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This year in Rochester, Jason Bartlett was hitting. .303. Last year in Rochester, he hit .332. In 2004 in Rochester, he hit also hit .332. And in 2003, in AA-New Britain, he hit .296. So, is it a huge surprise that in his major league career, Jason Bartlett is hitting .293?
Maybe a little. After all, prior to his callup on June 14th, Bartlett had only hit .233. In his first callup, he had just one hit in twelve at-bats. He also looked like a 14-year-old. And he made a couple of errors his first time in the field. Sure, we had hopes for him, but they weren’t high hopes. Such is the power of first impressions.
It’s amazing how much has changed in two months. He’s hitting .363, a high enough average that I receive emails asking whether he could challenge Joe Mauer for the batting title. (FYI – He can’t. He would need about 300 more plate appearances over the last 42 games to qualify.) And his defense is largely credited for improving the fortunes of the pitching staff since June. And now the 14-year-old looks like Johnny Depp.
None of this should be a huge surprise if we had look at more than just the 236 at-bats he received while facing the pressure of unseating well-liked veteran Juan Castro. Players have histories that extend beyond their first cup of coffee. It’s a trap we all fall into as we focus on the impact of that day’s game.
Most amazing is that we were blind to the defense. When there is resistance to a lineup change for the Twins, the first reason given always seems to be “they need to work on their defense”. But beyond his initial case of the yips, any grown person with functioning eyeballs could see that Bartlett’s range far exceeded that of other veterans on the club.
This last week has highlighted just how ludicrous that argument was. A ball deep into the hole; Bartlett dives, grabs, and throws out the runner. A ball right up the middle; Bartlett knocks it down. A slow roller to the left side is cut off by the third baseman, who can afford to play shallower because of the range of Bartlett behind him. How did we question this kids’ defense? After all, when he was traded to the Twins, he was a utility infielder whose path to the majors relied on his defense. Honestly, what were we thinking?
That first impression cost the Twins plenty, both last year and for the first two months this year. However, they also gained something with those delays. In fact, they may have gained several million somethings. To see how, one needs to examine how a player’s compensation works at the beginning of his major league career.
For the first three years of a player’s career, their team can pay them any amount they want, above the major league minimum. Usually they’ll make around $400,000. For the next three years, they’re arbitration-eligible, and make much more money, starting at seven figures for any player who receives regular playing time.
There is one loophole that allows some players to receive that big money a year earlier. Every year, the top 17% of two-year players (in service time), who are called “Super 2” players, get to go to arbitration a year earlier. The cutoff in service time varies every year, but it usually falls between 130 and 140 games played beyond two years. Torii Hunter received his highly paid contract in part because he was a Super 2. Michael Cuddyer’s Super 2 status cost the Twins about $900,000 this year. Next year, Morneau will qualify as a Super 2 player and will cost the Twins a lot more than that.
Coming into the year, Bartlett had played 148 games. If he had been with the Twins from the beginning of the year, and played two full seasons, he would have undoubtedly been a Super 2. Because he spent two months in Rochester, he’ll finish this season with about one year and 85 games. Which means that even after this year, he’ll still be two full years away from arbitration. That could save the Twins a couple of million dollars in 2008. And 2009. And 2010.
There’s no evidence that the Twins took this into consideration. In fact, it was reported that they offered to put Bartlett on the disabled list to begin the season, which would have extended his service time. And even if they did play games with his service time, they wouldn’t be the first team to do so. The Indians just called up the promising Andy Marte shortly after his chance to join the Super 2 players passed. Super prospect BJ Upton was called up to join the Devil Rays when his service time this year could no longer reach 130 games.
But it is interesting that all the misperceptions, whether they were about defense or offense or leadership, cost the Twins two months this year, but likely gained them millions in the future.