Blue Jays infielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who became the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball once Ronald Acuña graduated, has recorded one of the top batting lines at Triple-A since his promotion to that level at the end of July. White Sox outfielder Eloy Jiménez, generally considered one of the game’s top five prospects, has actually been slightly more productive than Vlad Jr. during his own 200-plus plate appearances in the International League. Mets prospect Peter Alonso, meanwhile — who lacks the transcendent talent of the aforementioned players but also rates as a top-100 prospect — leads the minor leagues in homers and plays a position from which the Mets have gotten sub-replacement level production. All three have demonstrated some level of mastery over minor-league competition. None of them are likely to appear in the majors this year.
If the circumstances were different, one could understand. If the Jays or White Sox or Mets were in the midst of a playoff race and were adding veteran talent to complement their rosters, that would be one thing. That’s not the case, though. All three clubs possess sub-.500 records. All three have endured depressed attendance figures (down 24.7% in Toronto, 5.7% in Chicago, 7.4% in New York). All three are looking towards next year.
Despite this emphasis on the future and development, executives have found excuses not to recall any of aforementioned players, ranging from a lack of available playing time to defense (always defense) to checklists to which the public isn’t privy. If the formula holds, not only will Guerrero, Jiménez, and Alonso fail to appear in the majors this year, they also won’t break camp with their respective clubs at the beginning of next season. Instead, their teams will head north from spring training without them and then, a few weeks later in April, summon them to the big club — as soon as they’ve acquired what amounts to another year of control.
What’s happening with this particular group of young players isn’t uncommon, of course. We’ve been here before — with Evan Longoria in 2008, with David Price and Matt Wieters in 2009, with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper (2012), with George Springer (2014), with Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco (2015), and with Gleyber Torres (who at least was returning from a season-ending injury) and Acuña this year.
From a cutthroat, competitive standpoint, it makes sense. Acting in their own self-interest under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement, teams want to retain their best young players for longer while paying them as little as possible. The executives’ euphemisms are all the more tiresome, however, because fans have become conditioned to accept (or even defend) them, taking the sides of billionaires (the owners) against millionaires (if, in this case, they got a handsome signing bonus). The teams’ actions may not be illegal (though colleague Sheryl Ring offered a legal argument on their behalf concerning their postponed entry into the union). We’ve become hyperconscious of it in the wake of Bryant’s delayed arrival and subsequent grievance, which three years later remains unresolved.
The problem is, the subject of teams manipulating the service time of young players is diverting attention away from the games themselves and becoming it’s own story. It’s a bad look for the sport, particularly in a year where nearly one-third of the teams are noncompetitive by design, where leaguewide attendance is down 4.6% relative to 2017 and slated to finish below 30,000 per game for the first time since 2003.
Instead of any collective effort to address the problem, however, the sport has recently produced a novel kind of service-time manipulation — in this case, involving former consensus No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton.
Now in his fourth major-league season — one largely lost to injuries and, in the view of some, mismanagement — Buxton’s case of is different but still features many of the same justifications and (in this case) contradictions from front-office personnel. Having appeared to arrive in 2017 after a pair of seasons full of promotions, demotions, and injuries, the center fielder produced a 16-homer, 29-steal, 3.5-WAR campaign last year that helped the Twins to a Wild Card berth — their first trip to the postseason since 2010 and the first ever by a team that had lost 100 games the previous year. In the midst of it, he earned not only a Gold Glove, but a Platinum one, as the league’s best defender at any position.
This year, meanwhile, has been a dismal one for Buxton, as chronic migraines, a fractured left big toe, and a left wrist strain have contributed to his hitting just .156/.183/.200 without a single homer in 28 games and 94 plate appearances at the major-league level, and just 64 games and 246 PA in all. If it wasn’t for bad luck, Buxton wouldn’t have no luck at all: he broke the toe in his first post-migraine rehab appearance, and apparently returned from the fracture too quickly and tried to play through it. At the end of the rehab for his toe injury, he was optioned; less than two weeks later, he injured his wrist, then reinjured it three games into his return.
Buxton’s overall numbers at Triple-A Rochester have been nothing spectacular (.272/.331/.456), but in 12 games since his last DL stint, he’s hit a scalding .365/.400/.596. Yet the Twins, who haven’t been at .500 since April 22, have decided to shut him down after Monday’s season finale rather than recall him, in part out of concern that Buxton is “playing through” a wrist injury that is “still lingering,” according to general manager Thad Levine. It’s likely not a coincidence, however, that Buxton is currently 13 days short of the 172 needed to reach a full season of major-league service time, his third. If he doesn’t get it in September, instead of reaching free agency after the 2021 season, he’ll be under club control through 2022.
Where does the time go?
Via TwinCities.com’s Mike Berardino, chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said last week regarding Buxton’s service-time situation, “That’s not something we’re factoring in. Honestly, the way we’ve approached it is: ‘What do we think is the best thing by all the players and ultimately how we build our team?’ We’re going to take that approach with this decision. No different.”
Yet here’s Levine a few days later, also via Berardino, from the same conversation in which he described the wrist problem:
“I think part of our jobs is we’re supposed to be responsible to factoring service time into every decision we make,” Levine said. “I still feel pretty resolute in saying that the other three factors were more present for us in this decision-making process than that. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t at least aware of service-time impacts on decisions we make.”
