To Demote or Promote?

There are plenty of words in the English language that rankle my sensibilities, but few of them so consistently annoy me as “always”. It seems like such an innocent word, but how many times is the word “always” used correctly? It’s a sloppy word, used when someone is putting together a hasty argument and doesn’t have the time to merit defenses or facts to support them. “The Yankees always field a good team.” “Steroid use is always immoral.” “The better team always wins.” As much as we may want arguments (and life) to be black and white, cut and dried, very rarely is this the case. Life is full of contradictions, nuances, and shades of gray.

There are many baseball debates that tend to get polarized, but one common one during Spring Training is the debate over what to do with top prospects. If a team starts a top rated prospect in the minor leagues, there’s a public outcry about how the team is manipulating that player’s service time to serve their own best interest, keeping the player for an extra season and keeping the player’s salary lower for a longer period of time. The demotion has nothing to do with talent, but everything to do with money.

In most instances, though, the debate is far from this simple.

If you’re running a major league baseball team, obviously the financial benefits of delaying a prospect’s service time are tough to ignore. Unless you’re the Yankees or Red Sox, your team is operating under a fixed budget and you need to be careful with how you spend money so your team can compete now and in the future. Young players – especially top prospects – are incredibly valuable due to the amount of production you can get from them for the major-league minimum salary. Any team that doesn’t at least consider the financial impacts of when they promote prospects isn’t doing their due diligence.

At the same time, financial details aren’t nearly as important as encouraging a player’s proper development and growth. Each prospect is unique and should be treated as such; there’s no one set path that all prospects must take before reaching the majors. Some players may be ready for the majors straight from Double-A, while others may need multiple years of conditioning in Triple-A before they’re ready. There’s always a desire to rush top prospects and get them to the majors as soon as possible, but younger does not always equal better. Don’t get me wrong: I love the fact that the Braves were willing to have Jason Heyward start the season at the majors, and judging from his performance last season, he was definitely ready for the call. But just because Heyward was ready for the majors at age 20 doesn’t say anything about when another prospect may be ready.

I can’t help but think back to the 2009 preseason, when there was a large uproar about if David Price should start the season in the Rays’ rotation or not. Most people seemed to feel that Price was ready for the majors (especially after his performance out of the bullpen the previous year), but the Rays disagreed and sent him to the minors for a few months. Lots of people called them out as manipulating Price’s service time, but the Rays felt that Price still needed to work on his secondary pitches…which turned out to be correct. Price had all but lost his slider that spring training, and his changeup was mediocre at best. During his time in the minors, Price learned a new pitch (a spike curve) and refined his changeup more, yet he still had a tough time adjusting to the majors when called up later that year (4.42 ERA/4.59 FIP).

As I’m no prospect maven, I’m hesitant to call out any team that chooses to start a top prospect in the minor leagues. Who am I to say when a player will be ready for the majors? The way I see it, it’s better to err on the side of caution than to prematurely thrust a player onto a level they aren’t ready for. Humans need challenges in order to continue growing and learning, but too much of a challenge can hamper learning and cause a person to lose track of the skills they have. If it takes a player until they’re 25 or 26 to become ready for the major leagues, so what? While this will cause the player to get ranked lower on prospect lists – as you can’t be a true top prospect unless you’re young – their production may actually be better upon reaching the majors as they’re closer to their physical peak.*

*Side note: Do we have a tendency to underrate older prospects? It seems that prospects lists dock players once they start hitting ages 25 and above, but aren’t older prospects valuable too? Nelson Cruz immediately jumps to mind, but he’s a pretty rare case; there aren’t many instances of players with his skill level taking until they’re 28 years old to reach the majors. But still, if a player is older, that simply means that when they reach the majors they’ll be playing near their physical peak while under team control. That may not make them superstars or Hall of Fame material, but it’s got to be valuable to low-budget teams.

So while I agree that I love seeing prospects like Freddie Freeman start the season with the big league club, I disagree with the premise that teams that don’t promote their young players are automatically “evil” or “manipulative”. And even if a team’s sole purpose in demoting a star player is to manipulate their service time, those top players will reach the majors sooner rather than later and still make a boatload of money. What’s more “evil”, if you will, is the horrible wages that minor league players receive, ranging from $1,050 per month (Single-A) to $2,150 per month (Triple-A). Players receive around $25/day for meal money and are rarely provided with any healthy food options in the clubhouse. Considering how much major league players are paid, it seems a crime that these young players are treated so poorly. Why is it that you can barely make $20 thousand for a season in Triple-A, yet make$400 thousand minimum upon reaching the big leagues?

