There are plenty of words in the English language that rankle my sensibilities, but few of them so consistently annoy me as “always”. It seems like such an innocent word, but how many times is the word “always” used correctly? It’s a sloppy word, used when someone is putting together a hasty argument and doesn’t have the time to merit defenses or facts to support them. “The Yankees always field a good team.” “Steroid use is always immoral.” “The better team always wins.” As much as we may want arguments (and life) to be black and white, cut and dried, very rarely is this the case. Life is full of contradictions, nuances, and shades of gray.
There are many baseball debates that tend to get polarized, but one common one during Spring Training is the debate over what to do with top prospects. If a team starts a top rated prospect in the minor leagues, there’s a public outcry about how the team is manipulating that player’s service time to serve their own best interest, keeping the player for an extra season and keeping the player’s salary lower for a longer period of time. The demotion has nothing to do with talent, but everything to do with money.
In most instances, though, the debate is far from this simple.
If you’re running a major league baseball team, obviously the financial benefits of delaying a prospect’s service time are tough to ignore. Unless you’re the Yankees or Red Sox, your team is operating under a fixed budget and you need to be careful with how you spend money so your team can compete now and in the future. Young players – especially top prospects – are incredibly valuable due to the amount of production you can get from them for the major-league minimum salary. Any team that doesn’t at least consider the financial impacts of when they promote prospects isn’t doing their due diligence.
At the same time, financial details aren’t nearly as important as encouraging a player’s proper development and growth. Each prospect is unique and should be treated as such; there’s no one set path that all prospects must take before reaching the majors. Some players may be ready for the majors straight from Double-A, while others may need multiple years of conditioning in Triple-A before they’re ready. There’s always a desire to rush top prospects and get them to the majors as soon as possible, but younger does not always equal better. Don’t get me wrong: I love the fact that the Braves were willing to have Jason Heyward start the season at the majors, and judging from his performance last season, he was definitely ready for the call. But just because Heyward was ready for the majors at age 20 doesn’t say anything about when another prospect may be ready.
I can’t help but think back to the 2009 preseason, when there was a large uproar about if David Price should start the season in the Rays’ rotation or not. Most people seemed to feel that Price was ready for the majors (especially after his performance out of the bullpen the previous year), but the Rays disagreed and sent him to the minors for a few months. Lots of people called them out as manipulating Price’s service time, but the Rays felt that Price still needed to work on his secondary pitches…which turned out to be correct. Price had all but lost his slider that spring training, and his changeup was mediocre at best. During his time in the minors, Price learned a new pitch (a spike curve) and refined his changeup more, yet he still had a tough time adjusting to the majors when called up later that year (4.42 ERA/4.59 FIP).
As I’m no prospect maven, I’m hesitant to call out any team that chooses to start a top prospect in the minor leagues. Who am I to say when a player will be ready for the majors? The way I see it, it’s better to err on the side of caution than to prematurely thrust a player onto a level they aren’t ready for. Humans need challenges in order to continue growing and learning, but too much of a challenge can hamper learning and cause a person to lose track of the skills they have. If it takes a player until they’re 25 or 26 to become ready for the major leagues, so what? While this will cause the player to get ranked lower on prospect lists – as you can’t be a true top prospect unless you’re young – their production may actually be better upon reaching the majors as they’re closer to their physical peak.*
*Side note: Do we have a tendency to underrate older prospects? It seems that prospects lists dock players once they start hitting ages 25 and above, but aren’t older prospects valuable too? Nelson Cruz immediately jumps to mind, but he’s a pretty rare case; there aren’t many instances of players with his skill level taking until they’re 28 years old to reach the majors. But still, if a player is older, that simply means that when they reach the majors they’ll be playing near their physical peak while under team control. That may not make them superstars or Hall of Fame material, but it’s got to be valuable to low-budget teams.
So while I agree that I love seeing prospects like Freddie Freeman start the season with the big league club, I disagree with the premise that teams that don’t promote their young players are automatically “evil” or “manipulative”. And even if a team’s sole purpose in demoting a star player is to manipulate their service time, those top players will reach the majors sooner rather than later and still make a boatload of money. What’s more “evil”, if you will, is the horrible wages that minor league players receive, ranging from $1,050 per month (Single-A) to $2,150 per month (Triple-A). Players receive around $25/day for meal money and are rarely provided with any healthy food options in the clubhouse. Considering how much major league players are paid, it seems a crime that these young players are treated so poorly. Why is it that you can barely make $20 thousand for a season in Triple-A, yet make$400 thousand minimum upon reaching the big leagues?
Maybe I’m heartless, but I can’t bring myself to care that much if a top prospect is given a few more months of conditioning in the minors. They’ll get their chance, they’ll make their money, while there are plenty of other players that won’t.