Timing Is Everything - Callups and Service Time

I don’t envy baseball general managers.  I don’t want to sound like an apologist, but Dayton Moore right now has a lot on his plate and he makes some difficult decisions that have long-term ramifications.

Primarily, these decisions are how to continue to build an already impressive farm system, but as time goes on, his decisions will shift to include when to bring these prospects into the big leagues.

Because of baseball’s arbitration system, there’s a delicate balance between bringing up a player who is probably ready to contribute as a major leaguer and managing their service time.  You probably hear that referenced a lot, but what does it mean?

When a player is called up to the majors and placed on the 25-man roster, they start accruing service time when they report to the team.  When they have three (but less than six) years of service time, they’re eligible for salary arbitration.  After six years of service time, if they don’t have a contract in place, they become free agents.  The catch is that a year, for arbitration purposes, is 172 days.  A major league season is generally around 183 days.

That comes into play when making these decisions, and it’s a reason why Mike Moustakas is very unlikely to make the big league team out of spring training.  By delaying his debut by about two weeks, they can get him major league experience, but keep him through an extra year.

For example, in June 2005, the Brewers purchased the contract of Prince Fielder.  He now begins 2011 with 5 years and 68 days of service time.  Had he been called up on opening day in 2005, he’d have built up 6 years and would have been a free agent last year.  Instead, he’ll at least start 2011 with Milwaukee.

That’s the reason for the delay on some prospects and why the very best usually don’t make the jump until May or June.  There’s an additional consideration that if a player gets called up and remains there for 86 days (or more), he can become eligible for Super Two status and go to salary arbitration after two years and 86 days on the big league roster (provided he’s in the top 17 percent of service time who qualify…confusing, I know).

This is a complicated way to say that the Royals may not call up Moustakas until June to a) keep him around for an extra full year and b) to manage his salary a bit.

Jonah Keri and Kevin Goldstein discussed this delicate balance on Keri’s podcast recently.

Keri: It strikes me that not all teams do this well … are teams striking the right balance between calling guys up when they’re fully developed, versus not letting them rot on the vine?

Goldstein responded that service time did play a role in that no matter what, but also suggested that the next CBA would change that somewhat since it’s bad for baseball to leave players who are both ready for the promotion and exciting commodities get left in the minors just because of an arbitration clock.

Things got very interesting when Goldstein mentioned readiness at the big league level, claiming (correctly, I think anyone would agree) that sitting on the bench is bad for a prospect because they need those appearances.   Even if (when?) they struggle depending on the player.  He used the Atlanta Braves as an example.

A GM doesn’t want to call a player up too soon and have them struggle if they can’t handle it.  Just ask Alex Gordon.

That’s why makeup is such an important part of the scouting process.  Teams need to know if the guy they’re handing a seven figure bonus to is going to be able to handle the very likely failure they’ll face their first time through the minor leagues.  Dayton Moore suggested that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, after shoddy 2009 seasons, have seen that failure and responded exactly how you’d want them to – by improving and showing their true potential.

But back to the Braves.  You might be surprised to know that Tom Glavine – who had six top three finishes in Cy Young voting and won the Award twice (along with 300 games) – got shelled in his first few years in the big leagues.  Through his first 646 innings, he carried a 4.21 ERA with a 1.353 WHIP and an 89 ERA+.  After that, in 1991, he won his first Cy Young Award.  He made his debut as a 21-year-old in 1988 after 536.1 innings in the minors as a second round selection in 1984.

Steve Avery was once the #1 prospect in baseball going into 1990 and made his debut that year after being a third overall pick in 1988.  Making his big league debut at barely 20 years old after 319.2 minor league innings, though, he put up a 5.64 ERA in 20 starts and 99 innings for Atlanta.  The next three years, he threw 667.1 innings, compiling a 3.17 ERA*.

*Avery fell off after that due to a muscle injury in his left arm – perhaps due to overuse.

Perhaps both would have had similar experiences having been held back a year.  Maybe they’d have been more polished right away.  The Braves, at the time, felt that both had the proper makeup to make the leap and face big league hitters with what they had.  In Glavine’s case, he showed he had the moxie to get by.  In Avery’s, we may never know, but he had some solid years at the front end of his career.

Looking at the Royals, this question of readiness, service time and makeup really comes into play when considering the future pitching staff.  The Royals are loaded with lefty arms, some of which are getting a look in spring training as bullpen options (like Danny Duffy or Everett Teaford), while others are likely to spend most or all of 2011 in the minors, but still be knocking on the door (Mike Montgomery and John Lamb).

In the context of 2011, I see a lot of parallels between Avery and Glavine and Lamb and Montgomery.

