|Editor's note: The team of writers from the Baseball Prospectus (tm) will be writing twice a week for ESPN.com during the baseball season. You can check out more of their work at their web site at baseballprospectus.com.
Put the Kibosh on Josh.
In 1994, with just three weeks of Double-A experience under his belt, 18-year-old Alex Rodriguez was summoned to the major leagues to be the Seattle Mariners' starting shortstop. A-Rod gave the baseball world a taste of the greatness to come, but in 17 games he hit just .204 with no extra-base hits, and was returned to the minor leagues for more seasoning just before the strike began.
Those 17 games, in which Rodriguez did nothing of substance to help the Mariners on the field, earned him several weeks of service time. At the end of the 2000 season, Rodriguez had six years and 11 days of major-league service time -- qualifying him for free agency by the margin of 11 days. If the Mariners had not called Rodriguez up in 1994, he would still be their property in 2001. Rodriguez made $4 million last year, in the final year of a four-year contract he signed after the 1996 season that gave him long-term security while not depriving him of his right for free agency. We'll arbitrarily double his salary and say that he would have made $8 million this season had he not been eligible to sign with the highest bidder.
Alex Rodriguez is making $21 million this year, a $13 million difference. You can't find a cup of coffee that expensive at a congressional fundraiser.
And that, in a nutshell, is why the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would be out of their minds to let Josh Hamilton start the season in the major leagues.
If Hamilton is in the Devil Rays' lineup on Opening Day, two things can happen. No one wants to think about the first possibility, that he might flop and prove he's not ready for the major leagues, get sent back to the minors and have his development stunted. But it's a lot more likely than the alternative. If Hamilton wants to see an example of what can happen when a talented player is rushed to the big leagues, he only needs to look at the player whose roster spot he might take this spring: Jose Guillen.
Many of the same things being said about Hamilton were said about Guillen in the spring of 1997, when (fresh off a .322, 21-homer, 24-steal season in the Carolina League) Guillen broke camp with the Pirates at the age of 20. The Pirates ignored the huge jump from Class A to the majors, and the fact that Guillen drew just 20 walks against 73 strikeouts in 1996, a sign he might struggle against better pitching.
Guillen survived the jump initially, hitting .267 with a .300 on-base percentage and a .412 slugging average in his rookie season. But he improved not a whit his sophomore year, posting an identical batting average and OPS (.712). In his third year, he regressed to the point that the Pirates gave up on him, sending him to Tampa Bay in a minor trade. After being overhyped at the start of his career, Guillen is now considered washed up at the age of 24.
And Guillen isn't even the only Devil Rays hitter whose career might have been ruined by jumping from Class A to the majors. Mike Caruso was the original jewel of the "White Flag" trade on Chicago's south side, cracking the White Sox' starting lineup as a 20-year-old shortstop in 1998 despite no experience in Double-A or Triple-A. Caruso drew only 14 walks his rookie season and played erratic defense, but he hit .306, and when you're a .300-hitting rookie shortstop, life is good. But he hit .250 his sophomore season, failed to post an OBP or slugging average over .300, finished with more caught stealings than stolen bases, and lost his job. Caruso went back to Triple-A last season and hit just .246, and -- even younger than Guillen at 23 -- Caruso is so lightly regarded today that the White Sox gave him to Tampa Bay in the offseason.
And Guillen and Caruso may have actually been closer to being major-league ready than Hamilton. Each of them, at least, had a full year's experience in a high-A league. Hamilton spent all of last season in the South Atlantic League, a rung down the minor-league level from the Carolina League. And Hamilton didn't hit any better than Guillen or Caruso did before they were called up:
|The Devil Rays selected Josh Hamilton with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft.|
Player Year Age AVG OBP SLG BB K
Josh Hamilton 2000 19 .301 .345 .474 26 72
Jose Guillen 1996 20 .322 .357 .498 20 73
Mike Caruso 1997 20 .311 .365 .416 42 27
But we'll give Hamilton the benefit of the doubt, as he is a better prospect than Guillen or Caruso were. So let's consider the other alternative, that he's worthy of the gamble and slowly develops into the superstar everyone thinks he will be ... and just as he becomes that superstar, at the tender age of 25, he'll become eligible for free agency after the 2006 season. All because the Devil Rays didn't give him an extra month or two of seasoning in the minor leagues.
This is the cold, hard reality of baseball economics today: a major-league organization can not assume that it will be able to keep its best players for the span of their careers. The Devil Rays have the rights to Josh Hamilton for six full major-league seasons, and no more. If they bring him up in the middle of a season, then that season does not count against his allotment of six ... but if he starts the season in the major leagues, the clock starts ticking. Tampa Bay has a choice: they can get a six-year slice of Hamilton's career that runs from age 19 to age 25, or, if they wait to bring him up, they can get a slice of his career that runs from age 20 to age 26.
Which year of Hamilton's career would you rather have: the 19-year-old version, or the 26-year-old? Any 19-year-old hitter capable of playing regularly in the major leagues, from Ken Griffey Jr. to Mel Ott, is almost guaranteed to be one of the best players in baseball by the time he's in his mid-20s. Why take the chance that you might lose Hamilton in the prime of his career for the sake of having a gate attraction when the Devil Rays play their first game at Tropicana Field this year?
The Braves have received, and deserve, a ton of credit for giving Rafael Furcal an opportunity to play last season despite no experience above A-ball. Furcal won the Rookie of the Year award and was a key part of another Braves' playoff team. But will the Braves look so wise after the 2005 season, when Furcal becomes eligible for free agency? If Furcal had been sent to Triple-A at the start of last season, even for just a week or two, the Braves could have delayed his free agency by another season. (True, the Braves only won the NL East by a single game over the Mets, and it's possible that missing Furcal for even a dozen games could have made the difference. But the Braves would have easily won the wild card anyway.)
The flip side is that the Cubs sent Kerry Wood to Triple-A to start the 1998 season, and even though he was called up after just a single start, the decision to give him some more minor-league time means that Wood won't be a free agent until after the 2004 season, instead of 2003.
Maybe Josh Hamilton really is ready for the major leagues, even though he would have to skip three minor-league levels to do so. Maybe he's capable of taking the AL by storm this year, even though he's hitting just .261 with one walk and no homers in spring training so far. Maybe he has nothing left to learn in Double-A or Triple-A, even though he hasn't spent a day at either level.
But would it be such a crime for the Devil Rays to make Hamilton prove it? Would a few more weeks -- or a few more months -- in the minor leagues be such a waste of time for a teenager who was facing the Savannah Sand Gnats, Delmarva Shorebirds and the Piedmont Boll Weevils barely six months ago?
I don't think so. Not because I don't think Hamilton won't be a great player, but precisely because I think he will. And if that doesn't make any sense, just ask a Mariners fan to explain it to you.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., is co-author of the Baseball Prospectus, the book that no less an authority than Billy Beane called "the standard by which all scouting guides should be measured." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.