Don't Call Up Brett Lawrie

In a recent post over at DJF, my fine friend Andrew Stoeten quite astutely discerned that the lack of Brett Lawrie on the Toronto Blue Jays’ active roster has much more to do with giving Edwin Encarnacion every opportunity possible to attain Type B free agent status than it does either Lawrie’s readiness or an organizational unwillingness to demote one of the many extraneous arms in the team’s bullpen.

I’ll take it a step further and suggest that Encarnacion’s recent resurgence (.400 wOBA in July) at the plate offers the Blue Jays’ front office the perfect excuse not to call Lawrie up at all this season, pushing back his eventual free agency another year. I know it wouldn’t be a popular choice, but by taking advantage of the rules governing free agency, the organization could save millions of dollars.

Here’s how it works: If the Blue Jays were to call Lawrie up right now and he stays with the big club, the third baseman would most likely avoid Super Two status and only attain three arbitration years. Lawrie’s first year of free agency would then occur after the 2017 season. Waiting until after the first week of next season to call Lawrie up means that he would definitely earn that fourth year of arbitration (assuming the Super Two rules aren’t changed too much in the next collective bargaining agreement), but it would also push back his free agency until after the 2018 season.

Whether Toronto intends on signing Lawrie to a multi-year contract or not, pushing back his call up until next season benefits the organization too much to not consider playing time implications. Locking up players over the course of free agent years is far more expensive than arbitration years. While there’s some dispute over the oft quoted 40/60/80 rule, which explains the percentage of value that players are paid for in their arbitration years, no one would suggest that arbitration eligible players earn their full value through arbitration.

So, if the Blue Jays were to offer Lawrie a long term contract after not playing at all in 2011, they’d be buying an extra year of arbitration instead of free agency. And even with the extra year of arbitration, it would still represent millions of dollars in savings that wouldn’t be available if Lawrie were called up today and eventually signed to a multi-year deal.

If Toronto can’t come to an agreement with Lawrie on a theoretical future deal, waiting until next year to call him up means that rather than losing him to free agency ahead of the 2018 season, he’ll be a member of the Blue Jays for an additional year of baseball, at the age of 28.

I realize that Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has suggested in the past that he doesn’t consider playing time implications in making decisions on players, but he also said that he didn’t have anything in the way of a pre-draft agreement with top pick Tyler Beede. And if we want to be even more cynical, we can look at when the Blue Jays originally wanted to call Brett Lawrie up. I don’t think it was mere chance that Lawrie was suddenly deemed ready for the Majors a week after the point in the season that most experts picked for players to be safely called up to avoid Super Two.

Another factor to consider is how the fan base would react to the constant delay of Lawrie’s permanently imminent promotion. When Evan Longoria’s first start at the Major League Level was pushed back to the middle of April in 2008, clearly motivated by service time implications, fans and even players were upset with Tampa Bay Rays VP Andrew Friedman. Three years later, Longoria’s contract is considered, despite recent struggles, the most team friendly in all of baseball. No one even remembers the ill will that was sent Friedman’s way.

I suppose that an argument could be made that Lawrie has already done all that he needs to do at Triple A and that keeping him down there only serves to hinder his development. However, is gaining 100 big league plate appearances while playing out the stretch in September really going to impact Lawrie’s career? I can’t see how that would happen.

It’s popular to point out that the Blue Jays are not the Rays, and that Toronto’s ownership is the richest in baseball. But the connotation that’s created by such comparisons is that money doesn’t or shouldn’t matter to the Blue  Jays organization. Every team in baseball has an operating budget, and I assure you that money always matters.

An extra $5 million plus could mean that the Blue Jays are able to sign that high school pitcher, bring aboard that Dominican infielder or land that veteran masher who can bat fifth for the season and contribute 30 home runs. These are the additions that become possible simply by waiting to start Brett Lawrie’s service clock.

Of course, even if Anthopoulos decides that this is the course he wants to take with Lawrie, he can’t announce those intentions for fear of repercussions from Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association. That’s why Edwin Encarnacion’s run of success has come at such an opportune time, not just improving his stock ahead of free agent evaluation with Elias Rankings, but also because it gives the Blue Jays justification for delaying a decision on Lawrie.

In bringing back Encarnacion for another year, handing out contract extensions, and signing a plethora of relief pitching this offseason, we’ve witnessed how much this organization, under Anthopoulos, likes to keep its options open. With Lawrie in Las Vegas and Encarnacion raking at the big league level, the team doesn’t have to close any doors and can stay its present course without burning up a year of controlability on its brightest young prospect.