The Pirates don’t want draft picks, they want to manipulate service time

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​On Tuesday, the Pirates announced that top prospect Oneil Cruz would be optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis to start the season, rather than breaking camp with the big-league club. This despite Cruz’s brief stint in the majors last season, in which he hit a homer and collected three hits overall in nine at-bats, and, more importantly, despite his playing well enough at Double-A last summer to earn a promotion to Triple-A, where he hit five homers in six games with a line of .524/.655/1.286 before getting the call to the bigs at year’s end.

Sure, the samples are small, but Cruz has legitimate power, and should be able to hold his own at shortstop despite the concerns about his size — as has been noted all around, Cruz, at 6-foot-7 and 210 lbs., would easily be the largest shortstop you’ve ever seen. Baseball Prospectus rated him the number one prospect in the Pirates’ system earlier this year:

At the plate he continues to look like a perennial 30-home-run bat. He has true 80 raw, just easy power, housed in pretty, rotational swing with plus-plus bat speed. Cruz can hit them out of the stadium in batting practice at less than full effort. There will always be swing-and-miss issues given just how long the levers are. Cruz is a high-ball hitter given his size and swing plane, and can end up lunging or flailing against soft stuff or spin down .He has a solid approach though, and the amplitude of the contact profile should allow the hit tool to play to average even if he’s striking out close to 30% of the time in the majors. In 2018 we thought he might end up in right field, now it looks like he will stick somewhere on the left side of the infield. The power bat plays anywhere.

He’s hit in the upper minors, his prospect profile and power are legit, and hell, if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, even the gamblers have him as a favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year award. Cruz has appeared in five games this spring, batting .333/.333/.733 with another couple of homers. Again, these are small samples, but Cruz is going to turn 23 years old in a couple of days, and it’s unlikely that what he has left to learn is going to be learned in the minors, anyway: he needs big-league competition to find the holes in his long-limbed swing, so that he can spend his time patching them.

And yet, here he is, being sent to the minors so that he can learn to play left field. The Pirates surely could have sent Cruz to a fall or winter league to learn the position so that he could be good to go for Opening Day, but no, this whole process is starting now, which definitely isn’t suspect in any way. Especially not since the Pirates’ projected starting shortstop hit .226/.265/.309 in 146 games last year and is a career .257/.300/.353 hitter despite an above-average 2019 at the plate. And it’s not like left field is dramatically better, with 29-year-old journeyman Ben Gamel and his below-average bat manning the position. There’s clearly room for Cruz on the Pirates’ roster now, but if he started the season with the big-league club, then his service time couldn’t be manipulated, could it?

“But Marc,” you say. “Wasn’t service time addressed in the new collective bargaining agreement specifically to keep this from happening?” Theoretically? Ye… you know, no. No it wasn’t. As I wrote at the time of the agreement, some new clauses concerning service time manipulation were inserted into the CBA, sure, but the loopholes and workarounds were so obvious that even the Pirates would be able to understand them.

Teams can receive extra draft picks if they start the season with a top prospect on the Opening Day roster who then goes on to rank among the top three Rookie of the Year or top five MVP/Cy Young vote recipients that year, which sounds good in a vacuum. But it’s pitted against this: if a rookie finishes first or second in the Rookie of the Year vote, they will be awarded a full year of service regardless of when they were called up. And not just that: calling a player up at the very start of the year means sacrificing the chance to retain that player for an extra year, which is the whole point of manipulation.

So, the calculus for teams like the Pirates is this: should they let Cruz start his first of six years with the big-league club in the hopes he maybe thrives enough to win them some extra draft picks they’ll need to pay bonuses for, or do they mess with his service time so that they can definitely delay his free agency for a whole year, and then eventually trade him down the road for players closer to the bigs than the ones they’d have to pay draft bonuses for, were they to choose option one instead? Obviously, the Pirates are — and always will — choose door number two here, because there is no reason not to. And since the Pirates aren’t playing for anything but pocketed profits in 2022, they might even try to justify teaching Cruz left field in the minors for as long as it takes to ensure he won’t get the Rookie of the Year finish he would need to undo their manipulation, which would also probably let them avoid a super-two classification and a fourth year of arbitration-eligibility as well. The new setup might actually encourage additional manipulation in some cases!

The draft picks are not necessarily appealing, not in a league that has shrunk the minors and shrunk the draft and wants to limit the international free agent market by shrinking that into a draft model, too. They are an incentive in the sense that theoretically someone could take advantage of them, but when you can invent bullshit reasons to keep a player in the minors instead and then get an extra year of service time out of them, well, that’s what teams like the Pirates are going to do. What would have worked better — the thing that I and Craig Goldstein and others were all advocating for during bargaining, never mind after it — is some kind of punitive measure for manipulation, outside of grievance trials that teams and the league will be very crafty about their arguments within — see Bryant, Kris. The league had no interest in that, though, and the players couldn’t necessarily hold up all of bargaining over this issue, either, not when an on-paper solution to nothing that they’ll have to go back to the table over in 2027 was in front of them.

There are going to be plenty of Oneil Cruz-es between now and 2027, so strap in, I guess.

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