Top prospects could be victims of stall tactics
Editor’s note: Full Count is a weekly news and notes column by Yahoo! Sports national baseball writer Gordon Edes. This is its debut.
The only debate over the best rookies entering the 2009 season was whether Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price ranked ahead or behind Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. They were clearly the top two newcomers. But when Price faced Wieters on Sunday for the second time this season, it was not in the big leagues but in a Triple-A game between Durham, N.C., and Norfolk, Va.
By keeping Price and Wieters off their opening day rosters, the Rays and Orioles were increasing their chances that the players would be ineligible to begin salary arbitration until after the 2012 season and free agency until after the 2015 season, effectively delaying their service-time clock by a season. A player with three years of service, but less than six years, may file for salary arbitration. In addition, a player can be eligible for arbitration if he ranks in the top 17 percent in total service among players who have at least two but less than three years of service. A year of service is 172 days in the big leagues.
Tampa Bay general manager Andrew Friedman insisted that baseball factors were more important than financial ones in deciding to start Price in Triple-A. Price accumulated 31 days of service last September. His status is also complicated by the six-year, $8.5 million deal he signed after being the top pick in the 2008 draft, a contract he can void upon being arbitration eligible.
“The way we look at it, we fully understand that the way we break camp is not the way we’re going to end the season, and how important it is to maintain depth,” Friedman said. “You’re looking at your depth and going through different scenarios of injuries that might pop up, and try to manage your roster accordingly.”
While calling Wieters the most disciplined young hitter he has seen in 30-plus years in the game, Orioles president Andy MacPhail insisted that the Orioles sent him down to refine his catching skills.
“There is no magic date where we are worried about manipulating his service,” MacPhail said in the season’s first week. “[Owner] Peter Angelos could care less and I could care less. So when he is ready and we have the need, he will be here.”
Privately, Orioles officials have said that they couldn’t ignore the free-agency issue, but pushing back arbitration was not a factor. If Wieters is as good as advertised, the club will undoubtedly try to sign him early to a multiyear deal, much as they did with outfielder Nick Markakis.
The Rays faced a similar decision a year ago when they raised eyebrows by sending third baseman Evan Longoria to the minors instead of beginning the season with him on the big league roster. That decision was short-lived because third baseman Willy Aybar was hurt. Longoria was promoted, and shortly thereafter the Rays signed him to a six-year, $17.5-million contract that they’d been working on all spring.
Longoria, asked about that decision, admitted it was hard to start the season in the minors.
“As players, you understand baseball is as much a business as it is a game or a sport for us,” Longoria said. “I didn’t care to have any skepticism as far as what they were thinking. I sat in that office and had a talk with them. Obviously there was an understanding that I was ready to play at that point from the coaches’ standpoint. That was the biggest thing to me, that they understood I could play at the major league level.”
Longoria cited Brewers star Ryan Braun as another example of a player who appeared big league ready in spring training, only to be sent out. Braun hit .353 with five home runs in 34 at-bats in the spring of 2007, but began the regular season in Triple-A. When he was called up in May, manager Ned Yost immediately installed him in the No. 3 spot in the Milwaukee order.
“The money obviously is part of it, I think, as evidenced by Ryan Braun first and me second,” Longoria said. “Price, he was here, now he’s back down, he’s kind of following the same pattern we did. They obviously knew Braun was ready. We understand that Price is ready, It was unfortunate for David, but I think it’s just one more humbling feeling you go through.”
Friedman admitted in Longoria’s case he wasn’t sure whether it was best for him to start in the minors but elected to err on the side of caution. “Struggles are inevitable at the beginning of a major league career,” he said, “and we just want to shorten that time period as much as we possibly can on the development side because of how reliant we are on young players for our success.”
Price was very professional in his reaction, Friedman said, when told he wasn’t breaking camp with the big club. The Rays have an idea of when they expect Price to be promoted, but Friedman doesn’t want to place undue pressure on the pitcher by making it public.
“We said, ‘Look, we understand that in the short term it’s going to be something disappointing for you, but we feel very confident that you’re going to look back in three, four, five years and understand the thought process and why we did it,” Friedman said.
The Rays wanted Price to refine the command of his fastball and slider. They wanted him to perfect his changeup. They want to monitor his workload.
And perhaps delaying Price’s free agency by a year helps as well.
• One major league scout from a top-tier organization is so high on Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward that he said he would be willing to give the Braves anyone on his team’s 25-man roster to get him. “The best young hitter I’ve seen in years,” the scout said. “He’ll be leading the league in home runs for 10 years once he gets here.” Heyward, 19, was the Braves’ No. 1 draft pick in 2007, the 14th player taken overall. He’s strong, disciplined, and smart – his parents, Eugene and Laura, are both Dartmouth graduates. “Let me put it this way,” another major league executive said of the 6-4, 220-pound left-handed hitter. “He’s a cross between Dave Parker, Darryl Strawberry and Fred McGriff. How’s that put it? He’s got a chance to be a real superstar.”
Another Braves power-hitting prospect with a high ceiling – first baseman Freddie Freeman – is already joined at the hip with Heyward.
