First and foremost, yes on Jason Heyward. He has power, discipline, and the backing of Ol’ Bobby. Saw him in Spring Training ’08 and ’09 and he was a manchild, and that was before the parking lot nets had to be installed this year. Look for him to hit .290 with 20+ HR, ~15 SB if he plays a full year. His ADP in ESPN leagues around 170, making him a great high upside pick in the 14th or 15th round, as he’s being picked between Franklin Gutierrez and 2-category player Chris Coghlan.
What’s the only thing that could stand between Heyward and instant success on the big stage, a terrifying phenomenon that has recently felled the likes of Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria, Matt “God” Wieters, Tommy Hanson and (just last Saturday) St. Stephen Strasburg ? A GM with an eye on the big picture, that’s what. All of the aforementioned players were clearly ready for the Bigs when camp broke their respective rookie years, yet they found themselves in places like Durham, Norfolk, and Richmond to open the season. Front offices inevitably make up some laughable excuse for sending down the player, usually saying “he needs more seasoning,” as though 2 weeks facing washed up vets at AAA will actually make or break the player’s career. The Nationals’ recent handling of Strasburg was the funniest of all, as his GM and manager said he was optioned to slow down his delivery from the stretch, as he hasn’t pitched with men on base often enough to be comfortable with it.
The truth is, players are under team control for 6.0 years before free agency. Each contractual year consists of 172 days of service time. Thus, if a player is in the Bigs from Opening Day til the end the season he accrues 1.0 years of service time. However, due to scheduling, there is a discrepancy between a contractual year and the calendar year, as the MLB season actually takes 183 days. This creates a loophole in that a player can be sent to the minors to begin the season and called up twelve days later, giving him at years’ end only 171 days (.994 years) of service time, delaying his free agency one year. At the rate current free agent contracts have ballooned, the extra year of team control can potentially save a team up to $10 million for that year, a benefit most sane GMs in today’s economy would gladly pay in exchange for their top prospect waiting an extra 2 weeks to help the club. *Note: if a minor leaguer is on the team’s 40 man roster, he must spend 20 days in the minors between the option date (day he is sent down) and the day he is called up or else the option will be voided and teams would save no service time accrual. Thus, 40-man prospects will usually remain in the minors the first 21 days of the season.*
As an addendum to the service time discussion, “Super Two” status is another factor in considering summoning top prospects to the bigs. Typically, players are at club-controlled salaries (around the $400,000 minimum) for their first 3 seasons in MLB. In seasons 4-6 (barring a contract extension) they are eligible for salary arbitration, whereby a committee determines the next season’s salary based on past performance. However, there exists a group of players, “Super-Twos,” who are eligible for arbitration after only 2 full seasons. Players who rank in the top 17% in total service time of those with between 2-3 full years of service time qualify for Super Two status. So, if a player starts on the MLB roster in May 2007, then plays all of 2008 and and 2009 for the club, he will likely have about 2.7-2.8 years’ service time entering the 2010 season. While the scale varies year to year, this will usually put him around the crucial top 17% cutoff point for Super Twos, costing the team millions. Case in point: Tim Lincecum, called up May 7, 2007, made the Super Two cutoff this year. While he otherwise could have been renewed at as little at $520,000, the Giants gave him a two-year $23,000,000 deal to buy out his first 2 years of arbitration. Conversely, Mark Reynolds was called up on May 16, 2007, only 9 days later. However, he just missed the Super-Two cutoff, meaning he was eligible for arbitration until 2011 (though the team did sign him to an extension, it pays only $500,000 for 2010, representing a huge savings over what he would’ve made in arbitration.
As the Reynolds case exemplifies, a player who is called in mid-May may avoid Super Two status; however teams like to err on the side of caution, usually waiting until around June 1 to recall their studs. Just last year, Wieters debuted May 29, Andrew McCutchen debuted on June 4, and Tommy Hanson debuted June 7. Did that have anything to do with minor league success? Obviously not. The teams knew they could save money in the long run by delaying until June to call up their top prospects. Keep that in mind when looking at this year’s potential impact rookies, and if you’ve got your sights set on one of these guys who’ll be starting in the minors in a shallow league I would pull the trigger around May 15:
Stephen Strasburg, RHP WAS
He’s already gotten more hype than any college pitcher since Mark Prior, and rightfully so. However, when Washington recalls him is crucial to his mixed league value. If they wait the absolute minimum amount of time for his option to count, he could be up by the end of April, the Nats will save a year of service time, and you could have a SP1 for 25+ starts around pick 190. However, it is more likely the Nationals look to save more by waiting until June, giving you between 15-20 starts. Keep this in mind when drafting.
