In the last decade, the conventional wisdom throughout Major League Baseball in terms of dealing with top prospects has been almost uniform. Regardless of how well the player does in Spring Training, he's sent down to Triple-A for a few weeks. The team will say it's for final seasoning, but everyone knows what the deal is: keep a player in the minors for two or three weeks, and you can manipulate his service time to where his salary arbitration years and subsequent free agency get put off by a year, giving them one more season to take advantage of his talents at a discount before he hits the open market.
This is especially effective for smaller market clubs like the Tampa Bay Rays, who arguably started the practice when they left Evan Longoria at Triple-A Durham for the first 13 days of the 2008 season. The Atlanta Braves are doing it with outfielder Ronald Acuña, the consensus top prospect in baseball, to avoid a repeat of Jason Heyward who was placed on the Opening Day roster in 2010 and had to be traded after five years to avoid losing him for nothing. But the practice isn't limited to poorer clubs. The most infamous use of the practice came in 2015 when the Chicago Cubs sent Kris Bryant to Triple-A Iowa for absolutely no baseball reason before bringing him up eight days into the campaign.
But the Philadelphia Phillies seem to have bucked the trend. With their top hitting prospect, infielder Scott Kingery, tearing the cover off the ball, general manager Matt Klentak took a novel approach to ensuring that Kingery would be a Phillie for longer than six years. Rather than sending him to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, the Phils put their chips on red, signing Kingery to a six-year contract with three additional club options.
Let's inspect this novel approach to service time and what it means to the Phillies, and perhaps to baseball.
Earning the contract
The Phillies are making a bet here. This is only the second time that a team has signed a player to a long-term contract before he's played a major league game. The first was Jonathan Singleton, who was signed by the Houston Astros to a five-year deal that guaranteed him $10m before his major league debut in June 2013.
That gamble didn't pay off. Singleton struggled, eventually dropping all the way to Double-A Corpus Christi, where he figures to continue his career after he returns from a 100-game suspension for a third positive test for a drug of abuse.
Kingery is coming off an incredible year. Splitting time between Double-A Reading and Lehigh Valley, he slashed .304/.359/.530 with 26 homers, 65 RBI, and 29 stolen bases. He entered the year as MLBPipeline's top second base prospect and the No. 2 in the Phillies organization.
Kingery, who first garnered major attention when he destroyed the Grapefruit League last year, continued to punish pitchers in Florida this year, to the tune of a .392/.415/.725 slash line with four homers, seven RBI, four doubles, a triple, and four steals. Despite that production, it was expected that he'd be back with the Triple-A Iron Pigs to start the year because unlike with most top prospects, there was an actual baseball reason for the Phillies to start him in the minors. The Phillies have an All-Star level second baseman in Cesar Hernandez, so Kingery was legitimately blocked.
But new manager Gabe Kapler is nothing if not outside the box, and he has determined that he'll bring Kingery north and use him as a super-utility player in the infield, hence the contract, the details of which were provided by Matt Gelb of The Athletic.
Should Kingery pan out, either by forcing a trade of Hernandez at second or perhaps moving to third base if Maikel Franco fails to turn around what has been a two-year slide, he'll be a perennial All-Star, which would make this one of the most player-friendly contracts in the history of the game. If he doesn't, the Phillies will only have about $24m committed in guarantees so while the deal is a gamble, it's not necessarily a bank-breaking one.
Signing Kingery to this deal is truly unprecedented. Singleton's deal was signed in June, so his service time wouldn't have been an issue. Not only has Kingery bought out all of his arbitration years, the Phillies have even more control over him than they would have if they had manipulated his service time, as their club options could end up making the contract a nine-year deal.
That's a gamble for Kingery as well. He'll be 24 next month. If this contract goes through all its options, he'll be well beyond his physical peak at far below the market rate before he can hit free agency. It's frankly difficult to see agents (coughScottBorascough) allowing young clients to do something like this in the future.
By the same token, this could end up being a new trend. Service time manipulation is bound to turn into an issue when the current CBA is up for renegotiation, and this tactic could be a viable alternative to such underhandedness. It would dispense with the need to engage in the often-acrimonious arbitration process and give a measure of security to both player and club.
We'll see whether this catches on as a trend or if it's an isolated incident. In the meantime, Phillies fans have reason to be excited as Opening Day approaches.