The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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March 3, 2014

Thoma column: Making (service) time stop for Buxton and Sano

Miguel Sano’s 2014 season is already over.

There will be no Target Field debut for the much-hyped power prospect, either in the Futures Game in July or as a major league callup. There will be, instead, surgery this month to replace a torn ligament in his throwing elbow and months of rehab.

And then he can resume his march to stardom. This surgery is a detour, not the end of the road. On Opening Day 2015, Sano will be just 21 (assuming that his listed birth date is accurate). He will still be the best power-hitting prospect in baseball.

On Opening Day 2015, Byron Buxton will also be just 21. Universally regarded as the best prospect in baseball, it is quite likely that he is the best center fielder in Twins camp. He can be the best and have no real chance at coming north with the big league team because of the ramifications of service time.

These are the rules: For his first three big league seasons — four if the team sufficiently manipulates service time — a player plays for something close to the major league minimum. Then comes three seasons of arbitration eligibility, in which his pay balloons but still falls short of true market value. After six years of “team control”, free agency kicks in.

Consider Joe Mauer. His first three years he was paid a total of $1,025,000. The next two seasons, as arbitration kicked in, his pay totaIed $10 million. The next two years, his pay totaled $23 million. That’s a total of $37 million for his first seven seasons.

And now, with the market working in his favor, he gets $23 million each year. When his current contract expires, Mauer will have been paid $218 million over a 15-year span, a bit more than $14.5 million a year.

For a Hall-of-Fame caliber player such as Mauer, that looks like a good deal for the Twins (assuming nothing horrible happens over the final five years of the contract). There will be seasons in which he was “overpaid,” but they are more than counterbalanced by the seasons in which he was “underpaid.”

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