A few weeks back, when Fernando Tatis Jr. was electrifying the Cactus League with a couple of impressive early home runs, an American League scout offered a glowing recommendation of the San Diego Padres' 20-year-old top prospect.
"He's legit," the scout said. "A-Rod-type talent without the juice."
Alex Rodriguez-type talent. No steroid talk. And he's the same age A-Rod was when he broke camp with the Seattle Mariners for the first time in 1996 and went on to hit 36 home runs and finish second in AL MVP voting.
One more thing about Tatis, ranked by both MLB.com and Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in baseball: We all know he's unlikely to be in a major league Opening Day lineup at age 20, as A-Rod was with the Mariners.
The problem isn't talent, and it may not even be readiness, although the Padres will need to announce some baseball-related excuse if and when they send Tatis to Triple-A to start the season. They can't admit to the truth, which is that baseball rules work strongly against putting the best team and the best players on the field.
By leaving a top prospect in the minor leagues for even a few more weeks, a team can cost him the service time that would allow him to become a free agent after his sixth season. For Tatis or Eloy Jimenez of the Chicago White Sox or Pete Alonso of the New York Mets, that could mean delaying free agency from the winter of 2024-25 to the following winter of 2025-26.
It could mean millions of dollars. It could mean watching a star walk away in his prime.
What it definitely means is baseball needs to find a solution, because as much as demoting a kid for a few weeks in March and April makes economic sense, there's no way it makes baseball sense. At a time when the sport faces questions about teams tanking and young people losing interest, the rules need to encourage teams to put the best young players on the field as soon as they're ready.
The consensus top prospect in the game, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays, would have been in the same service-time mess if not for an oblique injury that sidelined him for the final weeks of spring training. The injury was unfortunate, but it saved the Blue Jays an awkward announcement and saved the rest of us from another phony excuse for sending a great young player to the minor leagues for two meaningless weeks.
The Jays sent Guerrero to minor league camp Thursday. They estimated he'll miss three weeks with the injury, which would bring him right about to the time the Triple-A Buffalo season opens.
That's convenient, but there's no reason to suspect anything nefarious here. As plenty of teams have proved and will prove again this spring, it's all too easy to say a top prospect "needs more time."
Funny, isn't it, that the "more time" he needs so often ends up being exactly how many days the team needs to delay free agency by a year.
Remember what happened with Kris Bryant in 2015? Bryant had a spectacular spring with the Chicago Cubs—nine home runs in 14 games—but the Cubs had him begin the season at Triple-A Iowa. On April 17, the exact date that would assure them that extra year of control, the Cubs called Bryant to the big leagues.
Now, instead of being eligible for free agency after the 2020 season, Bryant will need to wait one more year.
The Cubs, who won 97 games in 2015 as Bryant was the National League Rookie of the Year, paid no penalty (although Bryant filed a grievance that has yet to be decided). Bryant has an MVP award and a World Series ring but still has scars from being the victim of a bad rule.
"It's awful," Bryant told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic this spring. "So awful. It's going to happen this year, and it happens every year. I could understand it if you go out and have a rough spring training where you don't look ready. But there's certain people who put the time and the effort into the offseason so that they do show up to spring training and they prove that they're ready to go. I feel like you should be rewarded for that."
Sure enough, the White Sox sent Jimenez to their minor league camp this week, citing a need to improve his defense. The Mets have yet to make a decision on Alonso, who has hit .385 with three home runs so far this spring.
But Andy Martino of SNY, the Mets' television network, tweeted this:
As Martino's unnamed player went on to say, "It's a bad rule." But contrary to public belief, MLB does eventually change many of its bad rules. Thursday, baseball announced the elimination of the bloated 40-man September roster, to be replaced in 2020 by a 26-man roster from April through August and a mandatory 28-man roster in September.
No longer will teams have uneven rosters for the season's most important month, with strategy removed from games because of 15-man bullpens.
Fixing that required cooperation between the owners and the players union, which understandably worried about how many players would get major league time and money. Fixing the service-time issue will require more of the same, because owners never want to give up any rule that might save them money, and players always want the most money they can get.
But it's not good for the game when there's an incentive to keep the best players from playing. The decision on Fernando Tatis Jr. and the others should be a matter of whether they're ready to compete and not how much money a team might save down the road.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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