According to the Pittsburgh Pirates, star outfield prospect Gregory Polanco isn't ready for the major leagues yet. Apparently, however, he's more than ready for a contract that could span a decade.
The Pirates recently offered the 22-year-old Polanco a seven-year deal with three club options that would guarantee him a little bit less than $25 million, a source with knowledge of the team's plans told Yahoo Sports. Polanco rejected the deal and remains at Triple-A Indianapolis, a casualty of Major League Baseball's service-time rules that continue to give teams an incentive to bury some of the best prospects in the minor leagues until June.
Pittsburgh's tack with Polanco mirrors a trend of offering the best up-and-coming players long-term major league contracts before their debuts. While no player has signed such a deal, the Houston Astros proposed a multiyear deal for outfielder George Springer during spring training. When he turned it down, the Astros kept him in the minor leagues for the first 2½ weeks of the season, delaying his free agency by a year.
The situation with Polanco is even more naked. At 12-20, with a .687 team OPS and failing platoon in right field, the Pirates unquestionably could use Polanco, who is hitting .397/.449/.621 with four home runs and 26 RBIs. Between his performance over the season's first month and his MVP showing in the Dominican Winter League, he has solidified his place among the top echelon of prospects – the sort whom teams conspire to keep in the minor leagues until after the projected cut-off for so-called Super 2 players.
The top 22 percent of each service class are designated Super 2 players, meaning they are granted arbitration – and therefore a higher salary – for four seasons instead of three. By keeping a player in the minor leagues until after the Super 2 cut-off, which is usually in early to mid-June, teams estimate a savings of millions of dollars.
In the case of Springer and Polanco, the motivation of the teams was simple: Ignore the service-time manipulation in exchange for a discount in future years. Had Springer agreed to the deal, he would have started the year in Houston. Had Polanco accepted Pittsburgh's offer, he'd be in right field tonight, even though the Pirates continue to say he needs work there after shifting from center field.
The conceit is disingenuous, and while the Pirates are far from the only guilty ones – service-time manipulation has happened for years – the new trend of tying it to accepting a far under-market deal makes the practice all the worse and begs for a change to the rules come the next collective bargaining agreement.
Whether it is tying Super 2s to performance – it makes sense that the best players should earn money quicker – or some other change, it's obvious service-time manipulation harms the game by ensuring teams aren't rostering their 25 best players.
Last week, Polanco's manager at Indianapolis, Dean Teanor, told Yahoo Sports: "Would I like to have him here longer to develop a little more? Yeah. But then on the other side of that, if they feel they need him there, I'm not going to say, 'No, he's not ready.' "
Treanor knows he's ready. The Pirates know he's ready. Everyone who sees him knows he's ready. They wouldn't offer him a potential decade-long deal otherwise, and as long as such contracts are on the table for minor leaguers, the Pirates – along with MLB – ought to end this charade and prioritize making sure the best players are in front of the most fans without it becoming a financial issue.
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