The Astros are playing dirty pool with a top prospect

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We know this is how it works. Phenoms get fewer September callups than they used to, and they rarely debut on Opening Day. Instead, it’s June that’s become the popular time for debuts, all in the name of delaying arbitration and free agency eligibility.

On the one hand, it kind of sucks: much of the fun in each new season comes from watching players burst on to the scene. On the other, it’s really hard to blame teams for playing in this way when the rewards are so obvious.

Sometimes, though, it’s a lot easier to blame teams. Take the Houston Astros and center fielder George Springer. Springer, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Connecticut, hit .302/.383/.526 with 24 homers and 32 steals in his first full pro season in 2012, with the big caveats that he struck out 156 times in 581 plate appearances and 80 percent of his season was spent at Single-A Lancaster, annually one of or the most explosive environments for offense in the minors.

So, there was still some reason for skepticism last year. Springer, though, answered all doubters in hitting .297/.399/.579 in 73 games in Double-A and then .311/.425/.626 in 62 games in Triple-A. In all, he hit 37 homers, drove in 108 runs and swiped 45 bases in 53 attempts. He was the first 30 HR-30 SB player in the minors since Oakland’s Grant Desme in 2009. He did strike out 161 times in 589 plate appearances, so he’s not exactly the perfect prospect. But it was the kind of performance that certainly should have earned him a major league audition.

Except, of course, he never got one.

While Springer was dominating the PCL, the Astros were going 51-111 and posting the worst record in baseball for the third straight season. Their center fielders ended up hitting .218/.270/.314 with eight homers on the season. The were successful on just 10 of 24 steal attempts. They struck out 187 times. And it’s not like the team had much going on in left field or right field, either.

Springer, though, was denied a September callup as Brandon Barnes and Trevor Crowe (both now departed) finished up the season in center. GM Jeff Luhnow lied through his teeth in November, saying Springer wasn’t called up because of 40-man roster issues.

In the offseason, the Astros acquired Dexter Fowler to play center. The official word entering this spring was that Springer could still win a job. However, everyone knew that was exceedingly unlikely. The plan all along has been to keep in the minors until June, delaying his free agency for a year.

Now, all of this is pretty typical. It’s no secret what the Astros were doing, and we’re all kind of used to this kind of thing. Personally, I had more of a problem with it than the typical delayed callup for two reasons. First, because Springer was simply so outstanding in the minors last season that he obviously earned his promotion; there would have been absolutely no question about it if not for the service time issues. Second, Springer turned 24 last September. It’s one thing to play this game with 20- and 21-year-olds. Springer, though, wouldn’t have been eligible for free agency for the first time until age 30 even had the Astros called him up in September. Now he won’t get to choose his own path until age 31.

Still, that’s the way it’s done. So, even though the thought crossed my mind and my twitter feed a few times, I never did voice my displeasure on the blog. At least not until FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal dropped a bombshell on Wednesday.

Sources told Rosenthal that the Astros offered Springer a seven-year, $23 million contract last September. The obvious, obvious implication being “you sign this and we’ll give you your callup.” After all, once the Astros have Springer signed to the bargain deal, there’s no longer any reason to play games with his service time.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2008, Evan Longoria was sent down by the Rays prior to Opening Day, even though it seemed obvious that he was the team’s best option at third base. Just a couple of weeks later, though, on April 12, he got a surprise callup. Six days later, his six-year, $17.5 million contract with the Rays was officially announced. Unofficially, agreeing to the deal meant he got to spend the rest of the season in the majors. It made him pretty much the biggest bargain in baseball until Mike Trout came along

Springer wasn’t interested in playing ball with the Astros, even though it would have gotten him to the majors three months earlier. And it was absolutely the right call, given that the Astros not only wanted him to give up all three arbitration years but also a year of free agency. Jacoby Ellsbury is about to make $21 million this year in his seventh big-league season. The Astros wanted to pay Springer barely more than that for seven seasons combined. Even though it’s $23 million guaranteed for a player who hasn’t set foot in the majors yet, it simply wasn’t a competitive offer.

I might even consider it extortion.

Thankfully, Rosenthal is taking the Astros to task over this, wondering how Springer is worth $23 million but not a spot on Houston’s still lackluster roster. The Astros declined to comment.

