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Among the biggest stories in baseball every spring is the emergence of a
new crop of phenoms, those great talents that take the relaxed atmosphere
of spring training by storm before they take their first legal drink–or
their first swing in Double-A. This year, the name on everyone’s lips
depended on the humidity: in arid Arizona, it was the Cubs’
does-it-all-except-walk center fielder, Corey Patterson, while in
sultry Florida, it was the Braves’ does-it-all-except-hit-for-power
shortstop, Rafael Furcal.

Both players are undeniably great talents; Furcal (#6) and Patterson (#9)
rank behind only the Padres’ Sean Burroughs (#4) among the players
on our list of Top 40 Prospects who had yet to play above A ball. And while
the Padres are fairly set at third base with Phil Nevin, the Cubs
were so desperate for a center fielder that they traded for the scar
formerly known as Damon Buford. The Braves’ Walt Weiss/Ozzie
Guillen
hybrid at shortstop was cited by scientific experts in their
call for a ban on genetic engineering in humans.

Patterson and Furcal both came into the spring with a head of steam from
their off-season exploits. Patterson hit .368 and was arguably the most
impressive player in the Arizona Fall League, while Furcal held his own
with the bat in the Dominican Winter League and continued to wreak havoc on
the bases. With their pedigrees, and their opportunity in the organization,
both players were considered legitimate candidates to pole-vault past two
levels and open the season in the major leagues.

And a funny thing happened: it was the Braves, normally the model for other
teams to follow, who let caution fly and opened the season with Furcal on
their roster. The Cubs, normally a team with all the originality of a
lemming that drops into the ocean because all his friends are doing it,
elected to be patient with Patterson and returned him to the minor leagues.
And for once, it looks like the Cubs got it right.

Look at this from the Braves’ perspective. In opening the season with
Furcal on their roster, they are banking that:

  • Furcal is a better player than the alternatives for the roster spot.

  • That Furcal will benefit more by playing half-time in the major leagues
    than he will by playing every day in Double- or Triple-A.

  • That the Braves themselves will reap the benefits of Furcal’s early
    emergence.

Given that the Braves’ alternative was Ozzie Guillen, it’s hard to disagree
with the first point. Some would argue that this was reason enough to keep
Furcal. But it’s hard to argue that what the Braves gain from playing
Furcal over Guillen comes close to what they lose on the latter two points.
Furcal’s development is very likely to be stunted by skipping the two
highest classifications in the minor leagues (remember Mike Caruso
and Jose Guillen?). And even if he is successful in the short term,
the likelihood of him regressing in the future is unacceptably high.
Remember, a year ago Caruso was coming off a .306 season and looked like a
rising star.

Even if we give the Braves the benefit of the doubt here–from Terry
Pendleton
to Andres Galarraga, this is a team that knows how to
get away with risky decisions–there is still the last point, as David
Rawnsley recently argued, to consider. Keep in mind that a player is not
eligible for free agency until he has six full years of service time. Six
full years minus one day, and that player is still tied to his original
team for another year.

Had the Braves sent Furcal to Triple-A and called him up this weekend, they
would have retained his rights through 2006; now, unless they demote him
during the season, he’s eligible for parole in 2005. Furthermore, he’s
going to be eligible for arbitration after the 2002 season, whereas had the
Braves had kept him in the minor leagues until Flag Day, he likely would
not qualify as even a "Super Two" player and would be earning
close to baseball’s minimum wage through 2003.

Instead, the Braves have decided that having Furcal on their roster for the
first 70 games of the 2000 season is worth jeopardizing his development. If
he does develop into a star, it’s also worth several million dollars in
arbitration in 2003 and their contractual rights to him in 2006. Does that
sound like a reasonable trade-off to you? What makes this decision even
more galling is that the Braves didn’t need to fabricate a reason to send
down Furcal. There’s no way anyone could argue that a demotion for Furcal
would be for strictly financial reasons; after all, we’re talking about a
player who finished last season in the Carolina League.

Meanwhile, the Cubs have wisely decided that, even though Patterson clearly
would be an improvement in their lineup over Damon Buford (at least against
right-handers), the team is such a long shot to make any noise in the
division that the organization is better off giving Patterson two months in
Triple-A, ensuring that Patterson’s time in Chicago will be as long,
productive and cost-efficient as possible.

Maybe the Cubs learned their lesson with Gary Scott, who was rushed
to the majors after a month’s experience in Double-A. Or maybe with,
surprisingly enough, Kerry Wood. Remember, Wood started the 1998
season in Triple-A, arriving in Chicago after just one start for Iowa, but
that one start in the minor leagues was enough to delay Wood’s free agency
by a full season. And when dealing with potential superstars, it’s worth
using a little sleight of hand to extract an extra season at below market
value.

It’s not surprising that while one team showed wisdom in their decision,
the other let their desperation cloud their judgment. What is surprising is
that the prudent team plays on WGN, not on TBS.

Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at ranyj@baseballprospectus.com.

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