Steven Souza is the latest Tampa Bay Rays top prospect. He is the most recent high-upside bat that has been acquired in a trade, and given the Rays’ offensive struggles, the obvious question is when Souza will begin making his presence felt in the middle of their lineup. Will the Rays start him back at Triple-A to continue improving his pitch recognition or let him make their team right from the outset of the season?
That is a great question, and one we have talked about several times on this site. Today, though, I want to delve into one specific piece of the argument for him to start the year in the major leagues: that his age should make a difference.
Steven Souza is not your typical top prospect in that he will turn 26 years of age on April 24th. He is one year and eight months older than Wil Myers, the player he was indirectly traded for, and he’s even 50 days older than Drew Smyly, who already has three big leagues seasons under his belt. Given that Souza has just 26 MLB plate appearances at such an advanced age, shouldn’t the Rays try to make up for lost time?
More important than the simple fact of Souza’s age is its implications in regards to team control. Rays fans are well-versed in the service time game–you keep a prospect back at Triple-A until sometime in June, and in return, you get an extra year of team control and prevent the player from receiving Super Two eligibility in arbitration.
In Souza’s case, though, he won’t be young by any definition in that seventh year of team control the Rays could hypothetically receive. If 2014 is his first year of big league service time then he will be 32 years of age in that seventh and final year. Are the Rays really going to hurt their 2015 hopes to have a better chance at keeping a 32-year-old Souza?
That is essentially the argument regarding Souza’s age–please tell me if I could make it any better. In any event, now we’re going to talk about why it doesn’t make as much sense as it would seem.
The thing about team control is that while the Rays always want to save money, that is always their secondary focus. When they keep a prospect back at Triple-A, it is always for another reason. Take Myers as an example. The Rays held him back until June, and is quite apparent why at this point. He needed continued work on recognizing breaking pitches and improving his defense in right field, and only then could he be called up.
The Rays value pitching depth immensely, and that is a reason why they were willing to send down Jeremy Hellickson to begin 2010, Alex Cobb to start 2012, and Chris Archer to begin 2013. However, even if another team would have promoted that trio earlier, they still had something to gain heading back to the minors.
Hellickson returned to the big leagues in 2011 with better command of his fastball and changeup than in his big league time in 2011. His groundball to flyball ratios on those two pitches were both .71-to-1 in 2010, but in 2011, he had improved to .94-to-1 with his fastball and 1.36-to-1 with his changeup.
Cobb, meanwhile, also improved his command on all of his pitches and especially mades strides with his curveball. After he had forced whiffs on it just 2.9% of the time in 2011, he upped that to 8.3% in 2012, a number he has continued to improve upon in more recent seasons. Finally, Archer returned to the majors throwing all of his pitches harder and locating his slider significantly better.
When was the last time the Rays called up a top prospect only to watch him falter in a reasonable sample size and need to be demoted to Triple-A? You could say Stephen Vogt in 2012, but he wasn’t a top prospect. What about Reid Brignac in 2011? Well, we can certainly say that he failed to live up to expectations, but he was actually excellent as a rookie utility player in 2010.
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We can talk about middle relievers like Josh Lueke, but if we limit this discussion to starting pitchers and position players, we have to go all the way back to some guy named Ben Zobrist in 2007. It has been a long time since the Rays had a rookie falter, and that is no coincidence.
We know about the Rays’ strengths at building strong rotations, finding the right reclamation projects, and signing players to early-career extensions. Now we need to add something to the list. When we consider all of their success in the matter, making sure their prospects are ready before they receive regular big league time is another thing for which the Rays should be known.
As the Tampa Bay Rays ponder whether call up Steven Souza to begin 2015, Souza’s age will be the last thing on their minds. If Souza has no more meaningful things he can improve upon at Triple-A, then the Rays will have him on their Opening Day roster. On other hand, if they think a few more months at Triple-A could help him, then they will send him back there. It’s truly that simple.