Tony at the Indians Prospect Insider has a great post up about managing the time of young players who could play in Triple-A or in the Majors. Basically, the issue revolves completely around the idea of the service time clock:
In baseball, 172 days on the big league roster is considered one year of major league service time. Obviously, a major league season is longer than 172 days, so a player only needs to be on an active 25-man roster (or big league disabled list) for 172 days of what usually is a 180 day or so season. After a player reaches three full seasons of service time they become arbitration eligible (a select few become arbitration eligible before three years, but I won't go into that here). After six full seasons of service time a player then becomes a free agent.While Tony uses particular Indians prospects (like Mike Brantley and Luis Valbuena) to explain exactly how that system could work, it's well worth checking out for anybody, because while the particulars of players may vary, the ideas and approaches are general, and very important for small-market teams. Basically, Tony demonstrates how leaving a prospect at the minors for the first 2-3 months of the season can reap enormous benefits for small-market teams, and not just because they get to spend another 2-3 months refining the skill sets that prospects need to work on. It has great benefits for teams that are operating in small windows with prospects becoming stars:
Managing service time is a vital piece of roster management for big league teams and is something that every team does in one way or another. It is a way to control when a player reaches free agency, and in cases of good decision making with how a team rosters a player they can delay free agency as many as one to three years for that player. The player has no control over this as they are at the mercy of their team on how their roster situation is handled (or you can say manipulated), and is also why when these guys do finally reach free agency you will get no complaining from me when they get multi-year deals for millions of dollars.
This is why teams should almost never open the season with a high profile rookie on the big league roster. Putting them in Triple-A and waiting three to four weeks before calling them up in late April or early May provides a team an extra year of control. We’ve seen many teams do this in the past, most recently the Tampa Bay Rays with Evan Longoria and the San Francisco Giants with Tim Lincecum. This is why at the minimum, guys who have yet to have their service clock started such as outfielder Jordan Brown, infielder Jason Donald, right-handed pitcher Hector Rondon, and Carlos Santana should open the season in Columbus even if they are deemed “ready”.While I find the use of the phrase "to control" to be a bit heavy-handed, I suppose it is also accurate, and worth keeping in mind that while teams may play with their prospects' emotions and incomes, small-market teams also have a financial investment in this, and if prospects really turn out to be that good, the payday will come no matter what. At any rate, the entire post is worth reading (especially if anybody is in a fantasy league that includes minor league players; after all, the Indians have 5 of Baseball America's 65 top prospects in their system this year, putting them only behind the Tampa Bay Rays), and I highly recommend you pop over there.
This is just good business for any organization as they finagle the service time clocks with guys and push off free agency as long as they can. The pickup of Branyan himself may not have made much sense, but the idea of signing someone in order to push Brantley to Triple-A to give the Indians a whole extra year of control for a core piece of the team the next half decade or so is good roster management. This is something small market teams need to do in order to extend the life of a young players’ career with them before they ultimately reach free agency.