Upon reading that, I was apparently not the only one who thought of a classic Simpsons quote:
Levine’s other reasons include “on-field performance that goes beyond his raw statistics in the minors and a lack of playing time for him in the majors.” Of the wrist (which the Twins apparently have no plans to examine further) the GM told Berardino:
“I think he’s still progressing toward being healthy, but to his credit he’s playing through it right now,” Levine said. “I think this was an injury we knew wouldn’t resolve itself immediately. It’s a matter of what he feels comfortable playing through. To his credit, when we’ve asked him to play, he’s stepped up and played.”
So the Twins have asked the not-fully-healthy Buxton to play through his injuries, and he’s done so, daily. It counts as a credit to him, but… he needs to be sent home?
Teammate Miguel Sano, who endured his own six-week detour to the minors earlier this season after struggling in the wake of multiple injuries, spoke to Berardino about Buxton. “He told me he feels good. He’s been playing good, too.” Regarding Buxton’s potential shutdown, he said, “I don’t think that’s good. That would be tough for me and for him and his family. I think he needs to come here and finish strong and play the last month, and that’s it.”
“Something like this is a sensitive topic. Everybody wants to be mindful of the fact the owners and the GM are the ones that make the decisions, but we want to be mindful about Byron too. We know he’s a great player. We know he has the tools to be up here. He’s still a big leaguer and a teammate in our eyes.”
Regarding playing time, the Twins have gotten a very mixed set of results from the players who have filled in at center field. Jake Cave, a 25-year-old rookie, has made a team-high 42 starts there and played average defense; he’s hit .268/.316/.505 for a 115 wRC+ (tied for second on the team among players with at least 200 PA) in 66 games and 208 PA overall, marking him as a keeper. Twenty-five-year-old Max Kepler, the team’s regular right fielder, has made 41 starts in center and has also proved up to the task defensively. His overall production (.226/.316/.419 for a 97 wRC+) is adequate for the middle pasture but rather light for a corner, as is that of the primary beneficiary of his shift, Robbie Grossman (.259/.340/.362, 93 wRC+). Ryan LaMarre, a 29-year-old rookie who made 26 starts in center and hit .263/.321/.313 for a 74 wRC+, is now a member of the White Sox after being lost on waivers in July, while 26-year-old rookie Johnny Field, a waiver claim from the Rays in early August, is 1-for-20 in seven outfield starts at the three positions, including one in center. He’s hit .196/.235/.339 for a 54 wRC+ in 201 PA overall.
Nobody there is the second coming of Trout, so it shouldn’t be so hard to fit Buxton into playing time with Cave and Kepler, particularly with left fielder Eddie Rosario missing perhaps a week due to a right quad strain. Given his performance at Rochester, it would seem that there’s far more reason to promote Buxton, give him access to the major-league staff and facilities, and help him close the season on a positive note instead of a shutdown that would appear to come against his will.
Obviously, Buxton and his agents (B.B. Abbott and Al Goetz) aren’t happy with the Twins’ decision, and the possibility of a grievance to recover the lost service time exists. Via The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal:
“We will examine this against the rights provided to all players under the CBA,” Abbott told The Athletic on Saturday night. “Until then, we will let Twins fans form their own opinions about this decision.”
Added Tony Clark, the head of the Major League Players’ Association: “We will review all options with Byron and his representatives.”
“Levine said the Twins are ‘hopeful’ the issue will not wind up before a mediator this offseason, but he said the organization recognizes the need to “make amends” with Buxton and his agents in an effort to smooth over any tension.
“Their recourse has not been laid out to us,” Levine said. “They’re certainly entitled to whatever they think is in the best interest of Byron Buxton. From this day forward, I think we recognize a responsibility to make amends and that we’re going to need to invest in the relationship with Byron Buxton. We understand this is a blow to the player, a potential blow to the relationship.”
All of this seems rather pennywise and pound-foolish for a 63-74 team that ranks among the majors’ biggest disappointments this year, one that has long depended upon its ability to produce homegrown talent in order to contend, and one that has so conditioned its fans to fret over the Pohlad family’s bottom line that six-time All-Star, former AL MVP, and St. Paul native Joe Mauer has become a target for a segment of the fan base due to the size of his contract. Obviously, Buxton hasn’t fully met the lofty expectations that accompany being made the No. 2 pick of the 2012 draft, and anointed by Baseball America and other outlets as the game’s first- or second-best prospect for three straight years (2014-16). But he’s certainly flashed those abilities, consistently with his defense and intermittently at the plate, particularly in the second half of last season. For all of their investment in a player whom they consider a core piece of their future (including his $6 million signing bonus), the Twins have now created an adversarial relationship.
That’s a lousy way to run a ball club, and coupled with decisions like those involving Guerrero, Jiménez (whose agents have indicated that they may file a grievance on his behalf), and Alonso, it’s a lousy look for Major League Baseball and the players’ union, which coincidentally last week hired attorney and litigator Bruce Meyer to focus on negotiation and enforcement of the CBA, which expires in December 2021. Coupled with the dissatisfaction over the past winter’s free-agent freeze-out, service-time battles will certainly be a point of contention in negotiations.
There’s no easy solution to the issue. Even if the players secure the right to reduced levels of service time before arbitration and free agency — such as Mike Petriello’s 2015 suggestion to use 100 days as a service time threshold, to make it much more painful for a team to keep a prospect in the minors — teams will still attempt to find means by which secure extra control and to cloak such actions in baseball reasons, whether or not they sound as contradictory as those cited by the Twins’ brass.
The cycle of ridiculousness and rancor may continue, but that doesn’t mean the underlying circumstances can’t be improved.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.