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The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have done a lot of things right this winter, from
not spending millions on additional veteran mediocrities to turning nominal
closer Roberto Hernandez into a great young hitter who has already
been locked up into his arbitration years (Ben Grieve). But they
could be on the verge of making a decision that looks to be the wrong one
from both the baseball and business perspectives: giving Josh
Hamilton
the starting right-field job.

Hamilton, the #1 pick in the 1999 "first-year player" draft, is
undoubtedly a fine prospect. He had a good first full season in 2000 in the
Sally League despite being just 19 years old. Prospect maven John Sickels
ranks him the sixth-best prospect in baseball; we were a bit more
conservative and ranked him 14th.

Hamilton’s 2000 season was a good one when you consider his age relative to
that of his competition: He hit .301/.345/.474 before a knee injury ended
his season. If Hamilton were, say, 25, the Rays wouldn’t even give him a
second thought this spring. The drive to rush him to the majors appears to
be based more on his fame than on his performance, and there are two
baseball-related reasons why they shouldn’t succumb to the temptation.

The first is Hamilton’s plate discipline. We excluded Hamilton from our top
10 on the basis of his poor walk rates. Last year, he drew 26 walks against
392 at-bats, and in his two years as a pro he has just 40 walks against 700
at-bats. His strikeout rates aren’t excessive and he is clearly young
enough to improve his control of the strike zone, but to expect a guy who
couldn’t reach base 35% of the time against low-A pitchers to have any kind
of success against major-league pitchers is wishful thinking.

Second is the recent track record of long-jumping hitters. In the past four
years, three hitters have jumped from A ball to the majors: Rafael Furcal,
Mike Caruso, and Jose Guillen. Furcal has been excellent so far
in the majors, but Caruso also had what seemed like a good
first season in 1998, though it was just an empty batting average. When his
luck ran out in 1999, he disappeared and didn’t play in the majors at all
in 2000. Guillen had horrible plate discipline in the minors but had all
the right tools, and he also had an adequate first season in the majors in
’98. He never topped it, and he, like Caruso, is now in the Devil Rays
system. Guillen, in fact, is among Hamilton’s competitors for the starting
right-field job.

Both Caruso and Guillen failed in the jump from A ball to the majors, and
unlike Hamilton, each had spent a full year in a high-A league before the
move.

But even if the Rays had some baseball logic behind their desire to promote
Hamilton, there’s a clear financial argument against it. Putting him on the
major-league roster would start the timer on Hamilton’s arbitration
eligibility. If Hamilton starts the year in the Rays’ outfield, he
immediately begins accruing service time, and would be eligible for
arbitration after the 2003 season and free agency after the 2006 season,
assuming he doesn’t return to the minors. That would make him a 25-year-old
free agent, meaning that the Rays would not get any of his peak years.
Should the labor agreement change to include, say, four-year free agency,
the Rays would probably receive none of his productive years unless they
anted up to keep him beyond that mark.

We often say that lower-revenue teams, like the Devil Rays, have to
maximize their use of pre-arbitration players. While that means giving jobs
to those guys over the Pat Meareses and Fred McGriffs of the
world, it also means not promoting prospects who clearly aren’t ready for
the majors. Those first three years are only valuable if the player in
question is giving his team on-field value above his cost, and Hamilton is
not ready to do that and may not be ready next year.

(Thanks to reader Peter Friberg, whose question sparked this week’s column.)

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.