“They play together, they room together,” the executive said. “Heyward is an African-American kid from Atlanta, Freeman is a white kid from [Orange, Calif.], and they’re the best of friends. They both have makeup that is off the charts.”
Heyward and Freeman are currently playing at Class-A Myrtle Beach. Look for them to move up to Double-A by midseason.
• So, which is more of a surprise, that the Pittsburgh Pirates began the work week with the lowest ERA in the majors (2.97) or that the New York Yankees had the highest (6.26)? The average annual value of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett’s contracts combined is $39.5 million; the current Pirates rotation of Paul Maholm ($2 million), Ian Snell ($750,000), Zach Duke ($2.2 million), Ross Ohlendorf ($413,500) and Jeff Karstens ($401,500) will be paid $5,765,000 this season.
• Oakland Athletics fans are wondering how long they’ll have to wait to see Matt Holliday hit a home run. Holliday had just two extra-base hits, both doubles, in 62 spring-training at-bats, and had four doubles and a triple in his first 66 at-bats in the regular season. He hit .222 in his first nine games at McAfee Coliseum and has one extra-base hit in seven road games. So far, the trade that sent Holliday from Colorado to Oakland qualifies as a bust for both teams: Huston Street, the key piece acquired by the Rockies, has a 7.88 ERA and lost the closer’s job to Manny Corpas. If Holliday struggles, GM Billy Beane might lose the option of moving Holliday’s $13.5 million contract at the trading deadline.
• The Detroit Tigers are cautiously optimistic about the progress being made by pitcher Dontrelle Willis, who was placed on the disabled list with what was described as an anxiety disorder. Willis has responded well to medication and a doctor’s care, and is making his way up the ladder in the minor leagues. Willis gave up four runs in seven innings in his first rehab start in Class-A Lakeland, then pitched credibly Sunday in Double-A Erie. He is expected to move up to Triple-A Toledo for his next start, and if all goes well, could be back with the Tigers before the middle of May.
• After a shaky couple of outings, San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, the defending NL Cy Young Award winner, is back to being his dominant self. One scout calls him the best pitcher he’s seen this spring. “He already had the big fastball and great curveball,” the scout said. “Now he’s got a changeup that is a new tool he’s using to strike people out.” In Lincecum’s last two starts, he has allowed one run in 16 innings, with 25 whiffs and one walk.
• The Colorado Rockies’ hope that Troy Tulowitzki would have a bounce-back year are fading quickly. After hitting safely in his first five games, The shortstop has fallen into a four for 39 slump (.103) with 15 whiffs and one extra-base hit. “He’s progressively getting worse,” one big league scout said. “Lots of swings and misses.”
• An overlooked aspect of the Seattle Mariners surprising start is the outfield defense. When new manager Don Wakamatsu runs out Endy Chavez, Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki, he has three center-field caliber outfielders.
• When the Boston Red Sox needed an extra reliever for the final game of their three-game series against the Yankees last weekend, they summoned Michael Bowden, a starter who had allowed one earned run in 14 innings for an International League-leading ERA of 0.64. But the pitcher who has blown away everyone who has seen him is Pawtucket closer Daniel Bard, a first-round pick in 2007.
Said one scout, “If the Red Sox have 11 pitchers better than Bard, they won’t lose a game this season.”
Last Wednesday against Rochester, Bard entered the game and struck out the side on nine pitches. He has allowed two hits, both wind-blown home runs, in 10 2/3 innings. He has 18 strikeouts and three walks, while consistently hitting the high 90s on the radar gun. He isn’t yet on Boston’s 40-man roster, so when the Red Sox decide to promote him, it will be to stay.
• The longest spring training in memory hasn’t helped in keeping players healthy. In the week of April 18-25, 30 players went on the disabled list. Four teams – the Angels, Yankees, Pirates and Jays – each placed three players on the DL.
• Three of Jason Bay’s first five home runs this season have come in the ninth inning. Bay homered April 11 off Justin Speier of the Angels for what proved to be the winning run in a 5-4 Red Sox win in Anaheim. He connected off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera for a game-tying two-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth last Friday, then broke a scoreless tie Monday in the top of the ninth with a three-run home run off Indians closer Kerry Wood in Cleveland.
• There remains concern in Boston over David Ortiz’s bat speed (no home runs in 76 at-bats), which makes Red Sox leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury all the more important to the offense. Boston’s 11-game winning streak coincided with Ellsbury getting hot. After batting .194 in his first eight games, Ellsbury’s line during the streak is .327/.353/.449, and with a league-leading 10 stolen bases, including Sunday’s sensational steal of home, his speed is an obvious weapon.
• It may not be too early for Tampa Bay to be concerned about its pitching, especially in the bullpen. Grant Balfour has allowed seven hits and seven walks in six innings and is sporting a 7.50 ERA, while Dan Wheeler has allowed nine hits – including three home runs – in 7 1/3 innings. Closer Troy Percival has had just two save opportunities this month, converting both of them, but he’s not getting many swings and misses.
“Balfour was 95 mph last season and has been in the low 90s when I’ve seen him,” one scout said. “Wheeler and Percival have been pitching more on guts than ability. A lot of guys over there had career years last season. They may be getting back to their norms.”