IT’S STRASBURG (SERVICE) TIME

By Murray Chass

June 6, 2010

What a surprise. Stephen Strasburg is scheduled to join the Washington Nationals this week and pitch his first major league game Tuesday night. Surprise? Not really. This is, after all, the first week of June, a safe week for teams to add their top prospects to their major league rosters and start their major league service clock ticking.

The clubs engage in a game of service-time manipulation. Unlike some club practices of the past – collusion most notably – this one does not violate any of the labor laws. There has been some sentiment in the union to challenge the practice through a grievance but not enough obviously to take that step.

“We are paying attention to that and I would expect arbitration eligibility will be an issue in collective bargaining,” Michael Weiner, head of the union, said earlier in the season. “It has become so obvious.”Stephen Strasburg3 225

Strasburg, the No 1 pick in last year’s draft, will be the obvious attraction this week. He may be joined by Mike Stanton, a 20-year-outfielder, who is considered Florida’s top prospect (21 home runs in 51 games), but the Marlins haven’t acknowledged his imminent arrival.

The Nationals and the Marlins epitomize the teams that are apt to play the service-manipulation game. Not all clubs participate. The goal of the game is to delay a player’s eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency. By keeping a player in the minors for the first six weeks or two months of a season, a club keeps him from getting a full year of service for his first year in the majors. He then will have to wait seven years instead of six before he can be a free agent.

“I think smaller-market teams are cognizant of the fact that you have to control these players as long as you can,” J.P. Ricciardi, a former general manager, said. “You’ve drafted them and developed them and spent a lot of money doing that. If you have a Scott Boras client chances of keeping that player in your system beyond six years are very slim. It’s only being smart in controlling the talent you have.”

Club executives are generally reluctant to talk about the practice even though it’s legal. One reason may be the issue of integrity. If a club thinks a player could help it win games but nevertheless keeps him in the minors, it could be seen as cheating its fans and players by not doing everything it can to win.

The San Francisco Giants offer Exhibit A on this issue, though their general manager, Brian Sabean, did not return telephone calls seeking comment on their handling of Buster Posey.

The Giants recalled Posey May 29. He collected three hits in each of his first two games and 9 hits in his first 19 times at bat. When Posey joined the Giants, they had a 25-22 record and were 2 ½ games from first in the tight National League West race.

Had the Giants recalled Posey sooner or had him in their lineup from the start of their season and he had played in some or all of the 47 games he missed, might the Giants have won more games and had a better record and position in the standings?

Buster Posey 225Maybe, maybe not. But were Giants fans and players entitled to have found out? Yes, especially if by not summoning him sooner the Giants were motivated by their desire to deprive Posey of service time.

There is one difference between Posey’s case and that of other delayed call-ups. Posey spent the last month of last season with the Giants and received credit for 33 days of service time.

That time plus his May 29 call-up this season most likely assure him of being a Super Two for salary arbitration after the 2012 season. Free agency, however, is another matter.

If Posey stays with the Giants the rest of the season, he will have 161 days of service time, 11 days short of a full year of service. What effect will that shortfall have on Posey? He will have to play for the Giants for seven years instead of six before he will be eligible to be a free agent.

When I spoke with Stan Kasten, the Nationals’ president, about this entire issue last week, he defended the Giants and cited Posey’s call-up last season as undermining my argument about salary arbitration. However, Kasten apparently wasn’t aware of or thought better of bringing up the extra year Posey would need for free agency. Maybe he hadn’t done the math.

The Giants, on the other hand, had done it and knew exactly how long they would have to keep him in the minors to get that extra year. Had they recalled him May 18 instead of May 29, he could have qualified for a year of service this year.

Posey, meanwhile, figures to qualify for salary arbitration when he should because the 161 days will be enough to make him a Super Two. What’s that?

In 1990 a compromise on salary arbitration eligibility settled a labor dispute between the owners and the players and created the Super Twos.

The owners wanted to keep eligibility at three years of major league service; the players wanted to go back to the original two years. They compromised by awarding arbitration eligibility to the 17 percent of players with the most service time between two and three years. Thus, they were called Super Twos.

The new group forced the clubs to work out a way to determine ahead of time who those players might be, especially if they wanted to play with their service time.

Over the 20-year existence of the system, it has become clear that a player with less than two years and 130 days will not be a Super Two. The smallest number of days has been 128, and that was the first year. The last three years the number of days has been 140, 140 and 139.

Applying that data to the baseball schedule, this season began April 4. Recalling a player after the first six weeks would probably be risky because he could still get 141 days. A service year is 172 days while the actual season is 183 days.

