Top Prospects Should Have Dry Feet in September
Today marks the first day of September call-ups, where MLB rosters expand from 25 to 40 players, allowing teams to call up as many players on the 40-man roster as they wish. September call-ups serve a lot of purpose. They obviously expand the rosters, allowing teams to work with a deeper bullpen, a deeper bench, and maybe even go with luxuries like a six man rotation. Usually September call-ups are limited to future bench players, future bullpen arms, and maybe a lower ranked prospect. Yet that doesn’t stop people from wanting to see the top prospects get called up for a taste of the majors.
There are few things I hate more in baseball than the “let’s call up (insert top prospect) and let him get his feet wet” talk that happens every year around this time. Fans do it. Media does it. And it’s always the same. It’s careless. It’s short sighted. It’s mentioned casually, as if there’s really nothing to think about, other than the “yes/no” question of whether a player should be called up. There’s nothing that says a September call-up is beneficial to the development of a player. It usually reeks of impatience, desperation, and an urge to see what a prospect can do sooner, rather than later, for no good reason other than to ease the minds of fans over the uncertainty that surrounds prospects.
September call-ups aren’t something that should be taken lightly. Bringing up a bunch of bench/bullpen guys who will probably stay bench/bullpen guys is one thing. Bringing up guys who are 24-26 years old, and profile as average or slightly better starters in the majors, is one thing. But bringing up a top prospect and starting his arbitration clock, all just to see what he can do, is one of the worst moves a team can make, especially a team like the Pirates.
Take Starling Marte for example. Marte is not on the 40-man roster, but he could be added if the Pirates wanted to call him up. If they called him up for the entire month of September, he’d end up with 28 days of service time under his belt. That might not seem like a lot, but consider the following:
-A year of service time is 172 days. There are usually more than 172 days in a season. In order to get an extra year of service time, a team must call up a player so that he gets fewer than 172 days of service time. In 2011, that would have been no earlier than April 11th. If a player had 28 days of service time coming in to the year, that date gets moved back to May 9th. So by bringing up Marte for a September call-up, the Pirates go from being able to call him up after a week, to being able to call him up after a month.
-It’s hard to calculate Super Two status, and there’s some uncertainty about the future of that contract rule. However, teams seem to play it safe by going with 123 days of service time, so that in two years, a player will end up with two years and 123 days, giving them plenty of cushion from an extra year of arbitration. Under a normal schedule, the Super Two cut-off falls around the end of May. With 28 days of service time coming in to the year, the Super Two cut-off moves to late June.
It’s a pretty simple calculation. You bring a guy up for a month, and you have to delay them for an extra month if you want an extra year of service time, or if you want to avoid arbitration for an extra year. A combination of desperation over the team’s current situation, and impatience with wanting to see prospects as soon as possible, leads to the desire to call a top guy up in September. However, it’s a very short sighted move, and fails to realize the limitations that September provides.
If a guy like Marte is called up, he’s probably not seeing a lot of playing time in September. You’ve got Andrew McCutchen, Alex Presley, and Jose Tabata as starters in the outfield. You’ve got Ryan Ludwick coming back from the disabled list. Marte is probably going to see 20 at-bats at most, and we’re not even considering the fact that he’s being skipped over the AAA level. It becomes a choice. Do you bring Marte up for, at most, 20 at-bats in September? Or do you bring him up a month earlier in a future season for full time duty?
The theory behind the September call-up is that a player can get some experience, so that he will be ready when the time comes for him to arrive in the majors. It’s the “feet wet” theory. Of course, this theory assumes that all players struggle initially when they arrive in the majors, and that a simple act of calling the player up for limited at-bats in September will solve that problem. The fact is that players aren’t guaranteed to struggle initially. Andrew McCutchen had no problems. Neil Walker did well his first season. Jose Tabata has been inconsistent this year, but had no trouble in 2010 when he was first called up.
September call-ups can be beneficial. They can be used for guys who aren’t top prospects, but who might have a future in the majors. Guys like Alex Presley last year, having a big breakout season, but not really classified as legit. Guys like Matt Hague this year, who profile as a potential average major league first baseman, but aren’t really guys you worry about losing a year early. Guys like Jared Hughes who profile as strong middle relievers, and who might not even be with the team through their arbitration years, due to the nature of success/failure rates with relievers. However, when you have a top prospect like Starling Marte this year, or Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon next year, you don’t call them up. The only reason to make that move is to appease the fans who are impatiently waiting to see if a prospect works out. However, there’s nothing that says that a September call-up is beneficial to prospects, and in fact, it only hurts the team in the long run, by delaying the eventual debut of the prospect for another month, all for a month of service time where the player mostly rides the bench and gets very few at-bats.