Maybe I’m heartless, but I can’t bring myself to care that much if a top prospect is given a few more months of conditioning in the minors. They’ll get their chance, they’ll make their money, while there are plenty of other players that won’t.




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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.


52 Responses to “To Demote or Promote?”

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  1. Ryan says:

    Well, teams have every right to hold out prospects until June to get them an extra year of service time because of costs for all the draftees and minor leaguers that never pan out. However, in the case of the Braves last year starting Heyward out in the majors is what caused them to make the playoffs. in 2009, the Braves waited till June to call up Hanson and they were the last team to be eliminated from playoff contention.

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    • JohnHavok says:

      Pretty narrow sighted to say that promoting Heyward was directly responsible for the Braves playoff appearance in 2010 and they missed in 2009 because they didn’t bring up Hansen soon enough. I’m no expert but I’m sure it’s not that simple.

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      • Jason B says:

        Yeah, what John said. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

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      • Jason says:

        I think what Ryan is saying is that the difference between Heyward and his replacement over 2 months would have been worth at least a win – which given the Braves’ narrow margin last year would have likely resulted in their missing the playoffs. That is a totally legitimate observation.

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      • kick me in the GO NATS says:

        Hindsight is always 20/20!

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    • Newcomer says:

      Being picky, but technically the Tigers were the last team eliminate from contention in 2009. Which doesn’t impact your point at all.

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  2. PGS says:

    Do minor leaguers really only make that much?

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      To the best of my knowledge. Some may make more, but likely not much more. Players can “negotiate” contracts after their first season, but I doubt they’re much higher than the min.

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      • Swifty20 says:

        Are those rates per month for a full year, or are players paid only during the months the season is going? So does a minor leaguer making $2000 a month make $24,000 a year, or more like half that?

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      • David Carter says:

        Minor league players are paid only during the months they are with their teams. No 12-month paychecks here.

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    • Big Jgke says:

      That’s not prorating or including signing-bonuses, though, right?

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    • bob says:

      wow i dont know how they do it that salary really blows the big one

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      • My echo and bunnymen says:

        Agreed, I made more than that (Single A) as a Baker, working 16 hours a week.

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    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      Any guy expected to make it to the majors has already earned a lot in bonuses over and above salary, so it is not as bad as you think. Plus, all their travel expenses are covered during the season and that is worth a fair amount. plus, they get paid to play winter ball, and get paid for some promotional events. Lastly, if 50% of your meals, utilities, commute gas and fun were covered during a year that would save you thousands of dollars (granted the married guys still have to pay for the family) (hint: they live in hotels that are covered for a good chunk of the year). In other words, these guys live better than many of you would think with the same salary thanks to all the benefits and bonuses.

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      • kick me in the GO NATS says:

        oh and foreign born minor league players get to live with sponsor families for usually free during the season. That saves tons of money for them.

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      • kick me in the GO NATS says:

        Nonetheless, the gap between minors and majors is huge!!!

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      • david says:

        A variety of your assumptions are just flat wrong.

        While the very top talents in the draft get a seven-figure signing bonus, even most third-round guys are getting low six-figures. Since that’s at the highest tax bracket, it often means that you’re talking about guys netting (before agent commissions, etc) somewhere in the upper five-figures. While that’s certainly a nice chunk of change for an 18- (or 21-) year-old kid, if you’re asking them to use it to sustain themselves for three years in the minors, it ain’t gonna lead to a glamorous life! For a college senior who signs in the 10th round, you can assume his net bonus is <$20K.
        Most (but not all) organizations leave it to the players to pay for their own housing during the season. There are some places where some guys get host families, but there's nothing consistent about that. They don't live in hotels most of the year.
        From the meal money, guys pay clubhouse dues which go to cover the incredibly-lavish post-game dinner spreads (by which I mean, whatever is provided by C-rate local semi-fast-food restaurants with in-kind sponsorship deals with the minor league affiliate). They're left about $15 to pay for breakfast and lunch every day they're on the road (they still pay clubhouse dues at home, even though they're not getting the meal money).
        No organization pays any portion of utilities or commute money.
        In-season travel is paid by the organization (just as any employer who requires long-distance travel for work does), but players are responsible for getting themselves to spring training. If the Cubs promote a guy from Hi-A to Double-A mid-year, the team pays for getting two suitcases to the next destination. You're on your own for getting the rest of your stuff from Daytona to West Tennessee.
        Individual players in the minors don't get anything more than a token appearance fee (and that's rare) for promotional events.
        And to the point someone asked above, the salaries listed are during the season… so from March through September. The other 5 months a year, guys earn zero from their clubs.

