While Yasiel Puig continued to prompt questions about the Los Angeles Dodgers’ decision to leave him in the minor leagues until last week, along came Gerrit Cole to give Pittsburgh fans reason to ask the same questions about the Pirates’ timetable for him. Zack Wheeler of the New York Mets and Wil Myers of Tampa Bay may be next.
Puig is Exhibit A and Cole Exhibit B in the clubs’ questionable practice of service-time manipulation that I wrote about earlier this week. That column prompted e-mail responses on both sides of the issue.
Here is one from a Pittsburgher who disagreed with my view on the matter despite a strong union background. He wrote it before Cole made his excellent major league debut for the Pirates June 11:
“I have belonged to three unions in my life. I walked picket lines twice….I am not anti-union. However, I fully understand and support the strategy used by most MLB teams in delaying the free-agency and arbitration clocks.
“An example I often use is this: If you are a Pirates fan, what would you have preferred: A full season of Barry Bonds in 1986 and no season of Barry Bonds in 1992? Or two-thirds of a season from Barry Bonds in 1986 and a full season in 1992? The correct answer isn’t even debatable.
“There are cases when players can make a legitimate contribution to a contending team in late April or May and in those cases players should be brought to the majors. And they often are. It would, however, be extreme stupidity to have such players on an Opening Day roster.
“In the case of Andrew McCutchen, for example, it would have been foolhardy for the Pirates to open the 2009 season with him and only slightly less so to recall him before they did. Owners have rights, too.”
And on the other side of the issue:
“You have been covering Baseball owners for what, half a century? And you still wonder about their ‘integrity?’ And still say they ‘should be ashamed of themselves.’ You must be writing about owners on the planet Tatooine…”
Perhaps “owners” and “integrity” don’t belong in the same sentence, but if the clubs are manipulating players’ major league service time to delay their eligibility for salary arbitration and subsequently free agency, they are messing with the integrity of the game.
Teams are supposed to do their best to win; that’s what they sell to fans, who buy tickets at increasingly higher prices. “Their best” doesn’t mean having Yankees-sized payrolls, but it does mean using the team’s best players whatever their service status.
In 2009 the Baltimore Orioles didn’t call up catcher Matt Wieters until May 29, limiting his major league service to 129 days. In the last round of labor negotiations, in 2011, the union had Wieters attend a bargaining session to tell about his experience.
“We’re not crazy about this; we made that clear in bargaining,” Michael Weiner, the union chief, said in a telephone interview Thursday.
“We had Matt Wieters explain that in bargaining. He said he was held back even though he was ready. He said it was the first time playing baseball – Little League, high school, college, minor leagues – that he didn’t play somewhere based on merit. It was very powerful testimony.”
What was the reaction of the clubs’ labor representatives? “What are they going to say?” Weiner said. “They didn’t have much reaction.”
The Pirates kept a pretty good player in the minors for the first two months of the 2009 season, and while the e-mail writer said it would have been “foolhardy” to have McCutchen start the season with the Pirates – presumably because they were a bad team – I’m not so sure that he couldn’t have helped.
The Pirates had a 24-28 record when McCutchen played his first game for them. Had the outfielder played, say, the previous month, maybe he would have helped them win a couple more games, and they would have had a .500 record, an unfamiliar record in Pittsburgh.
It would come as no surprise that the Pirates would participate in a scheme, legal though it may be, to manipulate players’ service time. Their president is Frank Coonelly, who in his previous life was a chief lawyer for the owners in the commissioner’s office.
Coonelly might be a nice guy, but there’s nothing he wouldn’t do to undermine a player’s ability to play on a level playing field.
That brings me to Gerrit Cole, a pitcher, whom the Pirates made the first pick in the draft two years ago. Cole, a 22-year-old right-hander, pitched for the first time in the majors Tuesday night and shut out the San Francisco Giants for six innings before allowing two runs in the seventh in an 8-2 victory.
Beginning his major league career June 4, 2009, McCutchen was credited with 123 days of major league service for that season. That left him 23 days short after the 2011 season of qualifying as a Super 2 for salary arbitration (the 17 percent of players with the most service time between two and three years).
At the end of this season, assuming he stays in the majors until then, Cole will have 110 days of service. Even though the Super 2 category has been raised to the 22 percent, it’s very unlikely that Cole will qualify, forcing him to wait until after the 2016 to be eligible for salary arbitration.
Maybe Cole will be a flop. Maybe the Pirates will legitimately have to send him back to the minors for additional baseball education. But maybe, too, he will be terrific, and the Pirates will have saved millions of dollars, cheating Cole out of those millions.
But Super 2 status had nothing to do with Cole’s callup. How do I know? I asked Coonelly, and he told me so.
“Come on,” Coonelly said, as if I had asked the silliest question possible, when I asked him if Super 2 status was a factor in the Cole decision.
His reply and the tone of his reply were reminiscent of the way Barry Rona, a Coonelly predecessor, used to respond to my questions in the mid-1980s about the owners’ collusion against free agents.
“That was not case with Cole,” Coonelly continued. “He played one game in Triple A and one in post-season last year. While he was terrific for us, he needed more time in Triple A. We made the roster decision to select his contract in the best interest of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the best interest of Gerrit Cole. We brought him up when we thought he was ready.”
Club executives use such similar explanations in these situations that it seems that someone in the commissioner’s office writes them and sends them to the clubs for their use.
The commissioner’s office, however, does not talk about integrity. Officials would scoff at the idea that based on Puig’s performance in his first week in the majors, the Dodgers had not previously been using all of their best players.
In his first 8 games, the 22-year-old Cuban collected 16 hits, including 4 home runs and three three-hit games, in 32 at-bats for a .500 average. He had a .515 on-base percentage, a .938 slugging percentage and 10 runs batted in.
Puig didn’t perform miracles; the Dodgers won only four of those first eight games. But Puig excited his teammates and Dodgers fans with his hitting and his fielding. In his first game, he made a catch on the warning track in the field, running toward the wall, and threw out the San Diego runner trying to get back to first base for the last out of a 2-1 decision.
Five games later Puig threw out an Atlanta runner trying to go from first to third on a single.
The Dodgers, of course, didn’t need Puig’s bat and arm before June 3. They were apparently proud of their 23-32 record and last-place standing and had no reason to summon reinforcements. It was more important to keep Puig in the minors for extra work, even though he had displayed the same awesome talent wherever he had played, minor leagues and major league spring training.
The players know. “Right now, he brings an energy we were missing,” Puig’s teammate, Ramon Hernandez, was quoted as saying.
Late May and early June are the times that top minor leaguers are promoted to the majors. Those are the safest earliest times clubs can promote minor leaguers and not give them a first step toward early salary arbitration.
Puig June 3, Cole June 11. Will Myers and Wheeler be next?