Boy, this whole Kris Bryant situation sure got heated fast, right?! On the off-chance you haven’t been keeping tabs on the MLB’s most philosophically layered spring training headline, I recommend reading Mike’s proposed rule changes; Nathaniel’s examination of what the Players’ Association could do next; and Jason Wojciechowski’s appeal to ethical business practices over at Beaneball.
Alas, this is not the first time a bright new prospect has been sent to the minors under, ahem, dubious circumstances. At this moment, Bryant’s saga cannot be discussed without heavy reliance on hypotheticals: questions of how his trip/sentence to Iowa will affect the Cubs’ 2015 season, the Cubs’ 2021 season, or Bryant’s lifetime earning potential are all, ultimately, unknowns. But we can learn from history and see how prior service-time-oriented decisions have played out for other teams and their marquee prospects. Up first: the consensus greatest player in the game.
Who held down who?: The Los Angeles Angels held down Mike Trout.
When did they hold him down?: The first 20 games of the 2012 season, April 6-27.
What was his service time situation?: Looking at data from Cot’s Contracts, Trout had accumulated .083 of a year of service time in 2011, when he played portions of July and August and then all of September for the big-league team. This means that, even if he played full seasons in 2012 and 2013, he would have been at 2.083 years of service time, safely underneath the 2.119 Super Two status cutoff. The difference between 2.083 years and 2.07 years (Trout’s actual service time record through the end of the 2013 season) did not change Trout’s Super Two status nor the timeline for his eventual free agency, then scheduled to occur after the 2017 season.
How did he do when he was held down?: Uh, pretty good, I guess you could say. In 20 games as a Salt Lake Bee, he slashed .403/.467/.623.
How did the team do when he was held down?: With splashy new free agent signings C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols around, the team fumbled its way to a 6-14 start. Mothers’ Day was two weeks away and the Angels were already 9 games back of the division-leading Texas Rangers when Trout received the call.
What did we say about him being held down?: On April 28, 2012, the day Trout was called up to the majors, Paul indicated that the Angels should have had Trout up from the start of the season, albeit with none of the #hottake conviction that is swirling around Bryant’s saga in this week’s Internet atmosphere:
In Spring Training, the Angels used a pair of excuses to ship Trout back to the Minors. One was that he battled a virus and lost some weight, with the other potentially being more serious — he had shoulder tendinitis. But since Trout went out and clubbed four doubles, five triples and a homer in his first 20 games at Salt Lake, it seems his shoulder is just fine and dandy. The real reason he was sent down was that the Angels had a conundrum on the corners, and since he is the rookie, he drew the short end of the stick.
What did the team say about holding him down?: This anonymous report from MLB.com indicates that health, including recovery from what sounds like a wicked awful virus, was perhaps the largest factor in keeping Trout in the minors. While Trout was limited to DH duty in his first five games with Salt Lake, he also slashed .500/.542/.700 in those games. Seems pretty healthy.
How did he perform when he was called up?: Ah, well, things went alright. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, the 20-year-old Trout produced the greatest season since 1901 by any player 23 or under. It was the 22nd-best individual season over the same time span, and the 3rd-best individual season of the 21st century, surpassed only by Barry Bonds in 2001-02. And this is with 20 games lopped off the front end of his season.
How did the team perform when he was called up?: Much better! The team went 83-59 the rest of the way. That’s a .584 winning percentage, which translates to a 95-win season over a full 162-game schedule.
Was there any material impact on the team’s final record/seeding?: Well, yeah. Instead of actually winning 95 games on the year, the team’s winning percentage of .300 sans-Trout kept the squad at 89-73, or a .543 winning percentage. The Angels finished four games behind the 93-win Rangers (who finished with the same record as the Baltimore Orioles, securing the Wild Card spots) — meaning that they outperformed the Rangers by five games over the last five months of the season.
Was there any psychological/emotional fallout from holding him down?: Maybe I’m misremembering the state of the Angels’ fanbase at the time, but not really. How could Trout’s April actually be the culprit for this team missing the playoffs when huge earners like Vernon Wells, Dan Haren, and Wilson barely scraped together replacement-level seasons?
What was the impact on the player’s individual salary?: Trout’s 2012 tenure in the minors didn’t really change anything — it was the length of his 2011 tenure with the major-league club that already determined he would not be a Super Two player. Trout was also not held down long enough in 2012 to push his free agency back a season. All was, apparently, forgiven and forgotten: at the beginning of the 2014 season, Trout signed a 6-year/$144.5M extension that will keep him an Angel through the end of the 2020 season.
Was there any material impact on the team’s payroll in future seasons?: No. The Angels are so bloated with sunk costs that having Trout qualify as a Super Two player would amount to something of a rounding error behind Josh Hamilton’s upcoming $32.4M annual salary in 2016 and 2017. In this, the first year of Trout’s extension, he is merely the eighth-highest-paid player on the Angels, behind Huston Street and David Freese, among others. Next year, when Trout’s salary jumps by $10M, up to $16.083M, he will still only be the fifth-highest-paid player on his own team.
Would the team hold him down again?: No. What’s incredible about this story, in hindsight, is that even the Angels didn’t seem to realize that they had the game’s best player on their hands up until the moment he became the league’s best player. A team with the Angels’ annual salary has proclaimed itself to be an all-in contender every season, and this hesitation to push all-in didn’t bring the organization any strategic or financial advantage.