When it comes to top prospects, baseball is in an era of aggression; Langford, others set for debuts

Wed, Mar 27, 2024
MLB News (AP)

When it comes to top prospects, baseball is in an era of aggression; Langford, others set for debuts

When the Texas Rangers begin defending their World Series title, the most fascinating person on their roster might be someone who had no part in last year's title run.

Wyatt Langford, a first-round draft pick in 2023 who has played only 44 games in the minors, is set to be part of the big league club on opening day Thursday. In Langford and fellow outfielder Evan Carter, the Rangers have two of the game's top six prospects according to MLB Pipeline - and both are already in the majors.

"I think it is a young players' league right now," said Chris Young, the former big league pitcher who is now Texas' general manager. "I think that over the last few years, I think with player development and really the development that's taking place on the amateur side, players are coming in more prepared for professional baseball. And certainly you're seeing that with the way they've been able to step into the big leagues and have early success."

The Rangers' willingness to turn their top prospects loose - Carter came up last September and was an important postseason contributor - reflects an aggressiveness with young players that seems more common than it was nearly a decade ago, when the Chicago Cubs famously kept Kris Bryant in the minors long enough in his debut season of 2015 that his eventual free agency was delayed by a year. Bryant lost a grievance accusing the team of service time manipulation, but the most recent collective bargaining agreement in 2022 included provisions aimed at discouraging that practice.

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Baseball executives have rarely acknowledged that service time impacts their decisions, so it's unlikely they'll rush to credit the new rules for altering call-up decisions. But Langford is in the majors, and so is Jackson Merrill, a 20-year-old outfielder who made his debut when San Diego began its season in South Korea last week. Milwaukee outfielder Jackson Chourio and Detroit infielder Colt Keith are also set to be on opening day big league rosters. That's less of a surprise because both signed lucrative contracts this offseason - $82 million for eight years for Chourio and over $28 million for six years for Keith - despite having no major league experience.

When Baltimore announced that infielder Jackson Holliday would start the season in the minors, it was newsworthy in part because that slower approach with a top prospect hasn't been as prevalent lately.

"He's going to be an incredible player," said infielder Kolten Wong, who was in camp with the Orioles. "Sometimes, the business aspect, you know how the game gets run."

Baltimore general manager Mike Elias cited Holliday's adjustment to second base and his lack of reps against left-handed pitching when explaining the decision. Down the road in Washington, the Nationals will start the season without outfield prospect James Wood, who was sent to the minors despite an impressive spring at the plate. Wood hasn't played above Double-A.

"I love watching them play, but sometimes I have to put the blinders on," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of his team's top prospects. "We just want to get them going, get them off to a quick start and then we'll see where we're at in a month, two months, three months, however long it takes."

Not long ago, it felt like almost a foregone conclusion that top prospects, if they hadn't already reached the majors, would be called up in mid-to-late April instead of for opening day. After the Cubs brought up Bryant on April 17, 2015, they called up Addison Russell four days later. The same day as Russell's debut, Carlos Rodon pitched for the first time for the crosstown White Sox.

The following season, Blake Snell made his debut for the Tampa Bay Rays on April 23, and fellow pitcher Jose Berrios made his on April 27 with Minnesota. In 2017, Cody Bellinger was called up by the Dodgers on April 25. In 2018, it was Ronald Acuna Jr., (April 25), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (April 26) and Gleyber Torres (April 22) who had to wait a bit before getting a shot.

By then, service time was a sensitive topic - but not sensitive enough for Seattle Mariners president Kevin Mather, whose 2021 comments to a Rotary Club in Washington included his belief that top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert likely would not start the season with the team as a way to keep them under club control longer. After that and other problematic comments became public, Mather resigned.

The following year, the new collective bargaining agreement included a provision allowing top prospects to receive a full year of service time - regardless of when they were actually called up - if they finish in the top two in the Rookie of the Year vote. The CBA also gives teams a chance to earn an additional draft pick if one of its prospects is promoted early enough to earn a full year of service time - and then goes on to place high enough in the voting for various awards.

When Baltimore's Gunnar Henderson and Arizona's Corbin Carroll won Rookie of the Year honors last season - beating out a historically strong group of rookie hitters - the Orioles and Diamondbacks each earned an extra pick.

It didn't seem like a total coincidence that in 2022, under that new CBA, Kansas City put infielder Bobby Witt Jr. on its opening day roster. Seattle did the same with Julio Rodriguez. So did Detroit with Spencer Torkelson. Last year, Anthony Volpe of the Yankees and Jordan Walker of the Cardinals began the season in the majors.

Now Holliday has to wait, but Chourio, Langford, Merrill and Keith are in the majors at the start.

"I think it's probably case by case - where certain teams are, what their future looks like," said veteran outfielder Christian Yelich of the Brewers. "I think it's a good thing that a lot more young guys are getting the opportunity to play earlier, and not have to wait until whenever the deadline is or when they get an extra year of service time. It's definitely a positive."


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AP Baseball Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.

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