Calling Up Top Prospects

Pedro Alvarez, Desmond Jennings and Carlos Santana have more in common than their status as top prospects. These guys are as cheap as they’ll ever be and their teams can control their future salaries by calling them up strategically.

Just ask the Rays. Evan Longoria fell two days short of a full year of service time, which delayed his free agency by a year and GM Andrew Friedman went on to sign Longoria to one of the most team-friendly deals around. The team's decision to keep him in the minors for a couple weeks in April 2008 looks as prudent today as it looked cheap then.

If teams wait until late April to call on a player without major league service time, they can save considerably. Players who make their big league debuts after April 19th (that’s Monday) this year won’t spend enough time on a major league roster to earn a full year’s service time, so their free agency will be pushed back a year. 

If the Braves had called Jason Heyward up in late April, they could likely have delayed his free agency and he would have been under team control through 2016. But the Braves didn’t try to save with Heyward, who’s off to a hot start. It’s Bobby Cox’s last season and the Braves just want to win, so on-field ability comes first for the Braves right now.

The D’Backs faced a similar dilemma with Brandon Allen last summer. The 24-year-old first baseman was hitting well in the minors, well on his way to earning the number four spot on Baseball America’s list of top D’Backs prospects. In 502 plate appearances, he had a .298/.373/.503 line with 20 homers. 

The D’Backs could have limited Allen’s service time by keeping him in the minors. That would not necessarily have delayed his free agency or limited his arbitration years, but it would have made it easier for the D’Backs to save money in years to come. But D’Backs GM Josh Byrnes says the service time clock was secondary.

Byrnes says he will call on some promising young players – Justin Upton comes to mind – in August or September. It may mean they pick up service time, but Byrnes says it’s often worth it.

“In my experience, players like Jason Jennings, Juan Pierre and Jonathan Papelbon had impact in the first full season after a late-season call-up the year before,” said Byrnes, who worked for the Indians, Rockies and Red Sox before taking over the D’Backs in 2005.

The Rockies called on Juan Pierre in August of 2000, setting him up for a big 2001 season (.327/.378/.415 line, 46 SB). Jason Jennings made seven starts for Colorado down the stretch in 2003 before winning NL Rookie of the Year the next season. The Rockies played Pierre and Jennings instead of slowing their ascent to free agency and arbitration by keeping them in the minors.

In those cases, the decision to put player development ahead of player cost paid off. But that doesn’t mean the D’Backs don’t have one eye on their players’ service time clocks.

“Of course, we are aware of years of control and arbitration in anything we do (including trades), but service implications have not been taken precedent over baseball decisions,” Byrnes said.

And that choice is entirely the team’s. Agent Matt Sosnick, whose clients inlcude Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Jay Bruce, realizes clubs make these decisions.

“As an agent you have to know that,” he says. “I mean that’s the deal. It’s the teams that make that call and that’s out of your control [as an agent].”

Sosnick predicts this year will be no different than others: top prospects will get the call at the end of May and beginning of June. That limits the player’s service time to 130 days or so, which reduces his chances of qualifying for super two status. Since super twos go to arbitration four times instead of the usual three, it’s a big deal. In essence, teams can save millions by keeping an eye on the service time clock. 

Ultimately, he can’t blame the clubs for calling players up when they do.

“You look at the amount of players that are called up within a couple weeks of that time and from a business standpoint, it was a smart thing.”

After all, players earn considerably more when they’re super twos.

“It can be the difference between making $500K and $5 million bucks in that year,” Sosnick says.

The Reds called Jay Bruce up on May 27th, 2008. That left Bruce with 125 days of service time after the season. After this coming season, he’ll likely be a week or two short of super two status. The consequence of the late call-up was obvious to Bruce.

“He was at the point when he was called up- he knew  that getting called up at that point meant that he was not going to be super two,” Sosnick says.

Agents might hope their clients pick up a full year of service time or gain super two status, but they can’t do much more than wish.

“What would the alternative be?” Sosnick asks. “Should I go to a general manager and say ‘listen why don’t you call him up ten days earlier so that two years from now he can be a super two and go to arbitration a year earlier.’ They’ll tell me to piss off.”

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