George Springer

The Astros are playing dirty pool with a top prospect


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’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.

Clayton Kershaw can win in the postseason! Who knew?

Clayton Kershaw
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Sometime after their Game 2 loss to the Rangers last week, the Blue Jays decided they trusted Marcus Stroman more than Cy Young candidate David Price in a potential Game 5 start. Such is the power of a postseason slump.

It can lead to one of the best hitters in the world being dropped to the eighth spot in the lineup. It can lead to quality regulars sitting at highly irregular times. In the postseason, what you did yesterday matters 10 times as much as what you did last month, usually not for the better.

Fortunately, Clayton Kershaw never had to worry about being skipped because of his postseason struggles. Even calling them struggles overstate the reality. In his previous three postseason starts, Kershaw had:

  • Allowed two runs over six innings in Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS against the Cardinals before being left in to give up a whopping six runs in the seventh
  • Pitched six scoreless innings on three days’ rest in Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS before giving up a three-run homer in the seventh
  • Allowed one run over 6 2/3 innings in Game 1 against the Mets before his two inherited runners came around to score off the pen
So, yes, Kershaw entered Tuesday’s outing against the Mets with a 4.99 postseason ERA, but he had turned in six quality starts in nine tries, allowing one earned run or fewer three times. It wasn’t nearly regular-season Kershaw, but it also wasn’t as bad as the ERA suggests, not when he’d been the victim of slow hooks and lousy bullpen support.

And, really, Tuesday’s win over the Mets didn’t seem much different at all than Kershaw previous couple of postseason starts, at least through six innings. Maybe the fastball was amped a bit. The real difference this time was that he made it through the seventh. Best of all, since he was on three days’ rest, Don Mattingly wasn’t tempted to send him back out for the eighth at 94 pitches, as he probably would have done had Kershaw been on normal rest. The bullpen took over and turned in two hitless innings in the 3-1 win, sending the NLDS back to Los Angeles for a decisive Game 5 on Thursday.

It’s completely unnecessary redemption for Kershaw, who had nothing in need of redeeming. But it’ll keep the trolls quiet for now and also all winter if Kershaw doesn’t get the chance to pitch again. He’d surely prefer to risk the chance of failure again next week in the NLCS.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers top Mets in Game 4 of NLDS to force a Game 5

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

There will be a decisive NLDS Game 5 on Thursday evening in Los Angeles.

Clayton Kershaw yielded just three hits and struck out eight batters over seven innings of one-run ball and Justin Turner hit his fourth double of the series — a two-run poke down the left field line in the top of the third inning — as the Dodgers defeated the Mets 3-1 in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Tuesday night at Citi Field.

Kershaw’s past postseason demons peaked their head out when Yoenis Cespedes reached on an infield single to lead off the bottom of the seventh, but there was no Matt Adams or Matt Carpenter to make him pay this time around. Kershaw retired the next three batters in order and then gave way to reliever Chris Hatcher for the eighth inning having thrown 94 pitches on short rest.

The only run Kershaw allowed was on a Daniel Murphy solo shot in the fourth inning. The other two hits he surrendered were singles.

Los Angeles’ bullpen answered the call after Kershaw’s departure, with Hatcher and closer Kenley Jansen combining to post two big zeroes on the scoreboard in Queens. Jansen secured the final four outs, earning his fifth career postseason save and second this October.

Jacob deGrom is lined up for the Mets and Zack Greinke will be on the hill for Los Angeles in the loser-goes-home tilt Thursday at Dodger Stadium. This series is shaping up to be a classic.

The winner Thursday will face the Cubs in the National League Championship Series.

Video: Justin Turner gives Dodgers early Game 4 lead with two-run double

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
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Clayton Kershaw has looked sharp on the mound and at the plate so far in this must-win NLDS Game 4 at New York’s Citi Field.

After no-hitting the Mets in the first two frames, Kershaw smacked a one-out single to left-center field in the top of third inning. Howie Kendrick followed soon after with a two-out single to left and then Adrian Gonzalez blooped a ball to shallow center that drove in Enrique Hernandez, who had reached earlier on a fielder’s choice grounder to second base.

That all set up this Justin Turner two-run double down the left field line that put Los Angeles up 3-0

That’s now four doubles this postseason for Turner, which is a Dodgers franchise record for the Division Series. Los Angeles is trying to force a Game 5.