For Rockies, call-up of top prospect Eddie Butler isn't cut-and-dry

Thursday June 5th, 2014

Eddie Butler has gone 4-4 with a 2.49 ERA and 40 strikeouts for Double-A Tulsa this season.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It looked as if the Rockies had finally begun to break their particular curse. Their offense was powerful, as usual, but it finally seemed as if they had the pitching to support it -- pitching that wasn't yet great, but good enough for Troy Tulowitzki and his cohorts to work with. Their ERA was 4.09, 21st in the league but on pace for an all-time club low. The Rockies were 26-20, just two games back in the NL West. That was two weeks ago.

Since May 20, Colorado has won two games and lost ten to fall two games below .500 and 9 1/2 games behind the division-leading Giants, and an old culprit has emerged: Their staff. During that largely desultory 16-day stretch, the staff's ERA is 5.58, the majors' second-worst. The local media, traumatized by two decades of feckless pitching, was long ago already calling for drastic change, particularly as far as the rotation spots held by Jhoulys Chacin, who is 0-4 with a 5.51 ERA ("Throws stinkers, not sinkers," wrote Denver Post columnist Woody Paige), and Franklin Morales, who is 3-4 with an ERA of 6.03. "Those two are the back-end of the Rox rotation -- figuratively and literally," Paige sneered.

In years past, the Rockies have generally had no choice but to stick with what they had, as their farm system has been largely bereft of anyone who looked like he might save them. This season is different. Down at Double-A Tulsa, thanks to recently savvy, pitching-focused drafting, they had what looked to be two good options: Eddie Butler, a 23-year-old who was the 46th overall pick in 2012 out of Virginia's Radford University, and 22-year-old Jon Gray, who went third overall out of Oklahoma last June. This spring, Baseball America ranked Butler as the game's 24th-best prospect, and Gray 12th. Through 11 starts, Butler is 4-4 with a 2.49 ERA; through ten, Gray is 5-3, with a 3.86 ERA.

Earlier this week, the Rockies made the call. While Gray will remain behind in Tulsa -- though he emerged polished from Oklahoma, he has made just 19 professional starts and has yet to be conditioned to hold up against the grind of a full season -- Butler will be promoted to take Morales' place against the Dodgers on Friday.

It seems so simple, from the outside: The club needed pitching, and it had two of baseball's best pitching prospects to choose from. For the Rockies' management, though, the decision was fraught, and it provides a window into the complicated set of factors every front office must consider in determining when the time is right to call up a player it believes to be a future star.

Critics contended that the reason why Butler toiled in Oklahoma for as long as he did was primarily the same reason why Wil Myers did not debut for the Rays last year until June 18th, and why the Pirates' Gregory Polanco continues, for now, to electrify Triple-A (where he is batting .355 with six homers, 48 RBI and 14 steals) instead of providing a defibrillating shock to Pittsburgh's arrested lineup. It was because the Rockies, despite their obvious need, were waiting until Butler (if not Gray) would no longer threaten to qualify for so-called Super Two status after the 2016 season, which would allow him to reach arbitration eligibility and command an extra year of a salary potentially far above the league's minimum. It was, in other words, because they valued saving money over winning.

As a refresher: Players are normally eligible for salary arbitration after they have accrued three full years of service time in the majors, but the Collective Bargaining Agreement also allows players whose service time ranks them among the top 22 percent of those who have more than two but less than three years to go to arbitration, too. In practice, that has meant that rookies who debut after early to mid-June do not end up as Super Twos, and also -- as a study by Baseball Prospectus' Zachary Levine has recently confirmed -- that general managers have disproportionately waited to call up their top prospects until after they're sure the Super Two cutoff has safely passed.

This has also compelled general managers to play an annual game in which they must publicly outline all the reasons why their clearly ready prospects aren't yet in the majors (Pirates GM Neil Huntington's explanations as far as Polanco have been anthologized here), without revealing the reason that everyone thinks is the real reason.

Such a state of affairs has engendered an unfortunate side effect, in which the public has come to believe that general managers are always fibbing about why they are not making promotions that seem both overdue and potentially helpful. Sometimes they are, but often they are not. As far as Butler, Bill Geivett -- who is the Rockies' director of major league operations, and therefore functions as the GM within their unique front office structure -- insisted that he was not. Although it appears as if Butler's debut will conveniently come just slightly too late to make him a Super Two -- though that is not yet definitely the case -- there are several reasons to take Geivett at his word.

