GMs say Super Two didn't impact prospect decisions
Minor League assignments of top young players based on performance, readiness
Aaron Hicks was in center field, batting leadoff for the Minnesota Twins on Opening Day. Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. was in the starting lineup against the Yankees. Jose Fernandez was a late addition to the Marlins' Opening Day roster and the Mariners' Brandon Maurer broke camp as the club's No. 4 starter.
The flip side of the coin has Rays outfielder Wil Myers, ranked No. 4 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects rankings, the Mets' Travis d'Arnaud (No. 6) and the Pirates' Gerrit Cole (No. 9) all waiting for the Triple-A season to get under way on Thursday.
Were these roster decisions based on Major League readiness? If spots were there for the taking, were the decisions to keep or send down these top prospects based only how they performed during Spring Training? Or did finances -- namely, getting these prospects past Super Two arbitration status -- come into play?
First, an explanation of the salary arbitration rule is in order:
Players who have at least three years but fewer than six years of Major League service time are eligible to file for salary arbitration. In addition, there are the so-called Super Two players. These are the top 22 percent of players, based on service time, with at least two but fewer than three years of service. The rule states that a player must have at least 86 days of service in the immediately preceding season to qualify for this status. Typically, the cutoff for the top 17 percent has been around two years, 130 days of total service, though the number of days fluctuates from year to year.
Though it's not an insignificant amount, it's not just about the money that can end up being spent on players who become eligible for arbitration earlier. It's also about service time and contractual control of a player. A prospect who isn't called up this season until after that Super Two cutoff will be under the team's control for nearly an additional year -- 6 3/4 years, compared to six for those who are up on Opening Day.
But what of the above prospects? Were those sent to Triple-A held back because of money and control? The answer from one general manager was an emphatic no.
"Everybody is going to speculate why he is being sent out -- and they're wrong," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said when Cole was assigned to Minor League camp. "He's being sent out because in our minds, he's not ready to compete, to be successful at the Major League level, to be one of those top-of-the-rotation starters, [which is] our goal for him."
Before any doubts about the rationale are raised, scouts contacted by MLB.com couldn't find fault with the Pirates' decision. And their siding with Pittsburgh had nothing to do with monetary concerns, but rather came from the fact that Cole has just one pro season, and one Triple-A start, under his belt.
A similar response came from the Rays regarding Myers. Some wondered about him not being called up by the Royals last September and the fact that the talented outfielder was not on the 40-man roster, and there undoubtedly were those who thought he'd be in Tampa Bay's outfield to start the year. But Andrew Friedman, executive vice president of baseball operations, said all personnel decisions are based on the Rays competing in the uber-tough American League East.
"With any potential move there are a lot of factors to consider -- the fit on our roster, what it means for our depth, and so on," Friedman said. "We also have to be really mindful that our goal is to compete year in and year out in the toughest division in baseball with almost no margin for error.
"The AL East will expose very quickly any weaknesses that you have. So when we bring someone here, we need to feel that he's ready to step in and help us win right away. As [manager Joe Maddon] has touched on already this spring, if we add someone who's not ready, not only will it hurt the team, but it can really set the player back as well."
The teams who had prospects make the Opening Day roster would tend to agree with those assessments. Bradley simply played his way into a roster spot. In Minnesota and Seattle, it was 100 percent about the competition in Spring Training. And for both Hicks and Maurer, their teams believe they took the best man for the job.
"The guy has earned it," Twins GM Terry Ryan said last week. "I find it almost humorous that guys are talking service time and starting the clock. The guy has earned it."
"We've always gone into Spring Training, philosophically, if a guy deserves to be on the club, I don't see how you can look a player in the eye and tell him he can't be," Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said. "We stay true to that.
"We went in with our eyes wide open and it was hard to deny Maurer. He had such a great spring, it was the right thing to do. We never discussed anything else other than if he deserved to be on the club."
Both teams have had instances in the past when they had to make roster decisions to start the year with prospects. The Twins, typically, have given jobs to prospects when they were deemed ready. Denard Span didn't make the Opening Day roster in 2008, but Minnesota didn't wait until he was past Super Two status, calling him up in the first week of the season.
"I don't know in the last 20 years or however long Bill [Smith] and I have been in the general manager's job that we have put a guy back because of service time," Ryan said. "Who have we done that to? I don't recall it.
"Can you imagine if we sent somebody out who did what [Hicks] did? And I had to look at [Josh] Willingham, [Justin] Morneau, [Glen] Perkins, [Joe] Mauer and those guys who are trying to win, and I'm going to stop that guy? I just don't believe in that."
Neither does Zduriencik. Michael Pineda won a job out of Spring Training in 2011. Dustin Ackley was held back that same year, getting called up in June. But that had more to do with his transitioning to second base than anything else.
"Every club has their own reasons why they make their decisions," Zduriencik said. "I can't speak for anybody else. [With Ackley], we didn't think he was ready to play second [base] every day in the big leagues. He did very well in Triple-A. At the right time, we brought him up."