Spring Training Roster Decisions

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Baseball Rule/Labor Agreement creates a shameful rookie hold-back.


Baseball news is always fun in late March. I love hearing about the prospects who make the big club ahead of schedule such as last year’s Brandon Morrow, the Rule V guys who make their GM’s look like geniuses (Joakim Soria), the rookies we never heard of who force their way onto their team with an whirlwind spring. Alexei Ramirez has made it from Cuban obscurity to starting centerfield on the south side of Chicago. At the other end of things, I’m sure it is a shocking and sad moment for their families and their egos when veterans lose their jobs, but honestly, it is kind of fun for us – if those players are not on our fantasy teams. No one I know drafted Jay Gibbons. So long, cheater! (Alleged?) It is scary I came so close to drafting Joel Peralta. Ryan Shealy’s demotion squashed some platoon plans. More shocking to me is Eric Hinske starting in rightfield over Jonny Gomes! Surely that is not going to be a straight platoon with Gomes only seeing left-handed pitchers?


This spring has been notable for three young highly touted A.L. players who many assumed would come north, but are not. I’ve read cries of “foul play” over the demotions of Evan Longoria, Josh Fields, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. It seems more common nowadays for a team to hold a player in the minors longer than the moment it is clear that he would be an improvement to the team. Ever more rarely will a highly touted prospect be given a chance before he has been thoroughly tested in the minors. It is a simple matter of economics. Due to the arbitration and free agent eligibility rules, a player is eligible for arbitration once he has become a major leaguer for two seasons and is among the top 17 percent of players who haven’t finished their third year (although, he must have 86 days of service in addition to the two years). This rule forces teams to count the number of rookies on other teams or just play it safe and hold a player back until there are only 86 days left in the season. If it is just free agency a team wishes to avoid, then a player has to be held in the minors long enough during one of his first six years in the Majors for it not to be counted as a sixth season.


It is a little surprising this practice has not been used more extensively. On the surface, teams stand to save millions of dollars. However, baseball players are not robots. They do not always improve significantly each year before their prime age. They could hold animosity toward a club which kept them in the minors after they worked hard enough and successfully enough to warrant a Major League job. They would understandably feel denied of their rightful Major League prestige, comforts, and earnings – future and present. They could get injured, in which case everyone loses by having that player in the minors longer than necessary.


Jarrod Saltalamacchia was the one Major League ready prime prospect traded for Mark Teixeira, so the expectations may be too high. The deal included two other of Texas’s top four prospects (Baseball Prospectus): Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus, so there is no guarantee any of them will be as outstanding as Teixeira. Combing the projections of Bill James, Chone Smith, Dan Szymborski (ZiPS) all via FanGraphs, Ken Warren (see my home page), and Nate Silver (PECOTA – see Baseball Prospectus), you would expect Salty to hit around .330/.440 (OBA/SlgA). Making the same rounded combined projection for Gerald Laird comes to .310/.400. It is a significant difference, yes, but catching is as a key defensive position – especially on a team attempting to build a respectable pitching staff. It is quite plausible that Laird’s superior catching ability far outweighs Salty’s superior hitting ability. Saltlamacchia’s hitting .770 would not be productive enough to take up roster space as a first-baseman or DH. Sending him down could hamper his development, perhaps, but the Rangers’ pitching staff could probably benefit more from Laird’s catching, so I see this demotion as entirely defensible.


In his second professional season, Oklahoma State’s Josh Fields leapt to the White Sox’s no. 2 prospect spot with a stellar season at their AAA affiliate in Charlotte. His competition for the White Sox’s starting third base position is Joe Crede, who was having a stellar season that year for Chicago. In August, however, Crede’s back began to give him trouble, and he has struggled with his back and his productivity ever since. Fields continued to shine at Charlotte and then played quite respectfully filling in half the season at third for Crede and having a 21 game trial in left field. My consensus of experts project Fields to be nearly a .340/.470 hitter. Their combined projection on Crede comes only to .310/.440. However, it is obvious those projections all hedge that Crede may or may not recover from his back woes. Crede hit .323/.506 in 2006 with almost two months of terrible hitting averaged in those stats after he hurt his back. When healthy, Crede is also a much better third-baseman defensively than Fields. With Konerko and Thome, there is no room for either player at first or DH. Accepting that Fields’s stint in the outfield didn’t work out, and they would rather he concentrate at thirdbase anyway considering the fragility of Crede’s back, you would have to conclude the White Sox are completely justifiable in sending Fields back to Charlotte – if Crede is fully healthy.


Saltalamacchia and Fields both rated as “B” prospects in John Sickels’ Baseball Prospect Book 2007. Neither qualified in 2008, but Evan Longoria rated “A”. In fact, both Baseball America and Sickels rated Longoria the no. 2 overall prospect in all of baseball. Longoria couldn’t be more ready – offensively and defensively. What you have in Longoria now is a .345/.470 hitter with stellar defense and a dedicated 22 year old’s probability of rapid improvement. Even in this age where it pays to keep your top prospects in the minors as long as possible, I challenge you to find a comparable prospect suppressed as Longoria is now that he has been returned to AAA. Here is an article from a Tampa Bay blog which attempts to do just that. Below it is my rebuttal. The closest case is not-coincidently another Tampa Bay Ray: BJ Upton!


Who is blocking Longoria? Willy Aybar – a utility infielder the Braves were all too eager to package along with a pitching prospect for a 27 year old reliever Jeff Ridgeway struggling just to make the majors. This holding back of Longoria’s playing time is so blatant to anyone who examines it carefully, it degrades the integrity of Major League Baseball. Adding to the disgrace is that the team pretended Longoria had a chance of winning the job this spring.


There is a good chance I would think differently about this, if it were my millions that I would have to pay Longoria a year earlier over a few months of playing now. However, the Rays get subsidized by the Yankees and other baseball revenues. Surely they could afford to do the right thing for the sake of the game. Sorry, my ethical meter is in the red on this.


The Rays have the no. 1 pick this June. Please, join me in wishing that whoever they most hope to draft with that precious pick will be wise to their cheap ploy and either refuse to sign with them or, if possible, build a contract insuring that this does not happen to them.

John Carter