Regarding prospects, Frank Wren has a saying: “Players will tell us when they’re ready.” Regarding Jason Heyward, Bobby Cox said over the winter: “He might be one who doesn’t have to go through the usual channels.” But even as we on the periphery seek to project the career path of the sport’s latest phenom, we cannot lose sight of one silly but sobering baseball truth:
It makes financial sense for Heyward not to start 2010 on the Opening Day roster.
Rob Neyer of ESPN.com outlines this oddity by referring to a post of Bryan Smith’s on FanGraphs. Smith likens Heyward to Evan Longoria, and it’s an apt comparison: Longoria was the No. 1 prospect of 2008, just as Heyward is the top of the class of 2010. Writes Smith:
Longoria famously waited two weeks for a call-up at the start of the 2008 season, with Joe Maddon slotting Willy Aybar into the third baseman slot until Longoria got the call on April 12. The reason was clear: Longoria would serve only 170 service days with the Rays that season. By Major League rule, a player is a free agent after six full seasons, which are constituted by 172 service days. By waiting two weeks, the Rays bought themselves another year of controlling Longoria.
On the opposite side of the coin is the Detroit Tigers, who were so enthused by Rick Porcello’s Spring Training a year ago that they started the season with the top prospect in their rotation. Porcello would post a 6.42 FIP in April, but was consistent enough to remain with the Tigers all season. As a result, Porcello will be a free agent after the 2014 season. The Texas Rangers, who waited three weeks to call up Derek Holland (for a Longoria-like 170 service days), will have control of Holland through 2015.
There is simply no argument to be made that the marginal value gained by playing Jason Heyward over Matt Diaz for three weeks in April is worth losing Heyward’s rights for the 2016 season. Yes, calling him up on April 25 will mean that Heyward will be a “Super Two”, and thus, eligible for arbitration a year early. But arbitration contracts are still discounts over free agent ones, and I can already promise you that Heyward’s first free agent contract will be a big one. Without delving into the Heyward vs. [Stephen] Strasburg argument, the Braves should certainly take note that Nats GM Mike Rizzo has already written off his right-handed star beginning the season in Washington. If you think it’s because they want some minor league seasoning for him, you’re crazy — they just want an extra year of not dealing with Scott Boras.
About here, I hear you saying: What about ticket sales? Won’t the Braves sell more seats in April if fans know they’ll have to chance to see the team’s biggest prospect since Andruw Jones play at Turner Field? Sure they would. But they wouldn’t sell nearly enough tickets — not in April, when we’re just turning back to baseball and school is in session — to offset the down-the-road benefit of keeping Heyward off the free agent market as long as possible.
(Another consideration: The Braves play only nine of their first 22 regular-season games at home; five of the nine are midweek night games.)
In a perfect world, Jason Heyward would be starting in right field against the Cubs on April 5. He’s really all any Braves fan wants to see. (Apologies to Melky Cabrera.) And Cox keeps saying that if Heyward is among the team’s 25-best players — really, how could he not be? — he’ll be on the 25-man roster when the club breaks camp.
But baseball, as Joe Garagiola noted a while back, is a funny game. Anyone who thinks the Braves — like every club except the Yankees and Red Sox — aren’t looking to save money on player contracts hasn’t been paying attention.
Jason Heyward is really good. But Tommy Hanson was really good a year ago, and he didn’t get the big-league call until June. Yes, Heyward is on an even faster track, but if he manages to outpace the service-time consideration he won’t just be the sport’s No. 1 prospect — he’ll be the world’s fastest human.