PLAYING THE SERVICE-TIME GAME

By Murray Chass

June 9, 2013

Memo to New York Mets fans: When the Mets say they will promote Zack Wheeler to the major leagues when he is major-league ready, do not believe them. They will summon Wheeler to New York when they are satisfied that they have cheated him out of enough major league service time to delay his eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency by a year.

Given that Yasiel Puig has a seven-year contract, the Los Angeles Dodgers shouldn’t have to mess with Puig’s service time, but his contract permits him to opt out of it and declare for salary arbitration when he is eligible so service time could be a factor.Yasiel Puig2 225

Despite what the Dodgers may say to the contrary, that contract clause is very likely why the Dodgers left Puig in the minors until last week instead of having him on their roster helping them avoid their disastrous start to the season that has kept them in last place for a month and under .500 since April 15.

No one expects Puig to maintain the five-game start he had last week, but the 22-year-old right fielder has hit productively wherever and whenever, and there’s no reason to doubt that he would not have hit the first two months, or at least the second month, with the Dodgers.

But as has Wheeler, Puig got caught up in the game that can be named after an old baseball movie, “It Happens Every Spring.”

If teams leave good young players in the minors until late May or early June they can postpone their eligibility for salary arbitration and free agency for a year. Clubs don’t disclose the real reason for their timetable. They just say this player or that player wasn’t ready for the majors.

Paul Cohen, the agent for Evan Longoria, who experienced the service-time manipulation in 2008, explained the game as he watched the clubs play it in 2009.

“This is my 20th year in this business,” Cohen said, “and for the majority of my career the majority of young players are not ready April 1, are not ready May 1. They’re not ready until June 1.”

The immediate focus of the manipulation is on salary arbitration and the players’ eligibility for it. The introduction of Super 2’s made the game more important from the clubs’ standpoint.

In 1985 the players, in a rare major concession to the owners, agreed to change the arbitration eligibility from two years of major league service to three. After the union’s younger members expressed their outrage at the change, the union, in the 1990 negotiations, got the time needed changed.

The 17 percent of the players who had the most service between two and three years would be eligible for arbitration. They became known as the Super 2’s. In the last negotiations, in 2011, that group was changed to 22 percent.

The clubs, however, didn’t change their strategy. Their goal was to keep their players out of the group. They achieve their goal by restricting service time, and they do that by delaying callups.

Teams don’t talk about the practice of manipulating service time; they don’t acknowledge it. By ignoring the subject, they think or hope that no one will notice.

But how can others help but notice an influx of rookies in late May and early June, the time clubs think is safe from Super 2 status. Making their major league debuts in 2009, for example, were Tommy Hanson, Braves pitcher, June 7; Gordon Beckham, White Sox third baseman, June 4; Andrew McCutchen, Pirates center fielder, June 4; Matt Wieters, Orioles catcher, May 29; Kris Medelin, Braves pitcher, May 21.

Buster Posey4 225The following season the Giants called up Buster Posey May 29, not to affect his eligibility for arbitration since he had played with the Giants for 33 days the previous season but to short circuit his eligibility for free agency.

“We wanted to make sure he was comfortable at the plate,” general manager Brian Sabean explained.

The problem with that explanation was it was similar to the one used by executives of other clubs that kept good young players in the minors longer than was probably necessary. The names of some of those players were Mike (now Giancarlo) Stanton of Florida (now Miami), Stephen Strasburg of Washington, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez of Pittsburgh, Jake Arrieta of Baltimore and Carlos Santana of Cleveland.

All of those players, as well as others, became “comfortable” around the same time, late May and early June.

In the weeks that ended May and began June this season, 86 young players were summoned to the major leagues. Some had been there before; the vast majority had not. The timing of the promotion of the brand new guys raised no suspicion and no suggestion that clubs had sacrificed their integrity and their chance to win a few more games, perhaps even a place in the post-season playoffs.

Integrity, however, was a serious issue. If a team has a player in the minors who could help it win games – Puig is a prime example – and he is kept on the farm to delay his time for arbitration eligibility, the team is cheating its fans, its other players and itself. The idea is to win, and winning requires the use of your best players.

Here are three highly regarded rookies from this season’s regiment of coincidentally promoted players, those who just happened to jell at the same time: pitcher Kevin Gausman of the Orioles (called up May 23), infielder Nick Franklin of the Mariners (called up May 27) and pitcher Michael Wacha of the Cardinals (called up May 30).

Franklin was a first-round pick from a Florida high school in 2009 while Gausman (Louisiana State) and Wacha (Texas A&M) were first-round selections in 2012.

Wacha held Kansas City to one earned run and two hits in seven innings in his first start, but Arizona beat him up, amassing 10 hits and scoring 6 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. Gausman lost his first two starts with a 7.20 earned run average. Franklin batted .235 in his first 10 games.

Puig, on the other hand, acted like a one-man gang in his first five games for the Dodgers. With the kind of hitting the young Cuban did in those initial games, the Dodgers could have been in first place had they added him to their lineup at the start of near the start of the season. They’re paying Puig $42 million for 7 seasons and should have let him do what he has shown he can do.

In his first five games, four of which the Dodgers won, Puig collected 8 hits in 19 at-bats, drove in 10 runs and clubbed a cycle of 4 home runs, connecting with one on and two on in a 9-7 victory, slugging a grand slam in a 5-0 win and tying a game with a bases-empty blast that set up an extra-inning victory. He had a .421 batting average and 1.105 slugging and .450 on-bases percentages.

