee, then starts 2012 as the Padres’ Opening Day first baseman, that could be a reasonable solution for all parties involved.