Pedro Alvarez, 3B PIT
If there is a Braun/Longo this year, it’s Alvarez. Right now he’s best known for his draft holdout that almost cost the Pirates his rights after being selected #2 overall in 2008, but that will soon be forgotten. He’s got a sweet lefty stroke with good loft. While he strikes out a bit, he has a great eye as well. He offers upside in line with Evan Longoria’s rookie year (.275, 20+HR); the only question is how soon he takes over the hot corner in Pittsburgh. Andy Laroche has struggled mightily this spring but will keep the spot warm while Pedro’s arbitration clock stays frozen at AAA. Since he’s a 40-man guy, he won’t be up before April 23, but I will be grabbing him around April 15 to be safe. If Pittsburgh decides to wait, then make sure you pick him up around May 15.
Carlos Santana, C CLE
Santana is the switch-hitting catcher the Indians picked up in 2008 for Casey Blake. A year from now, people will look back on that trade and laugh. He won the Eastern League (AA) MVP last year, and offers a ton of power along with Youk-esque discipline. The Indians will be running out Lou Marson and Wyatt Toregas until they decide to go with the future in late May/early June. He will be a top 10 catcher as soon as he is called up, but and projects to be a Kung Fu Panda minus about 40 points of average (which he more than makes up for in OBP, not that it counts for fantasy). In other words, if he’s called up June 1, expect a .280 avg with 15 bombs, not too shabby for a first-year catcher.
Now, for the guys will (most likely) break camp with the club (draft/pick up ASAP):
Aroldis Chapman, LHP CIN
Everyone already knows the good about Chapman, the Cuban defector who throws 102 from the left side with a 90 mph slider. The Reds appear to be leaning towards him as their #5 starter to start the year, and he offers the upside of a full year of Francisco Liriano circa 2006. The bad: he is prone to bouts of wildness because he has trouble repeating his delivery, and has recently experienced back problems in ST. Nonetheless, he obviously offers tremendous upside and will provide plenty of K’s even in the worst case scenario. He’s going around pick 210 and is worth the gamble.
Brian Matusz, LHP BAL
Here’s one talent evaluator’s take Matusz that I can’t best (credit Buster Olney’s blog):
“He’s like Cole Hamels, but with a better fastball. He’s got a chance to be really special, with that stuff and command. Last spring, the pitcher I liked, as an up-and-comer, was Josh Johnson. Now, it’s [Matusz]. If he’s not the best young pitcher in the American League, I’d be shocked.”
Matusz is also going around pick 210, and I personally prefer him to Chapman. He has great control and great K-potential. Unfortunately he’s in the AL East, so he’ll take some lumps along the way, but he’s gonna be a good one. He made his debut last year and will assuredly break camp in the O’s young rotation. On the year, look for an ERA in the 3.8 range with a 1.3 WHIP and, 7K/9ip, and 12-14 wins
Wade Davis, RHP TB
Firstly, Davis just won the Rays’ fifth starter job so draft with confidence. He is a typical power righty with a a great 12-6 hook, along with a decent slider and change. I like him right up there with Matusz, maybe just a tick below. He threw a 10-K shutout last September over the O’s and has put up consistently strong numbers since being drafted out of high school in 2004. One word of warning: against Big League lineups, Davis has been prone to hideously bad starts with no apparently good reason. Maybe he is prone to tipping his pitches, maybe his command just disappears without warning, but both last September against BOS (8 earned in 2.2ip) and just the other day in ST against MIN (5 earned, 9 hits in 2ip) he’s had a couple disasters. But don’t worry, over a full season in the Rays rotation his projection he should put similar numbers to Matusz.
Alcides Escobar, SS MIL
Remember Elvis Andrus? Well Escobar will provide the same type of production this year as Milwaukee’s starting SS, and come about 100 picks later around 180. Think 30+ steals and a hollow .280, with his run production TBD by his spot in the lineup. As a young speedster, he’s been splitting time between leadoff and the 8-hole in ST. Soon enough though, Carlos Gomez will find himself hitting 8th and Escobar will be hitting 1 or 2, in front of Braun and Fielder. That won’t suck.