I’m not going to be as polite about it as Rosenthal (I rarely am). What the Astros are doing here is shameful. I know there are a lot of good people in that organization. They’ve hired a number of stathead favorites and other people I respect. And they’re certainly doing a lot of things right to turn their organization around.

But they’re doing this very, very wrong. If nothing else, they’re sending a terrible message to the rest of their prospects. Why should Carlos Correa and Mark Appel bother trying their hardest this year if they feel the Astros won’t promote them before June 2015 anyway?

And Springer certainly deserves better. It’s possible he’ll come up in June and struggle, and the team will start talking about how he wasn’t ready previously. And maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he isn’t. Heck, maybe he’ll be a bust and it’ll turn out that the Astros needlessly delayed a useless player’s free agency.

Springer, though, earned his opportunity. And he would have gotten it, if only he’d been willing to sellout. Good for him that he wasn’t. Shame on Luhnow and company for putting him in that position.

MLB managers weigh in on anthem protests

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No other Major League Baseball player has taken a knee during the National Anthem since Athletics’ catcher Bruce Maxwell‘s protest on Saturday night. The demonstration was sparked by President Donald Trump’s call for the boycott of the National Football League and the firing of any player who chose not to stand during the anthem. The comments drew harsh criticism from many NFL players, coaches and owners and more than a few in MLB have also lended their support. There is still one game left to play on Sunday, but it’s unclear whether any of Maxwell’s league-mates will show their solidarity by refusing to stand as well.

Given a baseball culture that tends toward conformity more often than not, it seems unlikely. But it’s something league managers are prepared for — even if they don’t all agree with the demonstrations themselves.

White Sox’ skipper Rick Renteria specifically addressed Maxwell’s protest on Sunday, speaking to the league’s policy of inclusivity:

None of the White Sox knelt prior to their series finale against the Royals. Neither did members of the Pirates or the Cardinals, though St. Louis manager Mike Matheny and Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington both weighed in on the situation.

Matheny called the president’s comments “hurtful” and, like the Cubs’ Joe Maddon, appeared content to leave the decision to protest up to each player.

The Pirates, meanwhile, took a firmer tone. “We appreciate our players’ desire and ability to express their opinions respectfully and when done properly,” GM Huntington told Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When done appropriately and properly, we certainly have respect for our players’ ability to voice their opinion.”

Just what the Pirates consider “appropriate and proper” protocol was left up in the air, and club president Frank Coonelly offered no further insights in a separate statement to the press. Setting strict parameters for players to voice their opinions kind of puts them in a gray area, one they’ll have to clear up should someone elect to protest in the days to come, either with a bent knee and a hand over their heart or in some other fashion.

Equally ambiguous were comments from Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, who claimed to oppose the movement for personal, if misguided reasons, but also respected the right of his players to make an “educated” statement in protest.

The Indians’ Terry Francona took what was perhaps the most balanced approach of the entire group:

“It’s easy for me to sit here and say, ‘Well, I think this is the greatest country in the world,’ because I do,” Francona told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “But, I also haven’t walked in other people’s shoes. So, until I think, not just our country, but our world, until we realize that, hey, people are actually equal — it shouldn’t be a revelation — and the different doesn’t mean less. It’s just different. We’ve got work to do.”

These may all be moot points. Maxwell may be the only player to formally protest Trump’s comments, despite the good intentions of his teammates and fellow players around the league. Others may feel too ambivalent, threatened or uncomfortable to protest what the A’s catcher referred to as a “racial divide,” especially in a way that is routinely perceived as unpatriotic.

Even if the protests made by NFL players and Bruce Maxwell fail to gain momentum, however, the underlying issues they speak to are not going away anytime soon. Here, then, is where MLB managers can help foster a more inclusive environment throughout the league, not only by showing respect for a player’s decision to stand against racism but by actively partnering with those who do so. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start.

Nationals plan to activate Bryce Harper on Monday

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The Nationals are planning to activate Bryce Harper from the 10-day disabled list on Monday, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reports. Janes adds that Harper has been taking his knee injury on a day-to-day basis, so if he experiences pain ahead of tomorrow’s series opener in Philadelphia, then the Nationals won’t activate him.

Harper, 24, suffered a knee injury running out a grounder last month against the Giants. The Nationals hope to get him into some game action before the end of the regular season just so he can get acclimated in time for the playoffs.

When Harper returns, he’ll look to improve on his .326/.419/.614 slash line with 29 home runs, 87 RBI, and 92 runs scored in 472 plate appearances.