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The Astros are playing dirty pool with a top prospect

Mar 19, 2014, 10:04 PM EDT

George Springer Getty Images

We know this is how it works. Phenoms get fewer September callups than they used to, and they rarely debut on Opening Day. Instead, it’s June that’s become the popular time for debuts, all in the name of delaying arbitration and free agency eligibility.

On the one hand, it kind of sucks: much of the fun in each new season comes from watching players burst on to the scene. On the other, it’s really hard to blame teams for playing in this way when the rewards are so obvious.

Sometimes, though, it’s a lot easier to blame teams. Take the Houston Astros and center fielder George Springer. Springer, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Connecticut, hit .302/.383/.526 with 24 homers and 32 steals in his first full pro season in 2012, with the big caveats that he struck out 156 times in 581 plate appearances and 80 percent of his season was spent at Single-A Lancaster, annually one of or the most explosive environments for offense in the minors.

So, there was still some reason for skepticism last year. Springer, though, answered all doubters in hitting .297/.399/.579 in 73 games in Double-A and then .311/.425/.626 in 62 games in Triple-A. In all, he hit 37 homers, drove in 108 runs and swiped 45 bases in 53 attempts. He was the first 30 HR-30 SB player in the minors since Oakland’s Grant Desme in 2009. He did strike out 161 times in 589 plate appearances, so he’s not exactly the perfect prospect. But it was the kind of performance that certainly should have earned him a major league audition.

Except, of course, he never got one.

While Springer was dominating the PCL, the Astros were going 51-111 and posting the worst record in baseball for the third straight season. Their center fielders ended up hitting .218/.270/.314 with eight homers on the season. The were successful on just 10 of 24 steal attempts. They struck out 187 times. And it’s not like the team had much going on in left field or right field, either.

Springer, though, was denied a September callup as Brandon Barnes and Trevor Crowe (both now departed) finished up the season in center. GM Jeff Luhnow lied through his teeth in November, saying Springer wasn’t called up because of 40-man roster issues.

In the offseason, the Astros acquired Dexter Fowler to play center. The official word entering this spring was that Springer could still win a job. However, everyone knew that was exceedingly unlikely. The plan all along has been to keep in the minors until June, delaying his free agency for a year.

Now, all of this is pretty typical. It’s no secret what the Astros were doing, and we’re all kind of used to this kind of thing. Personally, I had more of a problem with it than the typical delayed callup for two reasons. First, because Springer was simply so outstanding in the minors last season that he obviously earned his promotion; there would have been absolutely no question about it if not for the service time issues. Second, Springer turned 24 last September. It’s one thing to play this game with 20- and 21-year-olds. Springer, though, wouldn’t have been eligible for free agency for the first time until age 30 even had the Astros called him up in September. Now he won’t get to choose his own path until age 31.

Still, that’s the way it’s done. So, even though the thought crossed my mind and my twitter feed a few times, I never did voice my displeasure on the blog. At least not until FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal dropped a bombshell on Wednesday.

Sources told Rosenthal that the Astros offered Springer a seven-year, $23 million contract last September. The obvious, obvious implication being “you sign this and we’ll give you your callup.” After all, once the Astros have Springer signed to the bargain deal, there’s no longer any reason to play games with his service time.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2008, Evan Longoria was sent down by the Rays prior to Opening Day, even though it seemed obvious that he was the team’s best option at third base. Just a couple of weeks later, though, on April 12, he got a surprise callup. Six days later, his six-year, $17.5 million contract with the Rays was officially announced. Unofficially, agreeing to the deal meant he got to spend the rest of the season in the majors. It made him pretty much the biggest bargain in baseball until Mike Trout came along

Springer wasn’t interested in playing ball with the Astros, even though it would have gotten him to the majors three months earlier. And it was absolutely the right call, given that the Astros not only wanted him to give up all three arbitration years but also a year of free agency. Jacoby Ellsbury is about to make $21 million this year in his seventh big-league season. The Astros wanted to pay Springer barely more than that for seven seasons combined. Even though it’s $23 million guaranteed for a player who hasn’t set foot in the majors yet, it simply wasn’t a competitive offer.

