The Long Game: Springer Forward
Back in the good old days of, say, five years ago, when you added a prospect to your minor league roster or reserve list, you pretty much knew what you were in for. If you were lucky, opportunity would knock some fine spring training or other and you'd get a full season of production from the kid right out of the gate. (Jason Heyward and Jose Fernandez owners, you can stop grinning now). If you didn't fall into that bonanza though, you were probably stuck waiting for the first third of the season to tick by before your prized pup got his shot, regardless of how well he was doing in the minors. The unspoken reason for that, of course, was financial. Delaying the start of a player's major league service clock meant avoiding the dreaded Super Two status, and allowed a team to buy themselves an extra year before they had to start going to arbitration with a burgeoning star, and thus saving themselves some short-term millions.
When the Astros demoted George Springer to begin the 2014 season, mouthing vague noises about things he still needed to learn or whatever, it seemed like more of the same. The club wasn't going to be contending for anything, and he'd rejected a seven-year deal in the offseason, so clearly there was no reason to start his arb clock early. A funny thing happened on the way to that 2017 arbitration hearing though. After just 13 games at Triple-A, Springer got called up.
Why the change of heart by the Astros? Maybe the demotion was just punitive, since he refused to sign a long-term deal, but the idea that a club re-building around its kids would try to antagonize one of their best prospects seems a little sketchy. Instead, consider the possibility that Houston's front office isn't worried about arbitration at all, but is instead has other priorities.
Over the last decade, clubs who need to compete on a tight budget have started ensuring cost certainty by inking their best young players to long-term deals much earlier than was thought to be necessary. The Rays have been the pioneers of this approach, but the fact that Houston was willing to lock up Springer before he'd even played a game in the majors is a pretty clear indicator that they've probably adopted the same philosophy. The contracts offered through this strategy are typically designed to not just extend through the player's arbitration years but also buy out their first season or two of free agency. And regardless of how many kicks at the arbitration can a player gets, the rules for free agency are the same for everybody: you can hit the open market if you have six or more full MLB seasons under your belt.
You see the catch, right? Had Springer signed that seven-year deal this offseason, he likely would have opened the season on Houston's 25-man roster and assuming his career blossoms as expected, those seven years would have covered all his pre-arb (2014 through 2016) and arb (2017 through 2019) seasons plus the first season he would have been eligible for free agency (2020). By allowing him to enjoy two weeks of the scenic Pacific Coast League in April though, the Astros accomplished the same goal. No matter what direction his career takes now, Springer won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season.
So what does this mean for you, Joe Dynasty League Owner? It means that prospects suddenly have a lot more short term value. Professional sports franchises are copycats, and when one club tries something and it works, it isn't long before other teams jump on the bandwagon. It happened with the various market inefficiencies Billy Beane and Michael Lewis made famous, it's happening right now with Joe Maddon's defensive shifts, and if it can impact the bottom line you can be damn sure it'll happen with a new approach to long-term contracts. As that lock-em-up-early trend spreads, more and more top prospects are going to be making their major league debuts in April rather than June, and those extra six weeks of production could be a potentially huge boon for fantasy teams who happen to own the ones worth owning.
With that in mind, and with news just hitting the wires as I finish off this column that the Tigers are promoting Robbie Ray, their prize from the Doug Fister deal, let's take a tour of the upper minors and see which prospects might also be on the verge of making their debuts.
Marcus Stroman, SP, Tor: The Jays have already synced up Stroman's turn in the Triple-A rotation with Dustin McGowan's in the majors, so it seems like it's just a matter of time before McGowan gets replaced by Toronto's best prospect. Stroman's 36:7 K:BB ratio in 26.2 innings doesn't hurt either.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pit: Is a .400/.457/.632 line any good for a 22-year-old at Triple-A? Oh, it is? Then call him up already, Pittburgh, sheesh. Jose Tabata was born to be a fourth outfielder anyway. Don't deny him his destiny.
Alex Meyer, SP, Min: While Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia steal the Twins' money and carry gas cans to the mound every fifth day like they should be wearing Joker makeup, Meyer has a 35:11 K:BB ratio through 26.2 innings. That just ain't right.
Arismendy Alcantara, 2B, ChC: A 3:20 BB:K ratio through 23 games at Triple-A spells potential doom in the majors, but he's hitting .299 with a .540 SLG around all that empty air and is 7-for-7 in stolen base attempts. That SLG is almost 100 points higher than Darwin Barney's OPS, by the way. Just sayin'.
Oscar Taveras, OF, StL: Sure, lesser prospect Randal Grichuk is up for now, but the Cardinals can't ignore Taveras' .326/.383/.558 line for too much longer. Well, I guess they can, but they really shouldn't.
Jonathan Singleton, 1B, Hou: His numbers at Oklahoma City aren't quite Springer-esque, but his .295/.404/.663 line would look mighty fine in an Astros lineup currently making do with guys like Marc Krauss and Jesus Guzman.
Andrew Heaney, SP, Mia: Since the Marlins don't believe in Triple-A the way modern economists don't believe in the gold standard, Heaney will have to content himself with dominating Double-A (28:6 K:BB ratio in 28 IP) until he gets called up.
Trolling around for the best-performing top prospects also caused me to notice some other interesting performances, which I will now regale you with in a traditional column-ending list broken up by ellipses.
Insert Baseball Pun Involving The Word Short Here: Hey Brewers! Mike Fiers would like to be called back up now, please (0.80 ERA, 47:3 K:BB ratio in just 33.2 Triple-A IP)... Columbus is crawling with potentially fantasy-relevant call-ups. Trevor Bauer shouldn't be long for the minors (1.40 ERA, 28:7 K:BB in 25.2 IP), Jesus Aguilar (.356/.440/.667 in 87 AB) could make the Indians re-think their first base situation, and Roberto Perez is no kind of prospect, but he is a catcher hitting .409/.519/.727. Give him a cup of coffee already, Cleveland!... speaking of non-prospect catchers, Jhonatan Solano is hitting .322/.403/.559 in 59 at-bats. Do the Nats have anybody better behind the plate at the moment? Didn't think so... Ezequiel Carrera has 13 steals already and a .326/.404/.453 line. If he swapped places with Rajai Davis in the Tigers lineup, would anyone notice?... the Giants' Edwin Escobar has been a little too hittable to get featured up top as imminently promotable, but a 28:6 K:BB in 24 IP is pretty stellar for a kid who just turned 22 a week ago and is seeing Triple-A for the first time... I think the Cubs' Tsuyoshi Wada might just be fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery (0.68 ERA, 29:3 K:BB in 26.1 Triple-A IP)... while the Mets dither around with spare parts at first base, poor Allan Dykstra gets no love despite hitting .371/.500/.677 at Triple-A... Hey Mariners! Nick Franklin really wants back in the majors now, please (.350/.426/.633 in 60 AB).