As the Orioles go about paring their roster for Opening Day, the immediate futures of three well-regarded young players could be affected by a factor that goes far beyond spring training performance or where they would slot into the everyday regular-season lineup.
For outfielder Austin Hays and catcher Chance Sisco, who entered camp as front-runners for the right-field and backup catcher jobs, respectively, the Orioles could benefit from them starting the season in the minor leagues to ensure another year of major league service time before they reach free agency. The same, to a lesser extent, applies to right-hander Hunter Harvey, who was optioned to Double-A Bowie on Wednesday but not before making a legitimate case for inclusion in the big league starting rotation.
Nothing about the team's public stance indicates this is a factor at all. Each is being evaluated on his merits and in the context of the positional battles the Orioles have known existed all camp. But from both the standpoint of their development as top prospects and the long-term control the club hopes to have over some of its top position players at a time when the current generation has one foot out the door, the advantages are clear.
Under Major League Baseball’s rules, players are granted free agency after compiling six full seasons of major league service time. The season typically consists of 183 days, but a full season is accrued at 171 days. Anything short of that means free agency is delayed, and teams have used that caveat to keep some top stars under control in recent years. All had baseball cover to do so, but the Chicago Cubs’ handling of Kris Bryant in 2015 is among the more criticized instances of a team using the rule to its advantage. Another is the Atlanta Braves optioning one of the top prospects in the game, Ronald Acuña Jr., to Triple-A to start this season despite his being one of the best players in the majors this spring.
Sisco, 23, and Hays, 22, were September call-ups in 2017 and compiled 31 and 27 days of service time last season, respectively. That means that if Sisco has over 140 days of service time this season, and Hays more than 144, they could hit free agency a year earlier than if the team held them back.
This is all assuming neither is optioned to the minor leagues again for a period of longer than 20 days, but under that math, Sisco would be under club control for an extra year if he is optioned to start the season and returns after May 14. Same goes for Hays after May 10.
Players don't lose service time unless they're optioned for 20 days or fewer, so while this would mean burning a minor league option for each, it's fair to treat them as the types of players who won't need to use three options to establish themselves in the majors as regulars.
But it's clear that won't happen immediately.
For Sisco, who is in the final week of spring training competing with Andrew Susac for the right to back up Caleb Joseph and to presumably play a limited role at the outset of the season, Showalter seems to be prioritizing defense, where Sisco still has work to do to be big league-ready.
Showalter said Sunday that all three catchers who were competing to back up Joseph could handle a major league role at this point, and while no decisions have been made, he said defense will be a premium consideration.
"Primarily, but everyone brings something different," Showalter said Monday. "If you can't defend and throw and call a game in the big leagues, that's part of it. Let's face it — there's close to 200 pitches a night, and you get four at-bats. That math is pretty easy. You're really going to impact the game day in and day out as a defender. But that day that you catch, you've really got to bring something to the table. You've got to bring something where you know you've got to get this tonight from him, and really bring that impactful tool."
But that came before the Orioles optioned Austin Wynns, widely considered an MLB-ready defender. On Monday, after Sisco had two extra-base hits before Susac substituted in and had two hits of his own, Showalter said Sisco’s bat could be too good to pass up.
Sisco's best tool is his left-handed bat, and no one inside or outside the organization denies that. He's a career .311 minor league hitter who's growing into his power, but remains a work in progress behind the plate. If he makes the club, it will be for his bat, though undoubtedly also an endorsement of his defensive work.
"The priority is always going to be who can catch and call the game," Showalter said. "The rest of it is kind of icing on the cake. But he's had a track record in Single-A and Double-A, hitting well. It's a tough act to follow last year in Triple-A, but he held his own there."
Starting in the minors could also bring the same benefits in the case of Hays, who hit his way from the Carolina League to the big leagues last season thanks to a .329/.365/.593 batting line with 32 home runs. Hays made a September cameo in the majors.
He was expected to be a big factor in the spring competition to be the everyday right fielder, but the club signed veterans Colby Rasmus, Alex Presley and Craig Gentry to minor league deals in February, and there's no longer any question about whether last year's Rule 5 draft pick, Anthony Santander, will be kept on the Opening Day roster.
That, combined with a shoulder injury that kept Hays out of the spring lineup and limited his opportunities to perform and prepare for the season, mean Hays will likely not head to Baltimore when camp ends. A month or two of replicating last season's performance in Norfolk would make it impossible to keep him down for long, but where it stands now, it's hard to see where he fits.
It's even more of an ancillary factor for Harvey, who at age 23 hasn't pitched above Low-A Delmarva because of over three seasons of injuries. Given that whenever he arrives, he’ll be a young pitcher with options and might not gain a full season of service time, it’s even less a part of the equation.
So, unlike the more egregious and high-profile cases of service time dictating where a player starts the season — as in Bryant’s case — there is and will be a baseball decision with long-term implications for the club.
The Orioles can't be accused of having let these considerations influence decisions before, either. Last year, they could have kept Trey Mancini down for a month or so after he accumulated 15 days of service time in 2016 and delayed his free agency until after the 2023 season. As it stands how, he'll be a free agent after 2022.
In 2014, they kept second baseman Jonathan Schoop as the Opening Day starter despite being in a similar position as they are now with Sisco and Hays. He came up the previous September and never went back down, meaning he'll be a free agent after 2019 instead of 2020.
This is all a long way out, with the earliest any of Sisco, Hays or Harvey hitting free agency coming after the 2023 season. Given that they're already entering the last year of their contracts, Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette are likely looking a little more closely at building the best team this year than six years down the road.
But in deciding which is the best 25-man group to bring to Baltimore for Opening Day on March 29, they'll be doing the organization a favor for the distant future if three of their top four prospects entering the season — Hays, Sisco, and Harvey — aren't running down the orange carpet.