Six weeks this year would have been May 16. There was no influx of top prospects on that day. However, the next day the Nationals recalled Drew Storen, the 10th pick in last year’s draft and their closer of the future.Drew Storen2 225

Unless they plan a mid-summer minor league refresher course for Storen, the Nationals may be risking arbitration in two years because he will have 140 days. But they will be risking nothing with free agency. Like his new teammate, Strasburg, and Posey, Storen will have to play seven seasons before he can become a free agent.

Not all teams participate in the manipulation game. In spring training I asked Frank Wren, the Braves’ general manager, if the Braves might delay Jason Heyward’s ascent to the majors for service-time reasons.

“If you think you have a club that has a chance to win and he’s ready to be part of that, he’ll be our right fielder,” Wren replied. Heyward has been Atlanta’s right fielder all season.

“I think organizations look at it differently,” said Ricciardi, the former Toronto general manager. “Mike Leake made the Reds at the start. They could have held him back, but they needed a starting pitcher and felt he was the best they had. When I was in Toronto, we brought up Rios earlier than we wanted because we needed offense. I’ve been in both situations.”

Ricciardi guessed that the practice has been going on for eight or nine years, but Rob Manfred, the clubs’ chief labor executive, said it began long before that.

“When I started in 1987 clubs were well aware of salary arbitration eligibility,” Manfred said. “People pay a little more attention to it now because of Super Twos. You have to work at it harder.”

Clubs, though, don’t have to work too hard because Manfred’s staff does the work for them.

“Clubs are doing what they have a right to do,” Manfred said. “It has been a long-standing part of our agreement that clubs have the right to determine when players are brought to the major leagues. It’s a pretty daunting task.”

Though the union would argue that players are hurt by not having the service time they should gain, Ricciardi said players are not hurt by the additional time in the minors. He cited Justin Smoak, the Rangers’ 23-year-old first baseman, as an example.

“Smoak was tearing it up in Triple A,” Ricciardi said. “Texas brought him up and he’s struggling. He didn’t suffer because he was in the minors this season.”

Justin Smoak 225Smoak, who was recalled April 23, played 38 games before a three-hit game last Friday put him over .200 for the first time this season.

Nor will Strasburg suffer from his time in the minors, Ricciardi said.

“Maybe he was ready to pitch in the big leagues,” Ricciardi said. “He might have been ready last year after the draft. But they did nothing wrong. Washington didn’t hurt him by keeping him in the minors this season.”

But the Nationals have affected Strasburg’s eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency. Like his teammate Storen and Posey and any other players who are recalled this week, Strasburg will need a seventh season for free agency. He will also need an extra year for arbitration.

Even though the pitcher has a four-year contract, when it expires after the 2012 season, he will have two years and 118 days of major league service, falling well short of the Super Two cutoff.

Kasten, the Nationals’ president, grudgingly said that service time was “one of the factors” in their decision to keep Strasburg in the minors this long. Six weeks ago Kasten refused to acknowledge that.

“It’s one of the factors,” he said in a telephone interview last Friday. “This is a guy who never spent a day in the minor leagues. There are things our guys felt very strongly about that he needed to experience. Could he have pitched up here opening day? I’m sure he could have. Were there things for him to learn? I’m sure there were.”

Speaking of salary arbitration, Kasten said, “I would think the Super Two date passed a long time ago. It was a factor among others but not especially a major one.”

Kasten rejected any suggestion of an integrity issue.

“In our case,” he said, “we’re doing the best we can to build a good team for a long time. We felt this was the best way we could have handled Stephen’s development and media access. I’ve never been through this. There wasn’t a manual on how to handle it. I think our decisions have been appropriate and correct.”

But what about the Reds’ decision to put Leake in their pitching rotation even though he went directly to the majors without visiting the minors?

“It’s an amazing thing,” Kasten said, then reverted to Strasburg. “Could he have pitched in the majors? Probably. But could he benefit from time in the minors? Definitely.”

 

PITCHER RETURNS IN MID-SEASON FORM

It was nice to see that when he resumed pitching last week after a two-year injury absence Chris Capuano was able to pick up where he left off. Pitching again for Milwaukee, Capuano did not win, marking the 19th successive start he has not won.Chris Capuano 225

The right-hander made his last 18 starts in 2007 without winning. To make matters worse, the Brewers have lost all 19 of Capuano’s winless starts.

His winless streak, however, is not the longest in history. That dubious honor belongs to Tom Sheehan, who pitched in the early decades of the last century and endured a streak of 21 starts without winning one.

Sheehan accumulated 17 of those starts (one game ended in a tie) in 1916 with the Philadelphia Athletics. Three winless starts for the A’s in 1915, his rookie year, preceded the long stretch, and Sheehan added No. 21 in his only start for the Yankees in 1921, which the Yankees wound up winning but too late for Sheehan.

He finally ended the streak – in 1924. He pitched the Reds to a 4-3 victory over the Cubs.

