A baseball discussion topic for your weekend, if you’re so inclined. I’ll be navigating some whitewater on the Hiwassee River tomorrow, so do as you wish.
If you follow baseball, you’re well aware that hitting prospects are treated differently from pitching prospects. A good pitcher has tremendous value, but a pitching prospect’s much higher injury risk dramatically changes both his value to the team and the way he is treated as a young player.
Many teams today break out the kid gloves and antiseptic spray before even talking about one of their young pitchers. Some of them will go to great lengths to ensure that a pitcher isn’t increasing his year-t0-year workload too quickly; the recent suggestion that the Yankees might skip some of Joba Chamberlain’s late-season starts is evidence of that fact.
Relatively speaking, though, a hitting prospect doesn’t face the same kind of challenges. He has to adjust to the new level as he is promoted through the minor leagues, but a non-catching position player’s workload rarely enters the conversation.
Of course, I’m bringing all of this up because the Braves have a 19-year-old outfielder named Jason Heyward. You may have heard of him, as he is Baseball America’s current #1 prospect. He’s hitting .417/.500/.738 in 102 plate appearances at AA Mississippi, forcing the conversation about him to shift from “I can’t wait to see what he can do next year” to “maybe he could play right field tomorrow night.”
Heyward’s situation, as a position player, is different from what Tommy Hanson faced earlier this season. Only the Braves’ staff knows his true development stage, but his statistics suggest that he’s about as ready as anyone. Sample size issues aside, he’s absolutely raking in AA (with a high-BABIP-inflated average, though). From a discipline standpoint, he has generally increased his walk rate and decreased his strikeout rate as he has advanced through the minors.
I don’t know that Heyward would immediately out-produce Matt Diaz and Ryan Church, but it’s a distinct possibility, so the other major concern is what effect an early promotion would have on Heyward’s future paychecks. For these purposes, let’s assume that the Braves aren’t sending him back to the minors again after he gets the call.
MLB Rules Primer
Allow me a diversion to lay out some of MLB’s rules regarding young players and their contracts. Much thanks to the guys at MLB Trade Rumors for distilling a lot of facts into coherent summaries on each topic; I’ve linked their posts below. You’ve probably heard each of these terms before, and chances are, you’ve heard people use them incorrectly. I’ve probably done so on this blog, so consider this an attempt to figure out the truth.
Service Time – Players accumulate service time in years and days when they reach the big leagues, DL time included. Most players are eligible for salary arbitration after three years of service time, and they become free agents after six. “Ten and Five” rights allow players with ten years of service time, including five with their current team, to decline a trade.
Arbitration – Salary arbitration is offered to most players with three years of service time, except for Super Twos. The player and team each submit a contract offer, and if an arbiter is needed, one of the offers will be chosen by a third party. It’s intended as a way to help teams and players agree on contracts, generally for players who are still under team control. A team must offer arbitration to any departing free agents in order to receive compensatory draft picks for them.
Super Twos – You’ve probably heard of teams fearing that one of their players will become a Super Two, although it sounds more like a player who ought to be hitting balls into the stratosphere or something. In reality, it works like this: Players who have between 2 and 3 years of service time and at least 86 days the previous season are placed in a pool (not literally). The 17% of these players with the most service time are considered Super Twos, who then get the privilege of salary arbitration before they have reached three years of service time.
Option Years – You usually hear about these in spring training, when a team is deciding what to do with a player who is “out of options.” Once a player is on the 40-man roster, he is on “optional assignment” if he is in the minor leagues. A team has three “option years” in which they can send players to and from the minor leagues an unlimited number of times with impunity. After a team has used up the player’s option years, he must clear waivers (allowing any other team to claim him) before he can be assigned to the minors. A player can’t be optioned to the minor league without consent once he has five years of service time. An option is not used on a player if he spends less than 20 days in the minors.
Again, thanks to Ben Nicholson-Smith for compiling all of that into posts that a baseball fan can be reasonably expected to understand.
What does that have to do with Heyward?
You may have heard people talk about a player’s arbitration eligibility in terms of a clock. That is, any day he is in the major leagues is time ticking against his “arbitration clock” because he is accumulating service time. Teams generally don’t want players to become Super Twos because they go to arbitration one additional time, which generally is going to make the player more money.
Some of the folks discussing Heyward have argued that he shouldn’t be called up so that his arbitration clock doesn’t start, but that argument doesn’t pass the sniff test if you’re familiar with the rules above. As an elite prospect, the option years aren’t likely to be a factor, since he’s probably going to be in the majors for good. Even if Heyward came up today, he would only accumulate 60 days or so of service time, so he wouldn’t be eligible for arbitration until 2013 at the earliest.
The Braves would only have to worry about him becoming a Super Two if he wasn’t going to make the 2010 team out of spring training, which seems unlikely now. The Orioles, for example, left Matt Wieters in the minors this year until they thought it was “safe” to call him up and avoid him becoming a Super Two, but as likely contenders next year, the Braves won’t have the luxury of leaving a player like Heyward in the minors until June. Unless they do that, he’s getting arbitration in 2013.
So, forget what you’ve heard about what it might cost them, and just root for the Braves to call up Jason Heyward soon if he really is ready to handle major-league pitching. They’re not saving much money by keeping him in AA. He’ll get paid eventually, and the Braves can just hope he signs a deal like Evan Longoria did to buy out some of those potentially expensive arbitration years in exchange for some career security.