Better assessing the future of the AL West

 There are many ‘Under 25′ or ’25 and Under’ player rankings to go along with the farm system rankings put out by Keith Law, MLB.com and Baseball America. A good number of the sites covering prospects offer such a ’25 and Under’ type list, apparently in attempt to better evaluate where each club is in terms of young talent. Not Prospect Insider. Why? I’ll explain.

For starters, the age of 25, or any other age one might choose as the cut-off, is 100 percent arbitrary. Why not 27? Why not 23? Second, There are much more significant cut-off criterion than age, or even rookie status when attempting to determine the long-term status of an organization, and since the mere presence of these ‘Under 25′ types suggest an attempt to take the analysis deeper than the farm, let’s go yet one step further, and with more meaning. Let me explain that, too.

Baseball teams do not benefit specifically from having as many good and/or promising players 25 years of age and under as possible. They benefit from having as many good and/or promising players under club control for as long as possible, and good+cheap+now is more valuable than any other combination. No matter how good a club’s up-to-25’s are, if they’ve accrued three or more years of service time, or happen to qualify for Super 2 arbitration status, they start to dent the organization’s financial flexibility, often impacting immediate or future plans. If a player broke into the big leagues at 22 years of age and stayed there, he’d be arbitration eligible after his age 24 season, making his age-25 season one under an arbitration salary — which almost always hits seven figures.

When clubs look to rebuild — such as the Atlanta Braves the past two seasons — they do not seek players of specific ages to go with certain levels of abilities. They seek controllable talents, sprinkled across all levels of experience levels and statuses. Many played all of 2015 in the minors. Most of those will do so again in 2016. Others have four-to-six years of club control attached. Rather than having to immediately write payroll checks for seven figures on several players, the Braves will pay their young big-league talents the league minimum for up to three full seasons. This is how they’ll be able to extend the contracts of key players heading toward free agency or perhaps even splurge on an impact free agent or two as they approach legitimate contention in the National League East. It’s also how they’ll entice other clubs to part with what they desire in order to complete their roster.

The same idea is why the Houston Astros are so dangerous right now — a threat to win it all for the next three or more season. Carlos Correa, George Springer, Lance McCullers and company will make peanuts for at least two more years, barring contract extensions, which only come at the club’s discretion.

The age of the player is arbitrary. His rookie status is meaningless. This is what makes the Nathan Karns trade a potential gem for the Mariners; he’s 28, yes, but has just one year of service on the ledger. The right-hander may be entering his prime years while the club is required to pay him only the league minimum for both 2016 and 2017, his age 28 and 29 seasons.

Here are the AL West’s top players who have yet to qualify for arbitration, heading into the 2016 season. Below that is a group of players in Year 1 of arbitration, which typically are very affordable stages for the club. Add the following groups to the farm system rankings of your choice and that combo is a better representation of where each club is in terms of housing the necessary young talent to put forth its best foot for the longer-term future — beyond 2016. The overall organization ‘ranking’ may not change much when implementing pre-arbitration talents, but clubs only can house 25 players on the big-league roster, 40 on the reserve list and players run out of options. The difference between the clubs is more opportunities to mitigate cost. Front office mistakes reduce such an advantage.

After the Mariners’ groups are those of the other four clubs in the American League West, for comparison. Of course, the financial situation of each club matters when trying to determine what their chances at long-term success may be, so keep that in mind.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Nathan Karns RHP 1.033
Taijuan Walker RHP 1.142
James Paxton LHP 2.027
Ketel Marte SS 0.066
Mike Montgomery LHP 0.089
Jesus Montero 1B/DH 1.167
Chris Taylor SS 0.139
Mike Zunino C 2.084
Vidal Nuno LHP 2.015
Stefen Romero OF 0.170
Steve Clevenger C 2.123
Luis Sardinas SS 0.143

It’s worth noting a player such as Mike Zunino is far from guaranteed to earn the nearly-year of service he needs to hit arbitration status after this coming season. Taijuan Walker is likely to hit Super Two status after 2016 — as you can see, he’s paced to end this coming year with two years, 142 days of service time. After the 2015 season, the Super Two cut-off was two years, 130 days, a mark Clevenger missed by just seven days of service.