While on the subject of losing pitchers, this would be a good place to introduce a new idea. Winning pitchers have multiple awards they can win, including most valuable player if they have an especially sensational season. Losing pitchers get no recognition.

There are some pitchers who have such poor records this season that they deserve recognition for their efforts – for having the courage to keep going out there, if for no other reason.

Felipe Paulino of Houston gained his first victory last week after seven losses. Zack Greinke of Kansas City, a Cy Young award winner last year, had his record fall to 1-7. Charlie Morton of Pittsburgh is on the disabled list. But this week’s leader for this new award is Kenshin Kawakami of Atlanta, whose latest loss ran his record to 0-8.

A name for the honor? Let’s call it the Sigh Young award.

 

JUNIOR’S SENIOR EFFECT ON SEATTLE

Everybody knows that the House that Ruth Built was Yankee Stadium. In the Northwest everybody knows that Safeco Field is the house that Junior built and the Mariners are the team that Junior kept in Seattle.

Ken Griffey4 225In the lore of Seattle baseball, the team and the field will be the legacy of Ken Griffey Jr., who last week ended his career after 21 years and 2 months.

To Griffey’s credit, he recognized that he could no longer hit the pitching that he used to crush. When I expressed the thought here a couple of weeks ago that players are often the last to know it’s time to go, a friend of Griffey assured me that would not be Junior and last week we learned it wasn’t.

Because of the repeated showings of the scene, Griffey’s most memorable moment from 1995 is probably his slide home in the 11th inning with the run that beat the Yankees and put the Mariners in the American League Championship Series.

But six weeks earlier Griffey slugged a two-run, ninth-inning homer against John Wetteland, the Yankees’ closer, that gave the Mariners a 9-7 victory and launched a 36-game drive (25-11) that catapulted the Mariners from 11 ½ games back to the division title.

Three months earlier he had broken his left wrist making a catch against the wall and had a four-inch metal plate and seven screws put in the wrist.

Without Griffey, there would have been no comeback and no post-season, and without the comeback and the post-season, the Mariners would have generated no public and political interest in a new park, and they would have been headed out of town.

Chuck Armstrong, the Mariners’ president, has long been fond of Griffey, personally and for what Junior did for the Mariners, especially 1995. He related a story about him the day after Griffey announced his retirement.

“When Alex Rodriguez had been with us for two years,” Armstrong recalled, “I described him as the best young player I had seen. Junior saw that and said, ‘What am I, chopped liver?’ I said you’re not young.”

The way Junior played the game he will always seem young.

 

LOWER-PAYROLL TEAMS COMPLETE CYCLE

The Yankees and the Angels were closing in as the baseball week began, but lower-payroll teams still led their respective divisions. In fact, a day after I noted here last week that five of the six divisions had leaders whose payrolls were not the highest in their divisions, the Braves made it unanimous by overtaking the Phillies.

For the past week all six divisions have had poorer teams in front.

 

HARPER VS. STRASBURGBryce Harper3 225

The Nationals are not leading their division, but they are once again the leadoff team in the annual June draft.

Unless they don’t want to have to deal with agent Scott Boras again, they were most likely prepared to select Bryce Harper. A year ago the Nationals selected Stephen Strasburg, also a Boras client, as the No. 1 pick and signed him a minute or so before the deadline.

Harper, a 17-year-old catcher from Las Vegas, may not be as difficult to sign. He’s in such a hurry to play major league baseball that he left high school early to attend a junior college and be eligible for the draft.

From everything that has been written and said about Harper and his hitting prowess, he might want to skip the majors and go directly to the Hall of Fame. Or maybe the Nationals could draft Harper and sell tickets to watch him hit against Strasburg.

 

GALARRAGA, JOYCE AND “ULYSSES”

Armando Galarraga 225No, before you ask because everybody else has, I do not think Commissioner Bud Selig should declare the Armando Galarraga-Jim Joyce game a perfect game. Commissioners have messed with such games enough.

In 1990 then Commissioner Fay Vincent led a committee that redefined a no-hitter, costing some pitchers a well-deserved distinction. The change I disagreed with most was the one that stripped no-hitters from the books if a pitcher allowed no hits in a losing game on the road and the visiting pitcher pitched only eight innings.

There is no reason for Selig to give Galarraga what Joyce took from him. Galarraga knows he pitched a perfect game. Joyce knows Galarraga pitched a perfect game. Everybody knows he pitched a perfect game.

In fact, I’d bet that more people know that Galarraga pitched a perfect game than know that Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game.

I do have one suggestion for what Selig could do. While I applaud the way Joyce quickly acknowledged his gross error and apologized to Galarraga, if Selig wanted to discipline the umpire, he could order Jim Joyce to read “Ulysses”

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.