Avery’s path to the big leagues started with 10 starts in rookie ball as an 18-year-old.  In 1989, he opened the year in A ball, making 13 starts before earning a promotion and starting another 13 in Double A.  in 1990, he opened the year in Triple A and started 13 games before hitting the big leagues on June 13, 1990.

John Lamb started his professional career with 12 starts in two levels of rookie ball at 19 years old.  Last year, he tore through A ball, making 8 starts in Low A, 13 starts in High A and finishing the year after 7 Double A starts.  he’s a touch behind Avery’s path, but a 2011 schedule that sees him spend half the year in Double A and the other half in Omaha puts him pretty close to a debut.  The question then is, do the Royals call him up in September, do they wait until the open of 2012, or do they wait to delay his service time?

All the scouting reports on Lamb indicate that he’s the best makeup guy of the top pitching prospects in the system.  If anybody could handle the jump, it’s him.  Sure, it’s only one appearance in early March, but the other day against the Dodgers, he struck out three batters in his lone inning of work, all on called third strikes.  You think he doesn’t have confidence he can get guys out?  Moreover, do you think he’d have trouble adjusting after getting roughed up?  He was over his head last year in Northwest Arkansas but stepped up in the Texas League playoffs.

Glavine’s pro debut came in 1984 right after being drafted.  He started 7 games in the rookie league.  In 1985, he made 26 A ball starts and split 1986 between Double A and Triple A.  In his fourth year as a pro, he started the season in Triple A with 22 starts before being promoted in August to Atlanta.

Mike Montgomery signed his contract in 2008 and made 9 starts in rookie ball.  In his second year, he started off in Low A with 12 starts and finished in Wilmington in High A with 9 starts.  Last season, despite some elbow and forearm issues, he made 20 total starts, finishing up in Double A.

This season, he’s got a shot to start the year in Triple A, though may end up starting in Double A to get a few starts in before that jump is made.  He could end up with a shot to show up in September if his health stays on track and he keeps progressing.

Maybe it’s a weak comparison.  Avery was in his third year of professional ball when he broke through.  Lamb would have to hit KC in 2011 to keep pace with him.  Glavine and Montgomery are on more of the same timeline, though.  As far as pitching styles, both Lamb and Montgomery are better strikeout pitchers than their Brave “counterparts”.  It’s clear that the Braves saw the potential in their lefties, just like the Royals see the potential in Lamb and Montgomery.

What I find important to this discussion, though, is that until 1990, the Braves don’t have a High A team listed in their affiliates.  By that time, Glavine was already a regular and Avery was making his debut.  If the Royals were structured similiarly, would Lamb have spent most of the year in Burlington or would he have made more starts in the Texas League after cruising through Low A?  Would Montgomery have made a similar jump in 2009?

The other factor to consider is that when the Braves were calling Glavine up, it was in August the Braves stuck in a 69-92 season with little else to do but evaluate.  In 1988, they were 54-106 and 1989 was hardly better at 63-97.  With Bobby Cox taking over and a deep farm system in 1990, perhaps they saw what might lie ahead and brought up Avery well ahead of a typical schedule to acclimate him to the big leagues.  It seemed to pay off, as he went 18-8 with a 3.38 ERA for the worst-to-first Braves.  Did that half season of struggle help him adjust?  Possibly.  The Braves weren’t concerned with service time – they could have easily left him in Triple A.

That’s where the Royals are now.  After so many losing seasons, so much frustration, they’re close.  I love the way Sam Mellinger put it in a column yesterday – that watching the Royals prospects now is like “smelling the kitchen hours before the meal.”

Dayton Moore has a stash of commodities at his disposal.  It’s a tough call to keep someone down in the minors when their performance is suggesting they’re ready. Like it or not, the service time question does have to factor in.  The Royals could bring everyone up on March 31st and let them figure things out, but everyone would hit free agency in the same year and they’d all be gone by 2016 unless extensions were  signed.  As it stands, if the Royals delay Moustakas until June, they’ll have him until after 2017.  With contention in mind for 2013 and the real fireworks in the years following, a callup this early wouldn’t contribute much besides burning through days.

In two years, if a Royals pitcher is tearing up Double A or Triple A and the Royals feel he could help them at the big league level, it’s a different story.  A major league quality arm is always valuable – if the Rays had an opening for Jeremy Hellickson in 2009, they may have brought him up.  Instead, the left him in Durham and will now enjoy another year of his talent.  There’s so much context.

Those are all the conditions Moore faces.  He’s stated multiple times that he’d rather bring up a guy a month or two late, than a month or two early.  In two years, will he feel the same way if he needs to call on his prospects?

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Dayton Moore John Lamb Kansas City Royals KC Mike Montgomery Mike Moustakas MLB Prince Fielder Royals Service Time Steve Avery Tom Glavine

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