CLEARWATER, Fla. — Nothing gets the crowd’s juices flowing like a righteously indignant polemic that rages against the evils of corporatist oppression, which is why baseball’s annual service time dance is convenient fodder for columnists in search of a bold springtime headline. Thus, it’d be easy to gin up a little outrage by urging the Phillies to open up the season with Scott Kingery on their roster. The plight of a major-league-ready prospect forced to wallow a few extra weeks in the minors always makes for compelling reading, and Kingery’s performance at double A and triple A lasts season renders him a sympathetic protagonist: 26 home runs, an .889 OPS, 109 strikeouts in 543 at-bats … What sense does it make to send him back down?
The answer — and you knew this was coming — is plenty. Forget about whether Kingery, a promising infielder who was recently rated by Baseball America as one of the top 35 prospects, can hold his own against major league pitching. Forget, too, the question about where he would play. Instead, let’s focus on the bogeyman the Phillies would need to confront even if their young standout had a clear path to at-bats and full season of triple A dominance on his resume. Under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, the Phillies would be foolish to have Kingery or any other blue-chip prospect in the majors on opening day when they could keep him in the minors for two weeks before promoting him and, by doing so, postpone the date at which he’d reach free agency by a full year. That would effectively keep him with the team from 2018 through 2024 instead of through ’23, the latter of which would be the case if he started the season in the majors (assuming, in both instances, that once he arrives, he will be here to stay).
The reason for all of this is likely familiar to hard-core baseball fans, it’s convoluted enough that recap may be helpful to any segment of the audience. The CBA says that a player must complete six full years in the majors before reaching free agency. For accounting purposes, a “full year” consists of 172 days on an active roster, but the actual length of a season from opening day through Game 162 is usually a couple of weeks longer than that. This year, the season is 186 days long, with opening day coming on March 29. Thus, if a prospect such as Kingery were to make his big-league debut within the first 14 days of the season and remain on the active roster all year, he would be credited with a full season of service. On the 15th day — April 13 — the most days he could accrue would be 171, meaning 2019 would be the earliest he could reach a full year of service, and 2025 would be his first year as a free agent (a player can’t accrue more than 172 days of service in a year).
It’s easy to roll your eyes at all of this mumbo jumbo and say that a team should keep its best 25 players, regardless of their contracts. But a front office’s job isn’t simply to build the best roster possible in any given year. Rather, it is to build the best series of rosters as a collective, to maximize the talent level it places on the field in the aggregate, such that the rosters it must field in 2019 and 2020 and so on are weighted the same as the roster it must field this season. In essence, the question isn’t just who are the 25 best players for 2018, but who are the 25 best for 2018 and who are the 25 best for 2024, and if Kingery turns out to be as good as the Phillies think he can be, then including him on the 2018 opening-day roster could remove him from the 2024 opening-day roster, which would constitute a dereliction of duty on the front office’s part.
In this particular instance, the Phillies would tell you that starting Kingery in the minors is the right move from a purely competitive standpoint. While Cesar Hernandez might not have the power potential or all-around upside of Kingery, he is coming off a season in which he ranked fourth among big-league second baseman with a .373 on-base percentage. In fact, his .294/.373/.421 batting line last season against major league pitching was just as impressive as the .294/.337/.449 line Kingery put up after his promotion to triple A.
Kingery could be an option at third if Maikel Franco continues to struggle or at shortstop if something happens to J.P. Crawford. But an opening-day infield of Hernandez, Franco, and Crawford makes the most sense.
As for the service time component of the equation, don’t blame the team. Blame the rules. Back in 2015, Franco was one of two players who filed grievances claiming their teams manipulated their service times, Franco’s stemming from the Phillies’ decision to keep him in the minors until mid-May in 2015, which kept him two days shy of 172 (he’d spent the final month of the 2014 season in the majors as a September call-up, so he’d already accrued about a month’s worth of days before 2015). Yet it wasn’t even a year later that the MLB and MLBPA agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that kept the same service time rules in place.
Kingery, for his part, sounds unfazed by the thought of starting the year in the minors.
“I know I can only control what I can control and go out there and do what I can do on the field,” the 23-year-old said on Sunday morning from his locker in the Spectrum Field clubhouse, where he is in camp as a non-roster invitee. “So, for me, it’s not about that. It’s just going out there and give myself the best shot to be moved up.”
If he hits as he did last season, he will get the call at some point this season. But on opening day, barring a dramatic turn of events, Lehigh Valley is the only sensible place for him to be.
Scott Kingery, 2017 in minors
|AAA Lehigh Valley||286||8||.294||.337||.449|