I might even consider it extortion.

Thankfully, Rosenthal is taking the Astros to task over this, wondering how Springer is worth $23 million but not a spot on Houston’s still lackluster roster. The Astros declined to comment.

I’m not going to be as polite about it as Rosenthal (I rarely am). What the Astros are doing here is shameful. I know there are a lot of good people in that organization. They’ve hired a number of stathead favorites and other people I respect. And they’re certainly doing a lot of things right to turn their organization around.

But they’re doing this very, very wrong. If nothing else, they’re sending a terrible message to the rest of their prospects. Why should Carlos Correa and Mark Appel bother trying their hardest this year if they feel the Astros won’t promote them before June 2015 anyway?

And Springer certainly deserves better. It’s possible he’ll come up in June and struggle, and the team will start talking about how he wasn’t ready previously. And maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he isn’t. Heck, maybe he’ll be a bust and it’ll turn out that the Astros needlessly delayed a useless player’s free agency.

Springer, though, earned his opportunity. And he would have gotten it, if only he’d been willing to sellout. Good for him that he wasn’t. Shame on Luhnow and company for putting him in that position.

  1. sumkat - Mar 19, 2014 at 10:11 PM

    If it’s close as to which guy should be playing, I have no problem with a team doing this. If you are going to get similar production, why not let the kid get another few months of AAA under his belt, and probably help you both in the long run

    But in this case, where he is clearly better than another other option they have, is when it starts getting a little shady. To me, teams that do this to guys can’t be too smart. These guy remember how this stuff goes down, and when they are getting underpaid 5-6 years from now, they will remember why. To me, it’s not a coincidence that teams taht don’t do this stuff, are usually the teams that get guys to sign the team friendly deals a few years down the line

  2. tfbuckfutter - Mar 19, 2014 at 10:31 PM

    I can’t help but think that if he’s in the Astros system he probably isn’t actually very good.

    • kiwicricket - Mar 19, 2014 at 10:38 PM

      Ouch.

    • raysfan1 - Mar 19, 2014 at 10:49 PM

      Every Astros minor league team made their league’s playoffs last year. It’s more like they are hiding their best young talent to save money.

    • stex52 - Mar 20, 2014 at 12:44 PM

      Faulty logic, tbuck. The major league team may be crap, but everyone agrees the minor league organization has built up to one of the five best.

  3. chill1184 - Mar 19, 2014 at 10:33 PM

    It’s shameful but I understand why teams do it. In my opinion one of biggest reasons is player retention. Lets be real here if your a phenom player but the big club is bad and you feel that said team is a swamp. You’re going to want out as soon as you can. If your a team that can’t drive up the money truck the chances are that a big market team will and that phenom will leave.

    The other reason is that the team feels that the said player isn’t ready. Yes we have access to the stats, videos and whatnot but at certain point you have the trust the people who are being paid to evaluate the talent closer than the media does to make the right call. For example people want to cite Wacha and Jose Fernandez but those guys are exceptions to the rule. They easily could’ve flamed out.

    • dan1111 - Mar 20, 2014 at 4:00 AM

      No and no. The sole reason is clearly managing his service time, as Matthew stated.

      Do you really think a player would rather play in the minors than on a bad big-league team? That is crazy.

      There is no serious case that Springer needs more time in AAA. And the Astros have nothing to lose anyway. It is not as if a slow start by Springer is going to hurt their playoff chances.

  4. wonkypenguin - Mar 19, 2014 at 10:38 PM

    I found this very well-written. I don’t have anything else to say other than I enjoyed the information and the commentary.

    • billybawl - Mar 20, 2014 at 12:00 PM

      You must be new to the internet. Respectful and gracious comments will be flagged and removed as inappropriate.

    • yahmule - Mar 20, 2014 at 12:21 PM

      I’m still trying to figure what angle he’s working.

  5. perryt200 - Mar 19, 2014 at 10:42 PM

    Well we seem to have a race to the bottom for worst back office in baseball. Astros or Mets.

