Two seasons ago, Kris Bryant was regarded by many as the top prospect in all of baseball. After having dominated all levels of the minors, he appeared to be a candidate to begin the season on the Cubs’ 25-man roster. The conditions were nearly ideal. Not only had Bryant proven himself in the minors, but the club possessed no one of consequence to start at third. Furthermore, the Cubs intended to contend in the NL Central.
Despite all the arguments in favor of Bryant breaking camp with the Cubs, he was sent to Iowa. He waited a week and a half, at which point the team called him up. He proceeded to have a great season. By waiting to promote him, though — a decision that wasn’t without some controversy — the Cubs ensured that Bryant wouldn’t be a free agent until after 2021 instead of 2020.
The Chicago Cubs “generously” gave Kris Bryant a $1 million dollar salary this season when they could have given him close to half, but that is nothing compared to the potentially tens of millions of dollars they stand to gain by having Bryant’s services in 2021. One year of a great player in his prime — and Bryant will be 29 years old in 2021 — is incredibly valuable. The cost of six wins on the free-agent market is roughly $50 million. Such a large figure might seem improbable at first: no players receive $50 million salaries and some six-win players (David Price and Max Scherzer, for example) do hit free agency. However, those players sign multi-year deals, often receiving the same salary in Year One as Year Seven despite the fact that expected production in that first season greatly exceeds that of the latter years of a contract. The production and salary are expected to average out by the end of a deal, with overpayments in later years compensating for underpayments in the earlier ones. The point here — and one that makes sense even in the absence of the math — is that one extra year of a player’s services can be incredibly valuable.
As for what such a young and talented player deserves in terms of compensation, there are a lot of ways to attack the concept. Kris Bryant deserved to be on the Opening Day roster in 2015 due to his play. Unfortunately, that play — and the promise it suggested — rendered Bryant too valuable for the Cubs not to manipulate his service time. Therefore, they waited those 10 days.
That isn’t a great system. It creates disincentives, even if very small, to putting the best team on the field. But it’s the system under which MLB is operating presently. And it matters right now because of Yoan Moncada.
Yoan Moncada is not Kris Bryant. It isn’t clear that Moncada deserves a spot on the major-league roster like Bryant did. He’s a year younger than Bryant was, and where Bryant was tearing up Double-A and Triple-A pitching, Moncada was doing the same thing, but at High-A and Double-A. Kris Bryant’s projections put him immediately in the four- to five-win range as a rookie. Moncada’s projections, meanwhile, call for a below-average season. For Bryant, there was nobody even close to his talent level ahead of him on the depth chart. Steamer, meanwhile, suggests that Moncada and Tyler Saladino are equivalent hitters for the moment, but gives Saladino, a former shortstop, the edge defensively. With Bryant, we were talking about whether playing the better player really mattered over a 10-game stretch. With Moncada, it isn’t clear that the White Sox would be better all season. Add in that the White Sox are clearly rebuilding and the Cubs were hoping to contend, and the differences are stark.
Given all of the differences above, comparing the two players might seem to make little sense. The similarities between the two, though — in terms of prospect status, promise, and service time — are what make the comparisons between Moncada and Bryant reasonable. Because of that, Moncada deserves the Kris Bryant treatment this year — a year earlier, in other words, than Bryant received it.
There’s an argument to be made that the White Sox, in a rebuilding year, should bring up Moncada now or shortly after the regular season starts. He didn’t really get a chance to play last season following his promotion to the Red Sox. Getting him acclimated to the major leagues and seeing what he can do might be better, both for him and the club, in the long run. He isn’t going to be costing the White Sox any wins that they need, so let him play, allow him to develop under the major-league staff, and give fans in Chicago something about which to get excited in a lost season.
While there are credible arguments both ways regarding how Moncada should spend the upcoming season, service time moves the needle decisively to the minors. Here’s how a Bryant-like plan would apply for Moncada:
Unlike Bryant, Moncada did rack up 31 days of service time last year when the Red Sox called him up. He only got a week’s worth of starts followed by a few pinch-running opportunities, but those 31 days do count. If Moncada were to be called up before May 15 and then to stay in the majors for good, he’d become a free agent after the 2022 season. If he gets called up after, the White Sox secure another season, Moncada’s age-28 campaign. Given that Moncada isn’t necessarily an upgrade over what the White Sox have now and the team isn’t expected to contend, it makes a lot of sense to keep him in the minors until mid-May. Depending on how interested the team is in pinching pennies, they could choose to keep him in the minors a bit longer.
Players who’ve between two and three years of service may be eligible for arbitration if they rank in the top 22% of service time among players with between two and three years of service. These are what’s known as Super Two players. As the qualification is based on a percentage of players, and players can spend parts of multiple seasons in the majors, there is no particular date for the cutoff. Generally, it’s not lower than 120 days of service time. In Moncada’s case, if he were to be called up right after the All-Star break, he would end up with 111 days of service time at the end of the season. If he remained in the majors thereafter, he likely wouldn’t be eligible for salary arbitration until after his third full season.
If Moncada tears up Triple-A or the White Sox trade Todd Frazier early on in the season, it might be reasonable to see Moncada called up in the middle of May, but likely not before. If Frazier remains on the White Sox until the trade deadline, Saladino plays decently well, and Moncada is good but not great in Triple-A, it’s possible we might not see Moncada playing for the Chicago White Sox until after the All-Star break or even after the trade deadline. While Moncada does not have all the things going for him that Kris Bryant has, his talent and skill could make him a special player. In the context of the system one which players and owners have agreed, it makes little sense for the White Sox to call up Moncada before the middle of May, if not a few months later.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.