Keep in mind that if James Paxton doesn’t win a spot in the starting rotation this spring, there’s a great chance he starts the season in Triple-A Tacoma. He enters 2016 needing almost a full season in the majors — 145 days, to be exact — to reach three years of service. He needs just 105 days of or so to join Walker in Super Two status, however, if we assume the cut-off repeats at two years, 130 days (it typically is different every season, however). In order for Paxton to miss out on arbitration after this season he’ll need to spend more than two full months in Triple-A, not counting rehab assignment time.

Mike Montgomery and Jesus Montero are out of options, but if the latter makes the club out of spring training and spends most of the season in the big leagues, arbitration likely will be part of his offseason, too.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Leonys Martin CF $4.15m
Evan Scribner RHP $807,500

Steve Clevenger, clearly, will get to arbitration status after this season, needing but a week or two to get there. Karns is set for two more full seasons of club-controlled contracts with no chance to get to arbitration until after the 2017 season. Evan Scribner was a Super Two qualifier this season, but remains affordable at under $1 million for 2016. Leonys Martin was a rather pricey first-year arbitration qualifier and a poor 2016 likely means a non-tender scenario for the center fielder next winter.

The Texas Rangers rank between No. 6 and No. 10, depending on who you ask, but we can add the following to their future chances to sustain the success they started a year ago.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Rougned Odor 2B 1.121
Sam Freeman LHP 2.050
Nick Martinez RHP 1.143
Delino DeShields, Jr. SS 1.000
Keone Kela LHP 1.000

Rougned Odor is a rather key name here, as is Delino DeShields, Jr., since both were big parts of the club’s success in 2015. The pair’s value, while earning just league-minimum salaries, is especially critical with other large contracts on the books, including Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels and Prince Fielder. Once Odor, for example, gets expensive, Fielder’s deal will be nearing expiration.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Shawn Tolleson RHP $3.275m
Jake Diekman LHP $1.255m
Tanner Scheppers RHP $900,000
Jurickson Profar SS $605,000
Sam Dyson RHP CC

For Texas, this group may be more important, since their best bullpen arm, Shawn Tolleson, and a potentially-terrific trade chip in Jurickson Profar, remains relatively cheap. Profar’s health is a major concern at this point, but if such injuries would have occurred in 2018, instead, Profar might be in non-tender territory. The Rangers can afford to sit back and hope for another year or two, which could pay off big, considering Profar’s immense talent.

The Los Angeles Angels ranked near the bottom of everyone’s list, topping out at No. 26 and bottom out at, well, the bottom. Their list of controlled contracts and first-year arbitration players isn’t impressive, either. At press time, the club was rumored to be near acquiring former Seattle Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders, who is a first-year arbitration player.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Matt Shoemaker RHP 1.166
Tyler Skaggs LHP 2.066
C.J. Cron 1B/DH 1.110
Mike Morin RHP 1.137
Cory Rasmus RHP 1.155
Johnny Giavotella 2B 2.055

Tyler Skaggs could be the key player here. The lefty has a chance to be a reliable No. 2 or No. 3 starter, but is coming off Tommy John surgery and may not reach such status in 2016, but there appears to be a good shot he nets the service time to hit arbitration status. He’ll likely remain super cheap into 2017, however. C.J. Cron being a cheap, useful bat — especially with Albert Pujols’ current health situation — is a pretty big deal for the Angels, who remain nearly $30 million from the luxury tax threshold for 2016 but did not go out and add insurance for their incumbents.

Cory Rasmus, Mike Morin and Johnny Giavotella are role players who have some value as long they’re not making much money.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Kole Calhoun RF $3.4m

Kole Calhoun reached Super Two status after last season and is one of the Angels’ best players — probably No. 2 behind Mike Trout — and is a value at $3.4 million for 2016. It may be on Damon Oppenheimer’s to-do list to seek controllable players — there’s no doubt it is — but doing so without return value is difficult and certainly will test the first-time general manager’s ability to get deals done with creativity.