        But aside from all that, you're spot-on with your insights.

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    • beagamer says:

      It all depends, if a guy has ANY time in the big leagues his minor league salary automatically goes way up. If a guy is on the 40 man roster his salary is much higher. Back in 1987 A ball minimum was $700 per month and $11 meal money per day ON THE ROAD. AA was $1100 and AAA was $1500. Your meal money increased slightly at each level as well. There is no doubt that the minor league players do not make enough money at each level and some day someone should come in and fight for them. The minor league system is the backbone of each and every MLB team, problem is, only about 2-3 players on each minor league team are prospects, the rest are fill in players only given a chance to show what they have.

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  3. ck says:

    Its easy to say they should have called up Hanson sooner with the benefit of hindsight.

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  4. The Ancient Mariner says:

    There’s always a desire to rush top prospects and get them to the majors as soon as possible

    Irony alert . . .

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  5. Brad Johnson says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Providing higher quality amenities and food choices to the minor league players has always struck me as a potentially useful investment in player development – especially the food. Teams could try a number of techniques like simply putting out a healthier spread after the game or subsidizing food costs for any player making use of the team nutritionist.

    You don’t want to fiddle enough to distract the player, after all the poor conditions are supposed to help motivate a prospect, but there are subtle changes that can be made to improve the culture.

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  6. joser says:

    Why is it that you can barely make $20 thousand for a season in Triple-A, yet make$400 thousand minimum upon reaching the big leagues?

    Because the MLBPA represents the players in the big leagues, and doesn’t represent those players who haven’t got there yet (or ever)?

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  7. Jonesie says:

    If you think that wages are poor in the Minors, take a look at what teams pay their interns and/or entry level employees on all levels. People with these jobs only wish they could earn a Minor Leaguer’s salary.

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    • Azmanz says:

      That’s impossible. If you make 8/hour, work 40/week, you make 16 grand a year (which more than single-A players.) Maybe they don’t work 40/week, but then they could just get another minimum wage job to get up to that.

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  8. Jason says:

    “If a team starts a top rated prospect in the minor leagues, there’s a public outcry about how the team is manipulating that player’s service time to serve their own best interest, keeping the player for an extra season and keeping the player’s salary lower for a longer period of time.”

    Lets not confuse fangraphs readers with “the public” at large. I doubt if you polled 30K fans at a MLB game if this would even rank in the top 10 issues they are concerned about.

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    • Steve says:

      You have it backwards. Check out Indians’ fans’ reaction to Chisenhall being sent down. The kid is pretty good, but he’s not considering an all-world prospect and he’s yet to play an inning at AAA. Yet the joe average fan is up in arms after seeing him put up an amazing 20 ABs in Spring Training. The people who do understand where the team is coming from are the fangraphs readers.

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    • Swifty20 says:

      Ah, I think that article answers my question. Minor leaguers only even make that monthly amount during the actual season, not the whole year. Ouch.

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  9. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Nice read, Stevesie.

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  10. doug K says:

    I recently asked this question of some experts but wasnt satisfied with the answer. But it seems to me the club has more leverage in these situations when a players hasnt been put on the 40 man roster yet and might use it to get leverage in negotiating an arbitration buyout deal ala Longoria. Do you think that if Ackley were made to understand that he could make the club now if he gave the Mariners an extra option year at the end or go to AAA and lose a year of arbitration that he (and his agent) wouldnt be tempted to give a little more to make that happen.

    I appreciate that would be a delicate negotiation since the Mariners cant “officially” make the arbitration clock starting a reason for not calling Ackley up but I am sure that this can be communicated without violating the CBA. Isnt this exactly what the Rays did with Longoria?

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      I think that about hits the nail on the head: they’d probably have to raise the issue very delicately and be careful with their words, but signing a long term contract that gave up a year or two of free agency would essentially be a ticket to the majors for a MiL player. That’s very much what happened with Longoria, although again, I don’t think it was made explicit at any point that that’s what the Rays were going to do.

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  11. doug K says:

    Thanks for understanding my point despite multiple typing errors including major ones like “40 man roster”.