In his first full season with the Rockies, Oklahoma product Jon Gray is 5-3 with a 3.86 ERA.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Geivett concedes that the Rockies do consider a prospect's potential Super Two eligibility when deciding whether or not to call him up -- an admission that many GMs are loath to make -- but that it is almost always trumped by other factors. That includes whether the player has shown that he is unquestionably ready to succeed in the majors, but sometimes it's also whether the club's need for him is so great that it must promote him before he is fully cooked.

As an example, Geivett points to the case of third baseman Nolan Arenado, just last season. "He started out in Triple-A because we didn't feel like, during the last ten days of camp, things were going that well," Geivett said. "Chris Nelson had played a long time for us, we figured we'd give him the first shot at third. If we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of not having to bring Arenado up and send him back down. He started in Triple-A, did very, very well, and we brought him up at the end of April, well in advance of anything in regards to Super Two." Arenado, in fact, debuted on April 28, meaning that he will now very likely become eligible for arbitration after next season.

At the time of his promotion, Arenado was batting .364 with a 1.059 OPS at Triple-A Colorado Springs. Despite his strong bottom line and an arsenal that includes a sinking, mid-90s fastball, a sharp slider and a baffling changeup, Butler has not been as dominant against marginally inferior Double-A competition. "He's been going through a period where he's been working on some things he'll probably have to use on the major league level," Geivett said last Monday. Butler recently endured a three-start stretch, between April 19 and May 1, in which his ERA was 4.82, and during his last start in the minors, on May 31, he required 107 pitches to record just 14 outs. Additionally, while last season he struck out 8.6 batters per nine innings, his strikeout rate this season has fallen to 5.2. That rate would rank him among the big leagues' bottom eight starters, and must be considered low even for a sinkerballer who is working on some things.

There was also another variable contributing to the Rockies' calculus, and it was one with which they alone must consider: Coors Field. When the Rockies call up minor leaguers for the first time, they are calling them way up -- 5,280 feet above sea level, to be precise -- and it is a very different thing to expose a young hitter like Arenado to that altitude, with its thin and run-generating air, as it is a pitcher.

The Rockies have rarely, if ever, been blessed with pitching prospects of the apparent caliber of Butler, but they have also never, in 22 years of existence, thrown a rookie pitcher into their oxygen-deprived ballpark and watched him do anything but gasp. Since the franchise's inception in 1993, 21 rookies have made at least 10 starts for Colorado. Just one -- Chacin, in 2010 -- has emerged with an ERA better than 4.00 (Chacin's was 3.28). Ten have posted ERAs worse than 5.00. While such a high rate of failure might point to some systemic flaw in the franchise's drafting and development of pitchers, it also certainly has something to do with the fact that learning to pitch effectively in Coors is unlike trying to do so anywhere else. The Rockies know by now that tartare is not palatable as far as young pitchers in Denver go. They have to be well done.

Another issue, of course, is whether the Rockies would have been wrong to delay the promotion of Butler even further, based upon his potential Super Two qualification alone -- and, for that matter, if any club is acting wrongly by doing the same with its own top prospects. Fans, understandably, are always in win-now mode and always want to see their organization's best 25 players in the majors at any given time. Club executives, however, are almost always playing a longer-term game, both for the sake of their franchises and of their own careers. The idea is to give themselves as many shots as possible to participate in the probabilistic crapshoot that is the postseason, with the hope that perhaps one of those will result in a trophy.

Would a few extra starts this year by even an immediately successful Butler translate into a playoff berth this October that the Rockies otherwise would not have earned? Or are the chances greater that he would prove more valuable years down the line, when he is in his prime and the Rockies can devote the potentially millions of dollars in payroll they will have saved by keeping him from becoming a Super Two player to the construction of a more well-rounded team? The conclusion, very often, would fall into to Column B.

For the Rockies, it turned out to be Column A. Though Butler is an advanced prospect with excellent stuff, he has not dominated consistently enough at Double-A to have made them entirely comfortable that he will do so at Coors Field. But as the Rockies sensed another season beginning to slip away, largely because of their pitching, they felt they had no other choice. Now they must hope it was the right one.

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