Will the man keep Miller, Taveras, Wong down?

The timing of assignments with St. Louis can significantly affect free agency later.

All things equal, Joe Kelly should make the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals out of spring camp over either Shelby Miller or Trevor Rosenthal. It will be better if Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong begin the season in the minors.

By the time you finish reading this article, you will understand why I said that. The short answer is to potentially save a year of their services later on.

When some handicap spring roster battles solely on performance, those with a better understanding of the entire landscape also consider the issues of minor league options remaining and major league service time.

The first subject, options, was reviewed in this recent article: "Cards organization has all the options in ‘13".

In this article, we will look at service time. The subject can be complicated and for that reason, it is skipped over by some, yet it can affect an organization's behavior in its timing of promoting prospects.

Here, we will delve into the topic as it relates to the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals. The ultimate focus will be on the magic six-year mark. Until then, the current organization can keep the player under contract. But when a player reaches that level of major league service time, he becomes eligible for free agency following that season.

By taking specific action early on - before a player is firmly established in the majors - an organization can potentially delay by a year the time when that player eventually reaches free agency. This is a big deal.

Let's consider some current examples.

When is Miller Time?
Shelby Miller

In joining St. Louis last September, right-hander Shelby Miller accrued 30 days of service time. By keeping the 22-year-old in Triple-A for a couple of months to begin 2013, the Cardinals could hold his total accrued service time under one year at the end of this season. That means they could control Miller for six more years following this one – 2014 through 2019.

On the other hand, if Miller spends all of 2013 and beyond in the majors, he would finish the 2018 season with six years and 30 days of service. At that point, he would be eligible for free agency.

In other words, by passing up using a couple of months of Miller's time in the majors in 2013, the Cardinals can get back a full season of his cost-controlled services in 2019. Further, understand that 2019 will be in Miller's statistical projected prime as a pitcher, at age 28.

From a financial perspective, we don't know what salaries will be like in 2019, but consider this in today's dollars. If Miller is on top of his game, he might make $5 or $6 million in his final arbitration year. On the open market, he could easily double or triple it.

So, even if the Cards could sign Miller to a long-term deal and keep him beyond 2018, the 2019 season would be considerably more expensive than if his free agency was delayed.

With viable current rotation alternatives in Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal, the Cardinals could easily afford to send Miller down to Memphis until Memorial Day – unless ineffectiveness or injuries strike.

Matt Adams is in a similar place as Miller in terms of service time. However, the first baseman lacks a clear roster spot in St. Louis, so his return to Memphis to start the 2013 is all but assured – unless someone else is injured during spring training.

The following table illustrates this. The two players' service times coming into this season are listed first. Then I identify the point in time in which they could become free agents soonest – assuming they remain in the majors full-time.

Next is the number of months the players would have to spend in the minors to push their future free agency back one year.

Service FA if all 2013 If time spent Free agency
time in majors in minors becomes
Shelby Miller 0.030 after 2018 two months after 2019 
Matt Adams 0.033 after 2018 two months after 2019 


The cost of Oscar and Kolten being like Colby

While managing a player's service time as described above is commonly done across MLB, it is not always done. In many cases, if a true need exists for the player to be in the majors, he will be there – even if it starts his free agency clock sooner.

For example, Colby Rasmus began the 2009 season with St. Louis when a year of club control could have been saved had he begun the season in Triple-A. Rasmus wasn't in St. Louis to ride the bench; he was the starter in centerfield from the beginning.

Let's consider the Cardinals' current top two position player prospects – Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong. Segments of the fan base and even the media are already drooling over the possibility that one or both can make the jump straight from Double-A to open the season with St. Louis.

In that scenario, it is reasonable to assume, like Rasmus, that they would not have to return to the minor leagues once added to the 40-man roster and St. Louis' 25-man active roster. Therefore, the same analysis used with Miller above would apply to Taveras/Wong – just subtract a month.

In other words, if either of the two was to make St. Louis' roster out of 2013 spring camp and remain in the bigs, he would become free agent-eligible following the 2018 season. On the other hand, by giving him at least a month of seasoning in Memphis would assure the Cardinals of being able to keep his services until after the 2019 season.

It is pretty easy to ascertain which would be more valuable to the Cardinals organization – getting a month of MLB results to open 2013 versus receiving an entire extra season in 2019. It seems quite obvious the people who want immediate gratification do not understand the ramifications of their demands.

What makes matters even clearer is that there is no everyday job for Taveras. For Wong, the deck is stacked against him, too. The club is going to focus on giving Matt Carpenter every chance to win the second base job this spring. Of course, Daniel Descalso needs enough time to be ready, as well.

The time will come soon enough for both Taveras and Wong, but April 2013 should not be it.

Kelly versus Rosenthal and Miller

Let's come back to the spring rotation battle between Miller, Rosenthal and Kelly for a moment.

Short of a Jupiter implosion, it seems likely that Rosenthal would return to the major league bullpen to start the season if he does not win a rotation spot. But, if the Cardinals motivation was solely to delay his free agency by a year, they would have to keep Rosenthal in the minors for roughly half the 2013 season. That seems pretty unlikely.

The reason I proclaimed Kelly as the most likely to win, all things equal, is the fact that he already accrued 119 days of service time in 2012. It would not be reasonable to assume Kelly would spend almost all of the season in the minors. In fact, he may spend none. Remember that a full major league season is 172 days.

So, in service time priority only of setting the season-opening roster, the pitcher ranking would be Kelly, Rosenthal and Miller, in that order. While that would probably not trump a major difference in results on the field during spring training, it is important to keep in mind, as I believe it to be a very important tie-breaker.

Other potential impacts

Along with Rosenthal, there are four other Cardinals who, based on their current service time, would require roughly a half-season in the minors soon to save a year of free agency later.

Service FA if all 2013 If time spent Free agency
time in majors in minors becomes
Ryan Jackson 0.055 after 2018 three months after 2019 
Trevor Rosenthal 0.058 after 2018 three months after 2019 
Pete Kozma 0.060 after 2018 three months after 2019 
Sam Freeman 0.063 after 2018 three months after 2019 
Maikel Cleto 0.068 after 2018 three months after 2019 

However, none of the others have as clear of a major league future ahead of them as Rosenthal. It could be that shortstop Pete Kozma has the next best chance to stick, but probably only if the September 2012 Kozma is the real thing and so is the September 2012 Rafael Furcal (injured). The others in the above table are almost surely going back to Memphis, service time ramifications or not.

What about Super Two and free agency?

Service time also affects when a player first qualifies for major salary increases through the arbitration process. A future article in this series will review the Cardinals situation via that aperture, but in my opinion, that is far less important than the potential of delaying free agency by one year as outlined here.

To see the Cardinals entire 40-man roster and 17 non-roster spring training invitees, check out the Roster Matrix at The Cardinal Nation blog.

As I know the topics of options, outrighting, service time, arbitration and the like can be confusing, feel free to post questions and join in the discussion at The Cardinal Nation's insiders message board. This forum is exclusively for subscribers, so please take advantage.

Link to related article
"Cards organization has all the options in ‘13"

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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