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In refreshing change, three top prospects open season in majors

Photo: /AP

Jose Fernandez didn't disappoint in his first big league game, with eight strikeouts in just five innings.

NEW YORK -- Baseball's continued youth movement was evident on the Citi Field mound last week, when the top outings by starting pitchers were turned in by the Mets' Matt Harvey, a 24-year-old barely ineligible to be called a rookie, and the Marlins' Jose Fernandez, their 20-year-old wunderkind prospect who dazzled in his big league debut.

Across town at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox debuted their rookie outfielder, Jackie Bradley Jr., who showed uncommon poise and plate discipline for a 22-year-old playing in his first series.

Far more uncommon was the simple fact that, among these three blue-chip prospects, two were beginning their major league careers in early April, a period of time when many organizations stash their best young players in the minor leagues for a variety of reasons -- among them, one key consideration is to delay the accrual of service time. To do otherwise risks greater expenditure through the arbitration process and early eligibility for free agency by a year.

While the Mets took what has become the more common approach in first promoting Harvey late last season, the Red Sox with Bradley, the Marlins with Fernandez and the Twins with rookie centerfielder Aaron Hicks have all flouted recent convention by including their prospects on big league Opening Day rosters in a refreshing return to a meritocracy.

"These early games are important to us, and it was important for us to put our best 25-man roster out there," Boston general manager Ben Cherington said. "And we felt [Bradley] was a part of that."

It's a comment on how disciplined teams have been with their prospects that it has become startling to see blue chips -- Fernandez ranked fifth on Baseball America's preseason Top 100 list, Bradley slotted in at No. 31 and Hicks was 72nd -- in the big leagues on Opening Day. The most extreme example of this came in 2010, when Stephen Strasburg, Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, Pedro Alvarez and Carlos Santana all made their debuts within a short period of time in June to avoid Super 2 status.

Here's what is at stake: Any player with at least 172 days of service time in the big leagues in the same season is credited with a whole year -- or if his in-season assignment to the minor leagues is for fewer than 20 days -- counting toward his six years of team control. Also, any player in the top 22 percent of service time in his third year becomes a Super 2, meaning his salary for four of his six team control seasons (instead of the standard three) is determined by arbitration, making the player more expensive.

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In short, waiting until late April this year to promote a rookie means he remains under team control through the 2019 season, rather than 2018, presuming he stays in the big leagues continuously; promoting a player in mid-June typically avoids the Super 2 cutoff.

So why would a club promote a top prospect so soon? If not done judiciously, it can be a waste of a year, but there are times when there is value in such a move.

In the case of these three clubs, there were significant holes on the big league roster because of injuries in Boston and Miami and offseason trades in Minnesota. Also, few teams are willing to concede they are uncompetitive on Opening Day, especially in an era with two wild cards per league and a year after a pair of projected last-place teams, Oakland and Baltimore, each won at least 93 games while reaching the postseason.

One recent example illustrates the best-case scenario: In 2010 the Braves started rookie rightfielder Jason Heyward in the big leagues on Opening Day, and he went on to have a season worthy of a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting while helping Atlanta win the NL wild card by one game.

As for this year's prospects, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz's continued injury absence created a "clear opening" for Bradley, as Cherington put it, given the ability to find plate appearances for outfielders Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava in the DH slot. Bradley, a superior defender who projects as an everyday centerfielder, improves the team's outfield defense, and Cherington lauded his personal maturity in managing the jump from Double A and handling the inevitable adversity of a slump.

The Marlins began considering the big league promotion for Fernandez, who is skipping Double A and Triple A, after starting pitchers Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi both succumbed to injuries late in spring training.

Minnesota traded two centerfielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, this winter in order to get pitching, opening up the job to a competition this spring among Hicks, Darin Mastroianni and Joe Benson, which Hicks won.

So far the results have been varied. After Bradley had a great spring training with a .419 average and 10 walks in 75 plate appearances, he is only batting .133 in 23 regular season at bats but has a respectable .333 on-base percentage thanks to six walks, including three walks in his debut -- one of which he drew after he fell behind in the count 0-2 to Yankees ace CC Sabathia and subsequently triggered a rally.

There can be little question of Fernandez's readiness after he turned in one of the best debuts ever by a 20-year-old starter, striking out eight Mets in five innings, while allowing one run on three hits and one walk.

Hicks, meanwhile, has struggled mightily in the early going, starting just 2-for-35 (.057) with two walks and 16 strikeouts. But he was dominant this spring, when he batted .370 with four home runs in 73 at bats, three of them in the same game.

A lot can change between now and 2019, of course, which makes that aforementioned "presuming he stays in the big leagues continuously" clause a major caveat. Not every player will have a steady development. Injuries can wreak havoc on a roster. A club's level of competitiveness can change.

"I understand what people are saying about the clock starting," Cherington said, "but just because the clock starts doesn't mean it ticks at the same rate for six years."

Accommodations can be made to avoid premature free agency. The easiest, of course, is to simply send the player down to the minors at some point in the first few years for the requisite 20-day stay to avoid a full year of service time. While a linear development in which a player reaches the majors and doesn't return to the minors is generally preferred, plenty of star players had up-and-down starts to their careers without stunting their growth. If a player's performance doesn't warrant such a demotion, well, that's a good problem to have.

Also, there has been a rash of contract extensions given to young players a year or more before they reach free agency. Offering such a long-term deal can help negate the loss of a year of control; any agent will, of course, note that buying out a free-agent year is more expensive than a year of arbitration, so it'll cost the club more money but it can still have the services of the player for the same amount of time.

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Furthermore, there any number of other reasons why a team might want to call up a prospect at the beginning of the season, including his personal development and strategically staggering the start times of young players for reasons of managing payroll.

In the Red Sox' case, their internal projections for Bradley were quite good, and Cherington said the front office debated a series of questions: "'Can we make a fair and honest judgment that he's the best player for this role? Does this make us the best team to start the year? What are our alternatives?' That's what led to the decision."

The Marlins have said Fernandez will remain in the big league rotation even after Eovaldi and Alvarez return from the DL, though Ferandez will be limited to somewhere between 150 and 170 innings.

"Hopefully [Fernandez] is going to get a full year and be here all year," Marlins president, baseball operations, Larry Beinfest said. "That's up to him now. You put all that into the basket, when you're considering everything, and if it's time to start his clock, it's time to start his clock.

"The whole thing made sense, with the injuries and the way the player was performing and the way he profiled. You want to try to have your best guys up here, and we think he's one of our best guys."

Added Miami manager Mike Redmond, "We feel that it's better for him to learn and develop in the big leagues."

Minnesota believed Hicks was ready after a breakout 2012 season in Double A for the switch-hitter, when he had a .286/.384/.460 batting line with 11 triples, 13 homers and 100 runs scored in 129 games for New Britain.

"His bat caught up with his defense and his speed and his arm -- he's got all kinds of skills," Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan said. "He started to take quality at bats. His left-side [swing] caught up with the right. He was giving us competitive at bats nightly, which is all you can ask for. He was swinging at strikes and not afraid to get deep in counts. He was using the entire field from both sides which, once you start seeing stuff like that, catches your eye."

Service time, Ryan noted, wasn't really a consideration.

"No, it wasn't," Ryan said. "It really never had any effect on what we were going to do. I don't see where we're going to benefit from keeping a player down. When we've got an opening and a player is in line, we usually give him the opportunity."

Ultimately, Ryan said, "The big decision was whether or not you think he's ready."

That hasn't always been the case in recent years, but playing one's best players, regardless of service time, can be a worthwhile move, so long as it's managed properly.

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