    • dan1111 - Mar 20, 2014 at 4:04 AM

      I would say Phillies and Diamondbacks over them. But it is really no context: the Marlins are the clear, runaway winners in this category.

      • dan1111 - Mar 20, 2014 at 5:13 AM

        Errr…no contest.

      • Francisco (FC) - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:15 AM

        If only there was some… function…or button, that would allow you to edit a comment, make a correction and publish it.

  6. titansbro - Mar 19, 2014 at 10:53 PM

    Still not worse than the Phillies ratting 2 of their draft picks out to the NCAA for using an agent simply because they wouldn’t sign their low ball offers.

    Amazing to me that baseball allows teams to hold players this long anyway. Your contract should be your contract & at the end you should be free to do whatever you want. And rookie deals should not be more than 4-5 years. Those are meant to be “prove it” years only, not a way to lock good players into cheap organizations for 6-7 years getting paid much less than they deserve.

    • raysfan1 - Mar 19, 2014 at 11:08 PM

      The MLBPA agreed to this system in the CBA. It’s not the only instance of the players’ association agreeing to something that potentially harms future members.

      • jrob23 - Mar 19, 2014 at 11:50 PM

        yep, wasn’t it meant for the money to be spent on the veterans more? Yet, now with the draft pick compensation problem that also isn’t happening for them either. Players got the short end of that deal

      • dan1111 - Mar 20, 2014 at 4:06 AM

        The MLBPA making decisions on behalf of minor-leaguers is a problem. Like any group, they are interested in protecting those already inside the club.

    • perryt200 - Mar 20, 2014 at 1:05 AM

      Well, the Phillies only treat their prospects poorly. The Astros and Mets treat their players poorly. Of course if I was in the position I wouldn’t recomment anyone sign will all three teams.

  7. alexo0 - Mar 20, 2014 at 12:36 AM

    Glad that Luhnow is finally being called out on his abuse of baseball’s system. In spite of how bad their farm system was, their blatant tanking still bothers me, and possibly a few fans who have been expected to buy tickets to watch a perennial last place team.

    • yahmule - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:41 AM

      This guy is taking full advantage of every benefit of the doubt right now, but it’s pretty obvious he’s cheap.

  8. Bryan Robinson - Mar 20, 2014 at 1:13 AM

    I get the argument, though I think there is a very strong argument that this type of deal represents a “win-win”. First, the article I linked at the bottom of this comment by Scott McKinney shows that a prospect like Springer has roughly a 60% success rate in the Majors. Given this number, a rough estimate of Springer’s value, assuming he is a or 3 win player and using current market rates, the 7th free agent year would be worth about $15 million. Let’s pretend that inflation bumps this up to $20 million, though it could easily be much more. I don’t know.

    The typical 40/60/80 model for estimating arbitration (old-school, yes) would value his 3 arb years at, say, 6/11/16, for a total of 33 million. Add that to the FA year (20) and his pre-arb years, his first seven years could be best estimated around $55 million, accounting for my notepad inflation estimates. I’m not trying to be exact, but just to ballpark.

    If Springer actually has a 60% success rate, then he should be looking to sell seven years for close to 60% of the total value, right? That works out to about $30 million. Given the possibility for something drastic to happen and he blows out both knees when he is 28, and accounting for the chance that he sucks, I really don’t think that the $23 million offer is that far off.

    Of course, I could be underestimating his arbitration dollars and free agency/inflation. Springer could also be a superstar and make all of these numbers irrelevant.

    It isn’t like Springer couldn’t renegotiate, just like Longoria did. He would also have been a free agent at 29/30 years old, and that is how it will work out anyways whether he signed the deal or not.

    Here is that article:

    http://www.royalsreview.com/2011/2/14/1992424/success-and-failure-rates-of-top-mlb-prospects

    • Bryan Robinson - Mar 20, 2014 at 1:14 AM

      A 2 or 3 win* in the first paragraph

    • alamosweet - Mar 20, 2014 at 10:24 AM

      This seems like decent analysis to me, but slightly beside the point in this context.

