The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 3, 2014

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


The Mankato Free Press

---- — 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.”

Buxton and Sano are, like Mauer, rare talents. The Twins and their fans salivate over the notion of two such players as lineup anchors. But they also have the question of how long they can be kept together.

Buxton may well be able, right now, to hit .260 with dozens of steals in the majors, and we know he can play Gold Glove caliber defense in center. But the Twins aren’t going to waste a service-time year on a developmental season.

And the same would apply to Sano were he healthy.

Now, a rule of thumb: Players are at their peak in their late 20s. A player (such as Brian Dozier) who debuts at age 24 won’t reach free agency until he’s 30. Team control lasts through his prime years.

Buxton and Sano, on the other hand, should reach free agency at a much earlier age. Mike Trout, regarded as the best player in the game by everyone except Tigers fans and the MVP electorate, figures to hit free agency at age 26, just as his prime years are kicking in. If Buxton pushes his way to the majors this season, a real possibility, the same will be true for him.

How can the Twins avoid the dilemma of having two bank-busting free agents come due almost simultaneously? Pay them early.

Players (and agents) accept the baseball serf years in anticipation of the big paydays a half decade down the road. My notion: The Twins would do well to see if the players (and their agents) would entertain the idea of a career-type deal right off the bat.

Here’s our offer, Mr. Buxton (or Mr. Sano). Fifteen years, $200 million. Or 20 years, $250 million. Your choice. Starts immediately.

The Twins would, obviously, carry the risk of a career-altering injury. (Sano’s elbow is a reminder of that risk.) The player, in accepting such a deal, would be conceding that he’ll never be the highest-paid player in the game. The team would be free to move the players up without concern over service time, and spread out over that much time, the bulky totals would be readily absorbed into the budget.

It’s Mauer money, but without the drama of service time and free agency speculation.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.