Fitting the Pieces Together: Putting Time to Good Use

The explosion of free agent salaries in recent years has necessitated a paradigm shift in the way age is viewed in the MLB. Recent literature has shown that the peak years of MLB players tend to be around age 26, with some variability (some guys peak early, some peak late). Therefore, GMs need to stop assuming their “young guns” should be promoted aggressively to the majors. Instead, they need to start considering how their assets relate to each other in major league service time.

Back in the days of the reserve clause, before the beginning of free agency in the 1970s, it made sense to get a player to the majors as soon as possible. Free agency didn’t exist, so player salaries were always low. But now, teams usually only have control over a player for the six seasons before free agency arrives. Therefore, if a team knows that it will only have a player for six years, why not get the ones when he can help the team the most?

If you’re unfamiliar with the process of free agency in the major leagues, here’s a quick synopsis: Each player is under the control of their team for the first six full years of his career (this doesn’t change if he plays on multiple teams; as long as he plays six full years in the majors, he’s eligible for free agency). For the first three years of the six, he receives the league minimum salary. For the next three years, he is eligible for “arbitration”, which bumps up his salary considerably, but not to the price of what a free agent would make. After these three arbitration years, they can sign with another team through free agency.

A player being “ready” isn’t enough anymore. He has to be “good” and, most importantly, come along at when the team is competitive. Major league arrival timelines need to sync so that multiple prospects get to the big leagues at the same time. The Florida Marlins have been doing this for years. Let’s look at a couple examples of skillful and poor time management.

Alex Gordon

Alex Gordon could really have earned his own post with how badly he has been mismanaged by Kansas City. This is not a condemnation of how he’s turned out as a player, as he still possesses tremendous ability. But how could Kansas City have thought it was a good idea to promote this guy to the Major Leagues in 2007 after only one season in the minors? This would have been passable for a number of other teams, as he appeared to be ready for a big league role, but he was not going to be the difference for Kansas City that season. He’s now in his third year toward free agency, and he’s almost certainly destined to never play a meaningful game for Kansas City. He’s still “just 25”, but it doesn’t matter for the Royals when he’ll be gone when he’s 28. Had Gordon played AAA in 2007, he could have premiered in 2008 or later. Better yet, why even play him in AA in 2006 when you can play him a level lower, such as Buster Posey is now with the Giants? This could have pushed his arrival back to 2009, with team control until 2014. Even if Gordon had become the player the Royals had hoped he would be in 2007, KC would have wasted this valuable asset as non-contenders. Even George Brett would have couldn’t save this Royals team.

 

Kila Ka’aihue

Here’s a guy who doesn’t deserve to be in AAA, and is a prime example of keeping an MLB “ready” player under team control by blocking him with a veteran (Mike Jacobs). While this move appears to be prudent, the habits of the Kansas City organization indicate this is not by design.

Ka’aihue has been a good player since his 2005 stint in high-A, with a blip in the record in 2006. He’s got a great approach at the plate and good power. However, the signing of Mike Jacobs this off-season blocked his path to first base after Ka’aihue stormed onto the scene as a prospect in 2008, when he slugged 37 home runs between AA and AAA. Kansas City has not promoted him yet this season, and assuming he does not get promoted full-time until 2010, he will be under team control until 2015.

Maybe signing Jacobs was a ploy to keep Ka’aihue in the minors for the 2009 season. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, the Royals might get his age 26-31 seasons for minimal cost, where he could be a key part of the first competitive Kansas City team in years. He’ll be an “old” 26 before next season starts, but when you only get six years of him anyway, who cares what his starting age is?

Jordan Zimmermann

The promotion of Jordan Zimmermann defies logic much in the same way that the Gordon promotion did. Zimmermann is a great player and fully deserves to be a major leaguer. However, the Nationals aren’t even close to contending this season and they’re wasting a year that Zimmermann could be contributing to a meaningful D.C. club in 2015.

Zimmermann was drafted in the second round (67th overall) by the Nationals in 2007. He was placed in low-A ball for the remainder of 2007, then high-A to start 2008. He was moved to AA that season after just 27.1 IP in A-. He performed very well in AA, and a 2009 season in AAA would have been a prudent move. However, he’s pitching in the bigs right now for a last-place Nationals team. He didn’t even spend a year and a half in the minors. The Nationals’ brass should have stretched out his minor league service to lead to a premier in 2010 or later. This would have been much better for the organization and the future of baseball in the nation’s capital.

Of just as much concern is the likelihood that the Nationals will treat Stephen Strasburg this way, assuming they sign him. If they promote him as aggressively as they promoted Zimmermann, expect a lot of big numbers with little team success.  Think Zack Greinke from 2007-2009. Prominent MLB writers have been hinting at a September 2009 call up since June. Absolutely foolish. Even Santana couldn’t save this team.

Elvis Andrus and Rick Porcello

Now, this comes with a some amount of hindsight to it, as I didn’t like Andrus move at the beginning of the season, but this was a good move by Texas. The Rangers undoubtedly rushed the 20-year old, as his bat is not quite ready, but he has been a part of their astonishing worst-to-fifth defensive turnaround that has made them a contender in the west. He’s only under control through his age-26 season, but if the team is successful until then, it will be a great move.

Rick Porcello is a young, 20-year old phenom whom Detroit may have been promoted before it was financially efficient. However, as a valuable cog for a contending team, it is difficult to argue against the results and how well he fits in with the team’s goal of winning now. Porcello has a chance to be Detroit’s version of Roy Halladay, but because he was promoted this year, he’ll have to be paid like an ace when he hits free agency. But that’s the tradeoff: win now and give up the cost-efficiency in the future. Imagine having a Cy Young contender whom you only have to pay $400,000. That’s time management, folks.

Had either Andrus or Porcello been on a poor team, this would have been a terrible blunder. However, with these clubs contending for the playoffs, their current value makes it worth accelerating their ascension to the major leagues. Now, if only the Red Sox would give Clay Buchholz a chance.

Age is no longer the number it used to be. From the perspective of a player’s ceiling, age is critical. But, when trying to build a competitive team, years under organizational control is far more important. It’s about how the pieces fit together, not how old the player is when he gets to the majors. Every MLB team needs to adopt this way of thinking. Why else would the Baltimore Orioles be the biggest sleeper for 2011?

Thanks to Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs.com for their contributions to this article.

Mike Silver recently completed his requirements for the Sport Management Major at THE University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he is a brother of Theta Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity, the best house in the country. He is a huge Red Sox and Bruins fan, and longs for the days of the REAL Boston Garden, Cam Neely, and the ultimate Dirt Dog Trot Nixon. If you have any questions, you can reach him at mjasilver@gmail.com. Have a good night readers, and know that Mike hopes to hear from you soon.

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