      I don’t think anyone has a problem with the team offering a contract. Seems the issue is that, once Springer turned down the offer, he was then denied a call-up at the beginning of the year.

      • Bryan Robinson - Mar 20, 2014 at 10:44 AM

        Oh I understand that, but as others have mentioned, it’s the system that all teams operate under and it’s unfortunate for Springer, I guess.

        This part of the article caught my eye:

        “Even though it’s $23 million guaranteed for a player who hasn’t set foot in the majors yet, it simply wasn’t a competitive offer. I might even consider it extortion.”

        That is the part I was responding to. I should have been clearer.

  9. psunick - Mar 20, 2014 at 1:31 AM

    Don’t forget about the fabulous deal the Pirates pulled off vs McCutchen. He’s stuck in Pittsburgh through 2017. He makes $7.25 million this season.

  10. seattlej - Mar 20, 2014 at 2:18 AM

    If you’re going to accuse someone of “lying through their teeth”, shouldn’t you explain why you feel that that was a lie? Why is it not plausible that Springer wasn’t called up for the reason that Luhnow stated? I don’t think you actually state that. At least not clearly. Instead you leave the reader to speculate. Why would 40-man considerations not be a valid reason? To get a September call-up, a player must be on the 40-man. And, unless I’m mistaken (I’m not holding myself out as a professional sports writer here), the time that a player accrues in September doesn’t count against their service time. So what do the Astros have to lose by not calling him up, other than having to drop somebody from the 40-man, which would probably mean DFA’ing them (and ultimately losing them for nothing). Do you really think that they would act that petty? If so, why? Are there other transactions that would lead you to this conclusion?

    Look, I love blogs for the place that they fill in the media. HardballTalk and other sites offer insight and a perspective that I generally enjoy. I get that this is probably supposed to be a “hard-hitting” piece of reporting. But “reporting” such as this pile of crap is why blogs get a bad name in the mainstream media. You conducted no interviews, asked no questions, and yet you blatantly call someone a lier based on pure conjecture. There are few actual facts here, just circumstantial speculation, which is not what I would rely upon when I’m calling someone a lier and attempting to call into question their professional credibility. I’m sure that Craig (yes, I realize that he’s not the author), as a former attorney, can understand that (and frankly, I’d love to hear his perspective on this post).

    Moving beyond the shabby “reporting”, lack of facts, and generally poor progression in this piece, your placing the blame in the wrong place. The Astros are simply playing the system as it exists. The real fault here doesn’t lie with the Astros or the Rays or any other team, the entity that is most responsible for these kinds of moves is the union. The union regularly sells our minor leaguers and amateurs to the benefit of veterans that are trying to hold on for one last multi-million dollar payday. The union could fix this if it though that it was broken — it simply chooses not to. It’s the ignorant and the blind that blame the teams for doing everything that they can within the bounds of the CBA to keep their payroll down. If you don’t like the CBA, you should probably look at the parties that negotiated it.

    • dan1111 - Mar 20, 2014 at 4:20 AM

      Even though September call-ups don’t count toward service time, if Springer had raked in September it would pretty much have forced the Astros’ hand. There would be no way to defend sending him to the minors to start the season. So, it could still be for service time reasons.

      • yahmule - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:44 AM

        Luhnow knows he has a bunch of people suckered and he’s playing it for all its worth.

    • jc4455 - Mar 20, 2014 at 10:35 AM

      Please, he feels it’s a lie because 80% of the Astros 40-man last September was utterly worthless.

    • jc4455 - Mar 20, 2014 at 10:43 AM

      Also keep in mind I believe the CBA requires teams to act in good faith, and to make moves for baseball reasons, yadda yadda. “Sign this contract or ply your trade in the midwest league” violates the agreement

    • scottp9 - Mar 20, 2014 at 4:21 PM

      Time accrued in September DOES count as regular major league service time.

    • unclearnie - Mar 20, 2014 at 4:29 PM

      And just what is your job title with the Astro’s?