Lest a skeptic think this was all an accident, Puig previously demonstrated his hitting prowess in spring training and the minors.

In spring training this year, he hit .517 (30-for-58) with 11 r.b.i., 3 homers and .828 slugging and .500 on-base percentages. In the minors, between spring training and the majors, he batted .313 with 8 homers and 37 r.b.in 40 games, not to mention .599 slugging and .383 on-base percentages.

Want more? In half a minor league season last year after he signed with the Dodgers, he batted .354, hit 5 homers, drove in 15 runs in 23 games and had .634 slugging and 442 on-base percentages.

Think he hasn’t been comfortable wherever he has been? Think he might have helped the Dodgers to a better record than the 23-32 they had before they promoted him?

I didn’t seek comment from the Dodgers about Puig, just as I didn’t attempt to talk to the Mets about Wheeler. I knew what officials of both clubs would have said, and why print their lies? However, I did talk to my substitute columnist, Zach Kram, about Puig, and he disagreed with me.

“Where would the Dodgers have played him?” he asked, citing the expensive, fully loaded outfield of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford. Expensive or not, Kemp and Ethier were not hitting, and the Dodgers needed someone to hit if they were going to join the National League West race.

The $20 million the Dodgers are paying Kemp and the $13.5 million they are giving Ethier would be wasted money if someone didn’t step up to the plate. Puig could be the hitter to do that.

About his contract clause: When Puig becomes eligible for salary arbitration, he can opt out of the remaining years of his contract and file for arbitration. He would then be eligible to continue going to arbitration until he had enough service time to qualify for free agency.

If Puig stays in the majors the rest of the season, he will have 119 days of major league service. Two additional full seasons would leave him short of qualifying as a Super 2 after the 2015 season. That means he couldn’t opt out until after the 2016 season.

At that point, he would be more likely to opt out because he would have two years left on his contract at a combined salary of $14 million. As far as the Dodgers are concerned, though, if there is to be an opt out, a later one is better than one a year sooner so delaying his callup and his arbitration eligibility would make sense to them.Zack Wheeler 225

Wheeler is a different case. A 23-year-old right-hander, he is in his fourth minor league season, his third since the Mets acquired him from the Giants in the Carlos Beltran trade. People outside the Mets’ organization have said Wheeler is ready for the majors, but he remains in Las Vegas, the Mets’ AAA team, where at last look he had a 4-1 record and a 4.14 e.r.a. in 12 starts and 66 strikeouts in 63 innings.

The way the Mets are going they would seem to be able to use all the help they can get, but don’t bet on it.

Asked about Wheeler and the service time issue, a union lawyer said, “That’s the one that smells a little fishy.”

Rick Shapiro, a union official, said he thought there were examples of the manipulation issue. “The most prominent,” he said, “is Zack Wheeler, who reports say will be called up in a few days. The Mets say they’ll call him up when he’s major-league ready.”

A club executive said he didn’t think the matter was relevant anymore because clubs were signing good young players to multi-year contracts before their arbitration years.

“That’s my impression, too,” said David Prouty, the union’s general counsel. But he added, “We’ve looked at it. We haven’t come to any conclusions.”

Asked about the issue, Rob Manfred, MLB’s top labor executive, said, “All I can tell you is there’s been little or no discussions about this in the industry.”

FAWN, FAWN AND FAWN SOME MORE

bud-selig-armsFor anyone who needs his monthly fix of MLB.com’s fawning treatment of Commissioner Bud Selig, find it on the MLB Web site under the headline “Selig has a blast fulfilling draft night duties.”

Posted last Friday, it was written by – who else? – Mark Newman, the site’s “enterprise editor.” I’m not sure what is so enterprising about writing paeans to the boss, but that’s the title listed.

In this latest paean, Newman wrote that a record nine prospects attended the first round of the draft, “eight of whom Selig greeted at the podium with a welcome.” He never said what happened to the ninth.

Besides being a lengthy commercial for the commissioner, the article served as a commercial for the MLB network’s coverage of the draft for the next two days.

YANKEES MUST BE DESTITUTE

The New York Yankees last week reached what may be an all-time low in their public relations efforts.

They held a news conference at Yankee Stadium announcing a partnership between its Pinstripe Bowl – that’s a post-season college football game – and the Big Ten Conference.

Ahead of the news conference, the Yankees sent out a media advisory with details – location, time, who would be at the announcement. At the bottom of the advisory was this extra bit of information for anyone planning to attend (in smaller type than the rest of the advisory:

***Parking at cost will be available in the Ruppert Plaza Garage, located on the corner of 161st St and Macombs Dam Bridge.

I asked another reporter what the phrase “at cost” meant.

“Thirty-five dollars,” he said.

Thirty-five dollars? The Yankees were going to charge reporters and photographers $35 to park to cover something they wanted those reporters and photographers to publicize for them?

There’s a Yiddish word for what the Yankees were doing: chutzpah.

I hoped that no one would show up for the announcement, but I knew that wouldn’t happen. The news media are sheep. The Yankees should be ashamed of themselves, from managing partner Hal Steinbrenner and president Randy Levine on down.

MEET REID RYAN REID

Several weeks ago the Houston Astros named a new president of business operations. His name is Reid Ryan.

Last week the Pittsburgh Pirates called up a rookie relief pitcher. His name is Ryan Reid.

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