    I do wonder if they might be worried about getting a Union Complaint filed for even hinting at it. Or maybe Longoria is the kind of guy with whome you could do that delicately and Ackley is not and the Mariners know it.

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Well, it also depends how many players are willing to sign a contract like that….it might seem like a no-brainer to us to make the money when the chance is there, but to players ranked within the top 10 prospects in baseball, they might be thinking they can do better than that if they wait. Longo’s contract is a bit of a laughingstock at the moment.

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  12. The_Beard says:

    Let’s not cry too many tears for the poor, starving top prospects who are forced against their will to wait a few months (or god forbid a year or two) having an awesome time PLAYING BASEBALL and spending their bonus money on girls and beers and good times. As a former (unpaid) team intern I can assure you Dustin Ackley and Mike Moustakas will not have to work a second job to make ends meet!

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    • patrick says:

      yeah…and moustakas and ackley are surely the norm. Each team has probaby like 30-40 guys in the minor leagues at any given team who got a somewhat decent signing bonus. What about the other 100+? Nobody is feeling sorry for the first rounds picks. Its the guys who were signed for $1000 at the age of 16 out of the dominican or the 33rd round draft pick without whom, the minors leagues couldnt exist.

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  13. The_Beard says:

    Patrick that’s why I said lets not cry for top prospects. I realize there’s a ton of players who will live on the cheap and will never make a long term living playing baseball. As for the 16 year old Dominicans, hopefully baseball provides them with a chance at a better life, and if not I’m sure the DR will welcome them back.

    The rest of the players without big bonuses will not receive any sympathy from me either. They make roughly $20K a year just like the rest of the majority of the US population does from age 17-25. Good luck with baseball and have fun, and if you don’t make it welcome back to the real world- Hopefully those that used their baseball skill to pay for all or some of their college degrees will put them to good use.

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  14. Anthony says:

    Situations like Atlanta not calling up Hanson are rare. I see most situations like the Royals. Last year, here in Missouri lots of people were wanting them to call the farm up after the season was lost. To me that’s just stupid. Even if you have players who are ready to hit big league pitching or to K big league bats, should you call them up if your ending w/l change is minimal?

    People, and I mean normal people, not fangraphs people, want teams to call up your young guys. Even this year I heard people wanting Shelby Miller called up after Waino got hurt. It’s ridiculous.

    The minor league salary vs major league salary thing doesn’t even really matter. Let’s say a guy gets paid 500K regardless (which they don’t). Whether he does or does not get called up that year wouldn’t make a bit of difference, it’s the FUTURE. I’ll use an example with a made up player.

    Let’s say you’re a team and the threshold you can pay this guy is 6M a year. If he would do this:
    age/WAR
    20/1.5
    21/2
    22/2.5
    23/3
    24/3.5
    25/4
    26/5
    27/6
    28/6

    Then it’d be stupid of you to call him up when he can “contribute”. You’ll basically lose him just before he really hits his prime. This is why I realy don’t care if the Royals or teams in similar situations go through one more year of 85-90 losses as opposed to calling up the young guys and maybe end up at .500. You want those prime years to be cost controlled.

    I’m assuming everyone here knows this. I mean, to me it’s about as obvious as chewing your food before you swallow. However, it seems most average fans don’t seem to understand this.

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  15. Anthony says:

    I agree with the guy above my last post about the salary thing. 20K may sound like it sucks, to people who are 40, or people who think of baseball players as millionaires. However, as a 21 year old, I pay 190 bucks a month rent, I spend 600 on living expenses, and make about 650 a month, work 35ish hours a week and go to college. Studying/in class/work time is about 60 total hours. I’m not saying I’m some sort of awesome person, there are LOTS of people like me, people who work more and put themselves through school. People work crappy jobs year round for similar pay. 20 thousand dollars isn’t at all bad for playing baseball.

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    • RC says:

      Where the hell do you live that you can pay $190/month in rent?

      That being said, color me unimpressed with their plight.

      They’re getting paid $10-20K for on the job training that has a small probability of turning them into millionaires, and a large possibility of reinserting them into the general work pool with no useable skills.

      Compare that to your average 20 year old, who is PAYING $35K a year for work training, with an even smaller chance of it making them into a millionaire, and a large chance of inserting them into the general work pool with no useable skills AND HUGE DEBT.

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  16. CircleChange11 says:

    I know a former minor leaguer that traveled with a backpack stocked with a jar of peanut butter, bread, ramen noodles and spices so he would always have meals.

    The backpack was discovered when he made it to the majors and his teammates searched the raggedy looking thing.

