Inside the Numbers: Delayed gratification?

ESPN SweetSpot’s Christina Kahrl, who contributes analysis to Vine Line and Vine Line Game Day Edition, discusses the reasons Cubs fans may or may not see Josh Vitters (left) and Brett Jackson (right) at Wrigley Field this September. (Photo by Stephen Green)

So the 2011 season isn’t going to involve a renewed bid for contention, and fans are understandably turning the page and wondering when they’ll get to see the organization’s top prospects getting called up. Chances are, you’ll be waiting for a while. The way baseball’s rules work, there are significant disincentives for the Cubs to add their best kids to the 40-man roster.

First, there’s the disincentive to bring somebody up if they’re not likely to make the team next spring. This is strictly economic: Why would a team unnecessarily grant a prospect already under team control early ignition on his service-time clock? Doing so now means very little in terms of improving the Cubs’ chances for 2011. By granting service time, the team is already putting the prospect down a path toward arbitration eligibility—and an escalating pay scale—while not necessarily guaranteeing the Cubs that they’ll control the player’s best seasons before free agency.

The second challenge for a player looking to get called up between now and Opening Day 2012 is the question of whether or not the Cubs need to protect him from the Rule 5 draft in December. Although a player taken in the Rule 5 draft would have to be kept on the big league roster all season or else offered back to his original organization, clubs prefer to avoid the risk of losing a prospect this way whenever possible.

That said, teams control players upon signing them for set periods of time. For example, third baseman Josh Vitters, the third overall pick in 2007, will have to be added if the Cubs want to protect him from Rule 5 eligibility, so they may want to take a peek at him in September anyway. On the other hand, while Trey McNutt might be the organization’s best pitching prospect, it’s a happy outcome that the Cubs don’t have to add him to the 40-man roster until after the 2012 season, especially after a rough year. Center fielder Brett Jackson (2009 first round) also doesn’t have to be called up. If the Cubs add Jackson now, however, taking a shine to his glove work and patience at the plate, that would be a choice that goes a long way toward determining the seriousness of his chances to make next April’s roster.

Talent can change any player’s timetable, so money isn’t the only consideration. Most players enjoy their best seasons between the ages of 25 and 29. Timing when you bring a prospect up to stay matters, and risking the expense of free agency any earlier than necessary is a cost that every big league ballclub tries to defer or avoid, no matter their budget.

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