Image credit: (Photo by Zach Lucy/Four Seam)
As part of the Jan. 13 proposal to the MLB Players Association, Major League Baseball owners proposed a new incentive system where a team that kept a rookie on the roster all season could receive a bonus draft pick if that player went on to finish top three in Rookie of the Year, MVP or Cy Young balloting over the first three seasons of their MLB career.
The idea is that the possibility of gaining an extra draft pick would provide an extra incentive for teams to promote their most talented players rather than gaming their service time. Currently many teams hold back top prospects in the minors for a few weeks (to gain an extra year before the player reaches free agency) or sometimes for a couple of months to prevent them from becoming “Super Two” players who are eligible for arbitration after two-plus seasons of service time.
According to multiple reports, the proposal the owners made would limit the extra picks to those players who ranked on a Top 100 Prospects list before that season. What Top 100 Prospects list or lists would be used is not clear.
As ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported, the players were somewhat skeptical about having an outside source or sources involved in helping determine incentives for how teams use roster spots.
The purpose of this story is not to debate whether such an incentive structure would work and whether it would be beneficial to players or owners or both. But in attempting to look at this objectively, adding the Top 100 Prospects notation seems to be an unnecessary complication.
Baseball America has been ranking the Top 100 Prospects in the game for more than three decades now (since 1990). In the past 10-15 years many other outlets have come out with their own Top 100s as well.
We think that the Top 100 Prospects list does a solid job of projecting who will be the stars of tomorrow. There are omissions from our lists and there are highly-ranked players who fail to live up to those expectations, but in general, the Top 100 does a good job of lining up the game’s best young talent.
But because of that, including a Top 100 Prospects designation in the incentive seems unnecessary. To get a sense of how many players would be affected, we looked back at the rookie of the year balloting from 2010 to present. Of the 72 players to rank in the top three of Rookie of the Year balloting since 2010, 54 (75%) were Top 100 Prospects coming into that season. There were a few players (like Jose Iglesias and Jaime Garcia) who had ranked previously as Top 100 Prospects but not in the year before they landed ROY votes. For these purposes they are considered as not making the Top 100.
Of the 18 players who weren’t in the Top 100, five (Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, John Means, Devin Williams and Jake Cronenworth) are still quite early in their MLB careers. Of the other 13, six (Danny Valencia, Vance Worley, Matt Shoemaker, Matt Duffy, Jung-Ho Kang and Tyler Naquin) were either non-tendered, released or had their contracts sold to other teams during the first five years of their MLB careers. It’s fair to say that service time considerations didn’t play a role in the roster decisions on any of those six players.
The other seven either reached free agency without being released/non-tendered or had their contracts sold or are on pace to do so. Trey Mancini and Paul DeJong so far seem destined to play through the entirety of their arbitration years and into free agency without being non-tendered. Jacob deGrom turned into one of the best pitchers in the game. Iglesias, Wade Miley, Garcia and Mark Trumbo all reached MLB free agency.
To limit the scope of this study, we did not look at the top three finishers for MVP or Cy Young in depth. A quick scan indicated that many/most of the top three MVP finishers were also previously Top 100 Prospects. In the case of exceptions, they were often players (like Paul Goldschmidt) who had breakout seasons in the upper minors and then were promoted to the majors early enough in that season to graduate from Top 100 Prospect eligibility before the next season.
In the cases of breakout players like Goldschmidt, there was no decision to be made as to when to bring him up from a service time perspective. He debuted on Aug. 1. That was long after Super Two and other considerations could have come into play.
If MLB’s proposal is designed to incentivize teams to consider putting rookies on Opening Day rosters, the Top 100 Prospects notation seems superfluous. In almost all cases, the players for whom teams have been gaming service time are Top 100 Prospects. And in most cases, the players who would garner the bonus draft picks are Top 100 Prospects. Simply dropping that aspect from the qualifications for the incentives would seem to make little difference in the incentive structure, but it would eliminate a potentially contentious negotiating point.