As they try to rebuild their shattered starting pitching corps, the Twins are relying on Kyle Gibson to become a fixture in the rotation. Whereas the rest of the organization’s top pitching prospects are widely considered to be at least a year or two away, Gibson is ready now.
After being sidetracked by Tommy John surgery, he’s returned throwing harder than ever and – much like in his first big-league camp in 2011 – he is impressing coaches and onlookers with his poise and polish. He is a beacon of hope for the future that the Twins can present to fans now; a bridge to what they hope will be a revamped young rotation that returns them to relevance.
Considering his importance to their short-term and long-term plans, Gibson will obviously need to be handled carefully. From a physical standpoint, the Twins are addressing that by limiting his inning total for this season. But what about from a financial standpoint? The decisions made this spring, and later in the summer, will have a considerable bearing on when he'll be in line for free agency.
Once a prospect graduates to the majors his service clock kicks in. From that point, the team owns his rights for the equivalent of six full seasons. His clock pauses if he is sent to the minors (for reasons other than injury rehab) but he must spend at least 20 days there for the stint to be counted against MLB service.
In other words, if Gibson was sent to the minors for 15 days this season – either at the outset of the campaign or at some point during – he would still have an opportunity to accrue a full year of major-league service. If that stint were to extend to 20 or more days, the time logged in the minors would be subtracted from his service time and he’d be unable to accrue a full year. In essence, this would push his service clock back by a full year. He won’t be able to rack up six full seasons of MLB service over the next six years, thus extending the Twins’ control over him by another season.
It is for this reason that we often hear about teams wanting to hold down top prospects for the first three or four weeks of the season, even after they’ve been deemed ready for action. The Rays are known for it. Many believe the Twins should do it with Aaron Hicks. It’s a perfectly logical business decision.
But there’s more complexity to this dynamic than just business, especially as it pertains to Gibson.
One the one hand, if the Twins bring him north out of camp, let him pitch his allotted 130-140 innings and then shelf him, he will accrue a full year of service time while pitching only a partial season for a team that’s probably going to be near the bottom of the standings. That’s hardly ideal.
On the other hand, the Twins would eat away a good chunk of his limited innings by sending him to Triple-A for even three weeks, which would be tough to stomach if the coaching staff truly believes he’s ready for the majors. Sending him to the minors in August before shutting him down would stop his service clock but would probably raise the ire of his agent and the players’ association unless his performance merited the demotion.
In addition, one can argue that the Twins have a responsibility to put their best team on the field, even if it’s widely believed that this is a lost season. It’s one thing if you can assemble five respectable starters to hold down the fort until Gibson’s postponed arrival date, but if other hurlers like Scott Diamond or Mike Pelfrey need to start the year on the DL, you’re reaching pretty far down to grab a replacement.
We also have to look at this from the player’s perspective. Gibson, who did everything he could after being drafted to put himself on the fast track to the majors, had his timeline pushed back dramatically by the Tommy John procedure. He’s already 25 and up to this point he hasn’t really made any money in his career outside of his signing bonus.
A baseball player’s opportunity to earn is finite, and Gibson is already looking at being 32 before he has a chance to hit that big free agent payday. To have that milestone pushed back further – despite his proving himself in spring training – so that the Twins can save a little money down the line would be understandably frustrating and could create bad blood. Fans may recall the situations that developed when the agents of Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins accused the Twins of employing a similar clock-delaying strategy in years past, and in those cases the club actually had solid ground because of the players’ performances.
Keeping Gibson happy is probably more essential than anything to keeping him in a Twins uniform long-term, and if the team does right by him they shouldn’t have any trouble retaining him for as long as they like. If the young hurler pans out, then by the time he’s approaching that distant free agent eligibility date the Twins will surely approach him about an extension that buys out his remaining arbitration years and his first few years of free agency (think Scott Baker). At that point, all these concerns about the hypothetical end of his service clock will become irrelevant. The only thing that changes is that the Twins might have to pay him a little more, a little sooner.
In this era of Target Field and increased financial flexibility, that shouldn’t be an issue. Personally, I’d rather have this organization form a rep as one that rewards players based on merit, not based on the approach that protects their financial interests. Given the questions raised over the past offseason about free agents’ desire to sign here, I think the Twins need to be very conscious of how they’re viewed by players and agents around the league.
If Gibson shows signs this spring that he could use a bit more seasoning in Triple-A (which would hardly be shocking) then it would be wise to send him to Rochester for development, and the delayed clock is an added benefit.
But if he does enough to convince coaches he’s ready to pitch in the majors, give him a spot in the starting rotation and allow him to begin establishing himself as a big-league ballplayer. The rest, as they say, will take care of itself.