    During his rookie campaign he was storing the money away like the apocolypse was coming. Good thing too, TJ surgery put the whole thing at risk.

    You can read books like the bullpen gospels to see how those not names Chase Headly live day to day. They ain’t called the bus-n-burger leagues for nothing.

    The reality for most is somewhere between a good bonus and the minimum. We’re also talking about guys without college degrees and limited skills/experience who are an injury away from coming home and looking for any job. I’m good buddies with a 29yo former minor leaguer that’s trying to figure it out at an age where he’s too old to sign out (despite 90+ mph), no degree, no work experience, and a tough economy.

    They don’t hand out good jobs based on how awesome you were at 24. The glamour goes away in a hurry, and you can’t save much making 20K a year and working out in the off-season.

    You guys have heard of host families, right?

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  17. CircleChange11 says:

    To the guy that’s in college … Imagine when u get your degree, you get hired. But, the company gives you a clerk wage job instead of the good salary position you’re qualified for … And are more talented than the guy currently holding the position. The reason you are given is that keeping you at the clerk level they can keep you off the salary scale and not pay benefits.

    Now get out there and kick butt at that clerk job. If you don’t there’s going to be a new grad that would love to be in your spot. Go get em Tiger.

    Sure, it’s reality. But that does not mean that it doesn’t suck for that individual.

    Sometimes I wonder what goes through Lars Anderson’s mind. Top prospect continually blocked and no opening for the next 5+ years. Yeah, he’s living the dream.

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    • RC says:

      “And are more talented than the guy currently holding the position. The reason you are given is that keeping you at the clerk level they can keep you off the salary scale and not pay benefits.

      Now get out there and kick butt at that clerk job. ”

      Apparantly you’ve never heard of the 40 hour part time wage scale that almost every large company in this country uses for some percentage of their employees. 40 hours, low pay, no benefits. Welcome to america. Livin the dream.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Like I said, it sucks for the individals in thsoe situations. I was speaking specifically to that situation.

        I was saying that I emphathize with the situation … not taking the “F’em” stance.

        I still believe the most qualified person gets the role. When they don’t, it had better be for a better reason than “aw, no matter … they’ll get their chance later.”

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  18. David says:

    What better incentive to try as hard as you can to make it to the majors? Only those players with ambitions for the ultimate promotion will stick around for very long. Not all achieve that goal, of course, but the mindset of the players is key to maintaining strong competition, allowing for more accurate talent evaluation.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I’ll take the most talented guys, not the ones that endure the most crap. I understand what you’re saying but you might just end up with the guys whose best opportunity in life is to make 35K as a 3A inglielder, not necessarily the guys that “want it the most”.

      It doesn’t make sense to me to have your most talented guys playing in the most meaningless games.

      If I were KC, I’d consider the slogan “Let Them Play” and use 2011 as the “get your feet wet year”, and get all of the top prospects significant playing time, allowing them to gel together, add whatever pieces you may need for 2012 and get to it. They only have a 3-5 year window to do some serious stuff before they all sign with other teams.

      I have a notion that Royals fans would show up in large numbers to get a good look at “the kids”. They wouldn;t boo them when they played badly, and they’d feel the hope when they played well. A decent season would likely lead to major season ticket sales for 2012.

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  19. Anthony says:

    K, yea, they might earn less than me over the course of their lifetime. However it’s a choice. A LOT of guys are signed out of college, so they at least have significiant college credits (which were likely paid for). If you were signed out of high school, I’m pretty sure I read about a lot of teams giving them college compensation. Even if they don’t, it’s a choice. If you are hitting .200 in A ball at 23 and making 20K a year; it’s time to give it up. I do not feel sorry for these guys. They have a better chance than most people. If they don’t have a better chance then they should make an economic decision and get a real job.

    As for the KC situation, Royals fans are awesome. The attendance numbers are low, but in what small market city with a history of losing would they be great? Combine that with the fact that across the state the St. Louis Cardinals have been awesome for the last decade and you have a fanbase that has proven they are pretty loyal and passionate.

    Still, I’d keep the young guys down. Boosting ticket sales in 2012 won’t mean anything if they leave and your window is smaller.

    What’d I’d really do is bring guys up in waves. I would never, under any circumstances bring all of them up at once. Call up some mid season this year, some near the end of this year, some starting next season, some mid season next year, and some start in 2012. That way you only have a few hitting ARB or FA at a time and you can hopefull stretch that success out.

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