The Javier Baez Call-Up Question: Readiness, Service Time, Speculation

Image from ChicagoNow.

Yesterday, Patrick Mooney published a piece on CSN Chicago confirming what we already knew: top prospect Javier Baez is not breaking camp with the big league team no matter how many homers he hits and will be starting the season at Triple-A.

The article spurred a Twitter debate between Timmick Guinness of Aisle 424 and Brett Taylor of Bleacher Nation about Baez’s call-up, which I (and about a dozen others) subsequently butted myself into. I wanted to take a moment to recap the Bez call-up situation and reiterate a few points from the Twitter conversation last night.

The argument: If Javier Baez is ready for the big leagues in Spring Training, he should be called up for Opening Day.

It’s not an uncommon argument amongst Cubs fans, but it’s one I disagree with. Yes, Javiez Baez is an elite talent. Yes, the Chicago Cubs lack elite talent at the moment. But there are a number of reasons why Baez is not going to be stepping into the batter’s box against Francisco Liriano at PNC Park on March 31st, 2014.

First, a sidebar about “readiness.” How exactly does one know Baez is ready? It will be fun to watch/listen to him hit bombs in Spring Training, but a dominating Spring performance does not mean anything. Time and time again we’ve seen that guys who struggle in Spring can do good, and guys who rake in Spring can flop. Players are working on individual pieces of their games and all stats need to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Visually, you can scout a guy’s approach and like what you see, but this front office does not give a damn about Baez’s Spring OPS.

Baez killed the ball in the minor leagues last year. After posting a .391 wOBA in 337 High-A PA, the shortstop was promoted to Double-A where he had a .435 (!!) wOBA in 240 PA. His home run total for the season was 37.

Though he was originally scheduled to participate in the Arizona Fall League this offseason, Baez elected to stay back and work out on his own. I doubt much has changed for Baez since the 2013 minor league season ended. He hasn’t been in any competitive games to further refine his approach, he’s just been working out. So forthcoming service time points aside, I think the Cubs want to see how he does at Triple-A anyway. If you were going to call him up on Opening Day, why wouldn’t you have just called him up last September?

Now, for the service time piece of this, which is one of the biggest considerations.

For the first three years of a player’s big league career, he makes the MLB minimum. For the fourth, fifth, and sixth years, he gets huge raises via arbitration. The player is a free agent after six years of service time are achieved.

A player needs 172 days on the big league roster to get a year of service time. The MLB season typically lasts around 183 calendar days. If the Cubs wait just a small amount of time to call Baez up, then at the end of the season he could have, say, 171 days of service instead of a full year. Which means six years from now, he would have 5 years and 171 days of service instead of 6 full years. Which means that he would be a free agent following the 2020 season, not the 2019 season. It should also be noted that the Cubs need to keep down Baez for more than 20 days (due to an additional rule in the CBA) to avoid him getting a full year in 2014. For more about service time, read this piece at FanGraphs.

Yes, lots of young players (see: Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro) are signing contract extensions, but this projection of free agent years is still important. Theo Epstein recently discussed a club policy for contract extensions during those first six years. He said that the Cubs always want to include at least one free agent year in the contract, followed by another free agent year via a club option. So if the Cubs do participate in these service time “games” and sign an extension anyway, we’re looking at keeping Baez until 2021 or 2022. For those of you keeping track at home, those would be his age 28 and 29 (prime) seasons.

There’s one more thing to consider when discussing a Javier Baez call-up, and that’s Super Two status. I’ll let the FanGraphs Library do the talking this time:

“Certain players with less than three years of service time can also become eligible for arbitration, if they meet the following criteria:

● If they have less than three years of service time, but more than two.

● If they rank within the top 22% of all 2-year players in terms of service time.”

Thus, those early call-ups who haven’t quite hit three years yet will get four years of arbitration instead of three. That means more money for the player, which is great. But that also means the player costs the team more money in the second year, which subsequently makes the third through sixth years more expensive, and probably a contract extension more expensive, too. The “cutoff” for Super Two status is around July.

* * *

So, what does all this mean? When might we see Javier Baez in the Show? The earliest Baez might make his debut is late April (25th-ish?). This will give the Chicago Cubs an extra year of control and give him a few at-bats in Triple-A. This is the absolute earliest I would want to see him. That extra year of control is much more important that three extra weeks of Baez in a lost season.

However, if I was a betting man, I’d say the earliest we will see him make his debut is sometime in July, after the Super Two cutoff. This gives him even more time to adjust to Triple-A and saves the Cubs millions of dollars down the road.

An argument can be made that the team should just forget about Super Two and pony up and pay the man if he’s ready. I don’t quite agree with that, but it’s not completely off base.

I do disagree wholeheartedly with the argument to bring him up on March 31st and sacrifice that extra year of control, however. Lucky for me, there’s a 0.00001% chance of Theo and company doing that anyway.

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