  11. mikhelb - Mar 20, 2014 at 3:21 AM

    There have been also instances of veterans having good seasons in the minors, players signed only to a minor league deal, who are not called up because the team doesn’t want to risk having him not perform and later lose him via waivers when they try to send him back to the minors. At the end of the year the MLB team keeps playing with guys who underperform and are making millions, while the more capable veterans never get the call up even if the MLB needed them and are their best option.

    It happened to Jon Weber for instance with the Yankees and other teams. With the same Yankees also was the case of Jorge Vázquez who broke the Yankees minor league record for homeruns in a season but never got called up in that same season when the big league team needed a third baseman, a first baseman and a DH, the three positions Jorge “el chato” Vázquez played. Instead they promoted guys with horrible stat lines in the minors but they could still be optioned to the minors waiver-free.

    Last season… the Yankees had one of the worst full time players in the past 30 years in Vernon Wells and they didn’t promote young guys who could surely bat more than the sub 0.190 avg/no XBH Wells was having for 8 or 9 weeks in a row. He was as bad as Womack was in his time with the NYY, worse even than Rondell White’s full dreadful season in the Bronx, as bad as Zuvella and Fischlin… but Wells was earning millions and “had to play”, only for the yankees to cut him before this 2014 preseason began.

  12. broncostevenp - Mar 20, 2014 at 5:15 AM

    This kid is better than Yasiel Puig.

    • yahmule - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:45 AM

      Then he’s pretty good.

  13. broncostevenp - Mar 20, 2014 at 5:15 AM

    This kid is better than Yasiel Puig.

  14. steelerfan9598 - Mar 20, 2014 at 7:39 AM

    That’s baseball. If you’re not a large market team, you really have no choice. All they are doing is extending his time with THEM for a year. Then again, everyone thought the Pirates got a steal and Tabata was a fool for taking the money when they bought out his arbitration years. Now his ‘fat’ contract is a hindrance to trade possibilities.

    • sportsdrenched - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:43 AM

      Don’t buy that “small market team” thing with the Astros. Houston is the number 10 media market, Washington DC is 9th, Detroit is 11th. Population trends point to Houston moving up.

      Crappy team =/= small market

      • stex52 - Mar 20, 2014 at 12:49 PM

        Correct, sportsdrenched. It has nothing to do with market size.

      • steelerfan9598 - Mar 21, 2014 at 7:22 AM

        They’re not small market. I guess I should have said, unless you’re the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers, this is just smart business. Very few teams can afford a mega millions contract mistake.

  15. paperlions - Mar 20, 2014 at 7:55 AM

    Every team does this, especially with position players. Calling the Astros out for doing something that every team does is hypocritical.

    This isn’t any worse or different than any other manipulation in the CBA that baseball uses to hold salaries down and to extend player control. The existence of a draft that prevents players from choosing who they want to work for is far worse than this. The existence of spending caps on the draft and for international FA is far worse than this.

  16. paperlions - Mar 20, 2014 at 8:38 AM

    Yeah, the Astros are so horrible that they offered Springer a 7-year $23M deal last fall, before every taking the a MLB AB.

    • yahmule - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:48 AM

      And since Mama Springer didn’t raise no fools, he told them to ****ed.

      • paperlions - Mar 20, 2014 at 10:35 AM

        :-)

        Indeed.

        Risky though. $23M sets you up for life, even if you think you can make more than that…..you may not. For him though, age is an issue. That deal would have been through his age 31 season, perfect for Houston.

      • stex52 - Mar 20, 2014 at 12:56 PM

        Here is the only danger for Springer. He has some pretty awesome stats. But he strikes out a lot. A whole lot. We are talking Adam Dunn levels vs. minor league pitching. Like Dunn he has a good OBP because he walks a lot and a great OPS because he hits it hard when he hits it.

        But Springer is assuming some risk by believing in his capabilities. 23 MM$ set him for life. He could conceivably be three and done in the majors at 500 K$ a year.

        The system isn’t pretty and I’m not overly proud of Luhnow using this lever. But calling out the Astros for doing something that everyone does is a little disingenuous.

  17. happytwinsfan - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:08 AM

    “shameful”? millionaires maximizing their negotiating leverage with another or future millionaire doesn’t summon much moral outrage from me.

