Now that Opening Day is here, a few major league teams should get some points for trying.
That’s how it feels, anyway, as a handful of promising prospects are actually being allowed to start the year in the big leagues.
The Chicago White Sox signed outfielder Eloy Jiménez to a six-year, $43 million deal last week rather than force the exciting young player to languish at Triple-A Charlotte through the first few weeks of the season. On Wednesday, it was confirmed that Jiménez will start in left field for the White Sox on Opening Day.
The San Diego Padres will roll with shortstop prospect Fernando Tatís Jr., announcing Tuesday that Tatís will begin the season in the major leagues. General manager A.J. Preller is also allowing pitcher Chris Paddack, who dazzled in the Cactus League this spring, to begin the year in the major league rotation.
And the New York Mets have given a spot on their 25-man roster to power-hitting first baseman Pete Alonso, who smacked four home runs and five doubles in 21 Grapefruit League games.
These moves are good, but they shouldn’t be as strongly praised as they have been. Preller and his fellow general managers are just doing what they should: Put their best team on the field right away. That ought to be the case for all 30 clubs, but it isn’t. The White Sox, Padres and Mets are notable exceptions this year. Most of the time, when money is on the line, major league owners save it rather than spend it. They keep their top prospects away from a major league salary for as long as they can.
Chicago’s Kris Bryant is the go-to example of service time manipulation. In 2015, Bryant tore up spring training and seemed more than ready to fill a hole on the Cubs’ roster. But he wasn’t brought up until April 17. The Cubs exploited a loophole in the league’s collective bargaining agreement which suppresses players’ service time if they are kept in the minor leagues. By waiting a couple weeks, the Cubs delayed Bryant’s free agency by a full year. It sure seemed as if there was no other argument for keeping Bryant down; he clearly didn’t need any more minor-league seasoning, winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2015 after he finally came up.
The Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. seemed ready from the start of spring last year, as did the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. this year. But neither began the season with the big club. Guerrero’s case for an Opening Day roster spot is weakened by an injury; but even before the oblique strain, Toronto said it wasn’t going to call up baseball’s No. 1 prospect. It’s a sad situation when owners are permitted to pinch a few more millions at the cost of players’ possible earnings and their own teams’ chances of contending.
A lot of teams justify the choice by telling their fans they can watch stars like Bryant and Acuña stick around for an extra year, but at what cost? Bryant has commented multiple times on MLB’s service time manipulations, so it’s unlikely Chicago’s actions have made him more likely to want a long-term deal with the team. Messing with service time to keep players under control a little longer might just get them itching to depart as soon as free agency hits.
So while it’ll be fun to watch Jiménez, Tatís Jr. and Alonso rake this April, remember that there are other major-league-ready players waiting for their clubs to decide it’s the right time. And pretty often, that “right time” comes around at the service time deadline.
Here are a couple of other things to watch early in the 2019 season:
The Baltimore Orioles could win 90 games this year.
If they played in the Eastern League.
Baltimore fell off the major-league map last season. Its 47-115 record was good for the 15th-worst winning percentage since 1900, and the Orioles finished 61 games out in the otherwise-competitive AL East.
Things aren’t looking any brighter this season.
Star infielder Manny Machado was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers at midseason last year and signed a free-agent contract with the Padres in February. He isn’t going back to Baltimore any time soon, and who could blame him? San Diego might not contend this year, but the Padres offered promise, palm trees and pleasant climes — and heaps of cash.
Now Baltimore’s lineup is a veritable “Who’s on First?” routine, although none of the Orioles seem likely to ever get on base. The O’s reached base at a .298 clip last season; only San Diego was worse, at .297. Former slugger Chris Davis seems poised to cost his team even more than he did a year ago. Once a power-hitting star, the first baseman was worth 3.1 wins below replacement in 2018. Víctor Martínez’s -1.6 WAR mark was the closest to Davis’ abominable .168/.243/.296 slash line. “Crush” Davis is only crushing his own team now.
And if Orioles fans expect better things on the mound ... they shouldn’t. Baltimore’s rotation is led by Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy — and now Cobb is hurt.
It’s going to be another long season in Camden Yards in 2019. O’s fans might have to be satisfied if 2019 isn’t as bad as 2018 was.
National League anarchy
It seems like only four teams in the National League are entering the 2019 campaign without attempting to contend.
Miami, having purged its roster of talent and its ballpark of kitsch, is bound for another fifth-place season in the NL East. Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta are the division’s main contenders, and the Mets added Edwin Díaz and Robinson Canó in an effort to join the fray.
Pittsburgh got Chris Archer from Tampa in 2018, but the Buccos didn’t spend big, or even medium, in the offseason. They watched the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds make improvements in the NL Central but steadfastly refused to make any of their own. Cincinnati might have a long way to go to catch the Central’s top three clubs, but it seems likely the additions the Reds made — trading for Sonny Gray and acquiring Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood and more from the Dodgers will at least push them past the Pirates this year.
In the NL West, the Padres have carried themselves into respectability. The Dodgers still look like the cream of the crop in the division, and possibly in the whole National League, with the Rockies a respectable contender. San Diego could push .500, but the two teams below it can’t expect a good season.
The Giants were best known this offseason for finishing in second place in the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, missing out on the star outfielder and winding up with the likes of Connor Joe, Michael Reed and Gorkys Hernández in a dilapidated outfield. The Diamondbacks have done a whole lot of nothing this offseason after trading star Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis.
Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Arizona are out of the picture, but pretty much everyone else is in it. Look for tight races at the top of the Central and East and a closely contested wild card chase.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.