The Oakland Athletics are in a unique position; they’re lacking in talent down on the farm, sitting at No. 18 in Keith Law’s Org Rankings, and having but a small handful of controllable talents that figure to be key cogs in whatever machine they’re looking to build.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Khris Davis OF 2.104
Liam Hendriks RHP 2.038
Sonny Gray RHP 2.061
Stephen Vogt C 2.084
Josh Phegley C 1.114
Marcus Semien SS 1.118
Kendall Graveman LHP 1.014
Chris Bassitt RHP 0.127
Jesse Hahn RHP 1.086
Billy Burns OF 1.020
Mark Canha OF/1B 1.000

There are two pieces of good news, however. First, Sonny Gray and Stephen Vogt are two of Oakland’s club-controlled players that aren’t yet earning arbitration dollars in 2016. Second, the A’s have but $34.7 million on the books for 2017 and just $13.7 million on the books for 2018. This strong suggests the financial flexibility to cover most or all of Gray’s arbitration years, and perhaps even a free agent year or two. Marcus Semien is a big value here, too, manning the shortstop position with some upside at the plate, all for the league minimum.

The A’s haven’t a single first-year arbitration player, though, and as shown above many of their key pre-arb players will hit arbitration status after 2016.

The Houston Astros are in the best shape of any club in the division, even when it goes beyond the farm system itself. Their strong rookie class of 2015 — Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, Jr. leading the way — puts them in a great spot for years to come, but the Astros are in good shape at all levels of service time.

Pre-Arbitration
Player Pos. Service
Carlos Correa SS 0.119
Lance McCullers RHP 0.139
Ken Giles RHP 1.113
Collin McHugh RHP 2.085
Brad Peacock LHP 2.124
Will Harris RHP 2.102
George Springer SS 1.166
Mike Fiers RHP 2.085
Jake Marisnick OF 1.145
Matt Duffy 3B 1.059
Dan Straily RHP 1.126
Preston Tucker SS 0.150

Three of the Astros best six players reside in 0-3 territory, an impressive roster set for GM Jeff Luhnow and staff. One cam make an argument that 10 of the club’s 15 best players will earn less than $6 million in 2016, with five of them earning less than $1 million.

Not only is the Houston farm system still solid enough — No. 17 by Law — despite graduation several over the past two seasons, but their list of 0-3s and first-year arbitration players is as impressive as it gets in Major League Baseball, and Luhnow added to that over the winter in the form of closer Ken Giles.

First-year Arbitration
Player Pos. ’16 $
Dallas Keuchel LHP $7.25m
Josh Fields RHP $900,000

The one area that may get a bit difficult for Houston is with Dallas Keuchel, whose first-year arbitration salary broke a record for pitchers. His Cy Young Award didn’t hurt, but the Astros may not be in a position to compete with Keuchel’s future market. The onus will be on Luhnow to continue to find starting pitching so he can trade Keuchel — if they prefer not to pony up the big dollars to keep him. His 2017 salary projects north of $10 million — perhaps somewhere in the $12-13 million range — with another bump to the $17-18 million or higher likely heading into 2018. The other controllable assets on the roster make it plausible for the Astros to keep such a salary, however, so don’t expect a break-up of this ultra-young group in H-town.

In the end, 0-3s and first-year arbitration talent is a continuation of the poor farm system for the Angels, but the Astros get a significant boost from the 17th-best farm system, suggesting long-term success as well as the immediate chance to win. The Rangers’ top-10 farm system doesn’t get a huge lift from their 0-3s or first-year arbitration eligibles, but there’s enough there to maintain the optimism moving forward beyond the next two seasons. The Mariners have some upside in their 0-3s that isn’t present in a bottom-quarter farm system, thanks to Walker, Paxton, Karns and Marte, lifting their overall future outlook a full step or two. Walker’s solid final three months to 2015 lend an extra half-step, too, since we could be talking about a No. 2 or No. 3 starter this season.

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Jason A. Churchill

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