Image credit: Padres No. 1 prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. (Getty Images)
Each spring, teams attempt to squeeze every last drop of value from young players by delaying the start of their major league service time clocks.
Sending a player to Triple-A for a few weeks in April, as the Cubs did with Kris Bryant in 2015, the Braves did with Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2018 and the Blue Jays intended to do with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. this year before he injured his oblique, can push back a player’s free agency by an entire season.
Two organizations are changing the tenor of the player-team relationship this season, in ways that could benefit both parties.
On the eve of Opening Day, the Padres announced that 20-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr., the No. 2 prospect in baseball, would forgo Triple-A and be the club’s everyday shortstop from day one of the season. About 24 hours earlier, San Diego had announced that 23-year-old righthander Chris Paddack had made the team as the No. 3 starter. Like Tatis, Paddack had no big league—or even Triple-A—experience.
Meanwhile in the Grapefruit League, the Mets announced that 24-year-old first baseman Pete Alonso would make his major league debut on Opening Day. He hit .368 with 10 extra-base hits, including four home runs, in 21 spring games after finishing last year in Triple-A and leading the minors in home runs and RBIs.
The Padres and Mets determined that wins in the first few weeks of the 2019 season were equally as valuable, if not more so, than an extra year of control for Tatis, Paddack or Alonso. Judging from the highly competitive nature of the National League this season, where one win could spell the difference between qualifying for the playoffs or going home, those teams’ determinations are justifiable—and probably correct.
The Padres’ decision to carry Tatis comes with high stakes because of his youth. Assuming he is not optioned to the minors during the next few seasons, then Tatis is on track to become a free agent following the 2024 season. At that time, he will be 25 going on 26, just as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were this offseason. Most players hit the free agent market for the first time closer to age 30.
Things weren’t always this way. In the early 2000s it was fairly common for Top 100 Prospects to make their big league debuts as members of an Opening Day roster.
That’s how it played out for the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols and the Indians’ CC Sabathia in 2001, the Rays’ Rocco Baldelli in 2003, the Twins’ Joe Mauer in 2004, the Royals’ Alex Gordon in 2007, the Reds’ Johnny Cueto in 2008 and the Tigers’ Rick Porcello and the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus in 2009.
In all of the cases above, teams prioritized opening the season with their 25 best players rather than worrying about service time considerations down the road.
Practices began to change in the 2010s as front offices moved toward a system that placed a dollar value on every decision. Having seven seasons of control over a player rather than six superseded all other considerations, even the short-term pursuit of wins. That’s why the number of Top 100 Prospects who have made their major league debuts on Opening Day has shrunk this decade.
Prominent examples who defy that trend include the Braves’ Jason Heyward in 2010, the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez in 2013 and, well, that’s about it. For our purposes, we’re not counting the Phillies’ Scott Kingery in 2018 because he had signed a contract extension. Same goes for Eloy Jimenez and the White Sox this year.
So against the backdrop of the extension frenzy this spring, which has seen players sign away arbitration and free agent seasons because of a tense labor atmosphere, let us commend the Padres and Mets for their decisions to do something that should be fundamental: aspiring to win as many games as possible.