  18. thepittsburghkid - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:08 AM

    1. McCutchen signed his contract after he was already in the bigs. He should have waited a year, and the Pirates couldn’t afford him. It was perfect timing on the Pirates end.

    2. Tabata’s contract is not bloated, it’s team friendly. A team should pick him up, especially if he performs like he did the 2nd half of the year. Why do Pirate fans act like they understand baseball? You don’t understand baseball because you started following the Pirates half way through the season last year.

    • yahmule - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:50 AM

      2. Yeah, if somebody is looking for an utterly empty .270 BA, this is your man.

  19. Todd Boss - Mar 20, 2014 at 9:52 AM

    “Shameful?” Its the system that the union collectively bargained. If you don’t like it … bargain for a different system.

    There’s always going to have to be some cutoff date, some limiting factor that decides when a player has “earned” a full season of service. Personally I want to see my prospects in the majors sooner than later ..so i’m against super2 and all the shenanigans that go with that date.

    It isn’t hard to prove these two points:
    a) keeping a superstar player out of super-2 saves a team millions of dollars. Not just a few, but millions of dollars if the player is good enough.
    b) keeping a superstar player in the minors just for a couple of weeks buys you one extra year of control, likely in their age 27 timeframe when they’re at their peak of powers.

    That’s the system that is in place, and that’s the system teams are following. No sense whining about it.

    • spursareold - Mar 20, 2014 at 1:21 PM

      Did you even read the article, or are you just in here knee jerking?

      His FA won’t be at age 27, it will be at age 31. People in here aren’t bitching about the generic concept of a delayed callup. It’s THIS particular player at his particular age, and the fact that what they have at his position are players of a cow dung caliber.

      We understand that the concept of a delayed callup is sanctioned by the CBA. What isn’t sanctioned is doing it for non-baseball reasons. This appears to be a clear cut case of that.

  20. triaxfusion - Mar 20, 2014 at 10:00 AM

    I drafted him as a flyer on my fantasy team and have been watching this situation closely. All reports have indicated the Astros were never seriously considering adding him to the 25 man roster. Springer would have needed a monster ST to break in. I hate to see this happen to a talented young man, who as mentioned, is already 24. Being 31 at free agency will really limit his lifetime earning potential.

  21. bh192012 - Mar 20, 2014 at 1:23 PM

    No mention of his .161 bating average this spring training? Not even a quick mention followed by, “dont’ trust spring stats.” No, because even then it would diminish your point some. Springer might be ready. On that team, I’d like to see what he could do. However, he might have a hole in his game that non AA pitchers have figured out.

    Maybe Houston wants him to work on his 35% strikeout rate against less nasty pitching? I understand he’s a ‘power hitter’ and thus will probably have a high strikeout rate, but then he should be slugging over .194.

  22. brianc6234 - Mar 20, 2014 at 3:21 PM

    I guess Springer should have signed with the Twins in 2008. Then he’d at least be in the majors by now. They drafted him in the 48th round but if he wants to get to the majors sooner skip college. That’s a good reason to not get upset over this issue. Going to college just means they’ll probably start their major league career later. Look at Mike Trout. He’s 22 and starting his third season.

  23. jkaflagg - Mar 20, 2014 at 6:05 PM

    In the immortal words of Navin Johnson: ” So…..it’s a PROFIT deal !!!!”

    Baseball is a business, and both management and employees exploit the rules and regulations to the maximum degree when they can…..just like every other business on the planet. I guess the writer has led a charmed life where he has always been treated fairly, always was promoted the very day he deserved it, never saw a less-talented colleague promoted ahead of him, never had a company lay him off or fold even though he did a good job. Sounds nice,but….it’s not the planet the rest of us live on.

  24. hvoigt21 - Mar 22, 2014 at 9:02 AM

    mathew…..I agree with SeattleJ…calling someone a liar without explaining the derails why he’s a liar makes You look really bad and your post loses a lot of credibility. Seattle J just made a better argument of calling you an idiot than you did for calling the GM a liar.

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