In what has been a widely anticipated move, the White Sox announced Wednesday that they’ve optioned top outfield prospect Eloy Jimenez to Triple-A Charlotte. The move was one of nine spring cuts by the ChiSox, who also optioned out top pitching prospect Dylan Cease, catcher Seby Zavala and outfielder Micker Adolfo.
Jimenez, 22, is not only considered to be among the game’s premier prospects but is also largely believed to be ready for MLB action. The Dominican-born slugger obliterated Double-A and Triple-A pitching in 2018, posting ridiculous slash lines of .317/.368/.556 and .355/.399/.597 at those respective levels.
Jimenez’s demotion will stand out as one of the more blatant examples of service time manipulation this spring, as the decision to send him to Triple-A is surely motivated more by the desire to gain an extra season of club control over the player rather than to further his development. This year’s regular season is 186 days long, and a player would gain a full season of MLB service by spending 172 of those days at the MLB level (be it on the active roster or the injured list). In other words, by keeping Jimenez in the minors for just 15 days, the Sox will be able to control him for seven seasons as opposed to the six seasons for which they’d control him by bringing him to the Majors to open the year.
It’s a maddening and counter-intuitive side effect of a system that has prompted pundits, players, agents and fans to call for change. For a team in the White Sox’ situation — unlikely to contend this season but optimistic that their ongoing rebuild is nearing the finish line — it makes perfect sense from a business standpoint to trade two weeks of Jimenez in a noncompetitive season for a full extra year of control over a potential premium player. For Jimenez, however, the current structure of service time and free agency delays his path to his most significant potential payday, while the fans are asked to accept that their team won’t bring the 25 best players in camp north to open the season. It’s a system in which there’s arguably no true winner, as the even White Sox’ front office will surely face a negative wave of backlash from fans and onlookers.
For the time being, Jimenez will be asked to continue honing his skills in the minors. Perhaps the Sox will opt not to call him up on the very first day on which he’d fall a year shy of big league service, using the delay as a means of further claiming that the move was a developmental decision rather than one driven by service time. It’s likely that they’ll point to Jimenez’s .154/.154/.346 slash in Spring Training as justification of the move, though few would find it plausible that 26 spring plate appearances are more indicative of MLB readiness than the 456 PAs during which Jimenez laid waste to minor league pitching in 2018. Furthermore, the move would surely have happened regardless of his performance; the White Sox, after all, declined to give Jimenez a September call-up in 2018 despite his aforementioned mastery of minor league pitching and despite the fact that he was already on the 40-man roster.
Regardless of the specific timing, it seems quite likely that Jimenez will be in the Majors very early in the 2019 campaign. Cease and the others who were sent out aren’t as far along in their development and will be on a more uncertain timeline to the big leagues.
To be fair to the White Sox, they’re far from the only club to take this route. The Braves held back Ronald Acuna’s promotion to the Majors last season under similarly dubious circumstances, while others who’ve been subject to this form of service time manipulation include Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco (among many others). It was a foregone conclusion that the Blue Jays would send Vladimir Guerrero Jr. down to the minors in the exact same fashion, though Guerrero’s recent oblique injury actually gave the Toronto organization a legitimate reason to do so.