Matt Davidson is the White Sox third baseman of the future. He played in the majors for almost two months in 2013. He batted .237/.333/.434 in 87 plate appearances -- above-average offensive production. Before his promotion, he spent all of the first four months of 2013 at Triple-A Reno. He put up pretty good numbers there, too.
He's ready to play in the majors on an everyday basis. But he probably will not be the White Sox third baseman on Opening Day.
Why? The party line is likely to be something like "he needs to work on some things." Actually, Dan Hayes was kind enough to relay Rick Hahn's quote from Clubhouse Confidential after I'd finished writing this article:
"It certainly is possible he breaks with us Opening Day, but if that’s not the case we’ll see a lot of him this season once we feel he truly is ready," Hahn said on MLB Network’s ‘Clubhouse Confidential.’ "There’s still a few areas he’s going to improve in and we need to see some refinement."
But it doesn't really matter what is said -- footwork at third base, plate discipline, approach, fundamentals -- because it's false. Not in the sense that Davidson doesn't need to work on some things. He'll be 23, so of course he still can improve as a player. Rather, it's false in the sense that the actual, overriding reason is an economic one: service time.
Service time is what players accrue every day they are on a team's 25-man roster (including DL time). One year of service time is 172 days. During a baseball season, there are about 183 days. A player can't accrue more than one year of service time in a season. But, because of the surplus of days, a player can accrue a full year of service time without being on a 25-man roster for the entire season.
Why is service time so important? One reason is because it determines when a player is eligible for arbitration. Whether a player is a "Super Two" is an important thing from a team's economic perspective.
But a far more important economic reason is that it determines when a player is eligible for free agency. A player can be a free agent once he has at least six years of service time and not before. If, at the end of a season, a player has "5.171" of service time - meaning five years and 171 days - it's the same as a player who has 5.000. Obviously, a team has a rather large incentive to get an "extra year" of team control by ensuring that a player doesn't hit "6.000" before the end of a season.
So a team "manipulates" service time. A recent White Sox example is Avisail Garcia. The White Sox acquired him on July 31, 2013. Garcia had played a bit for the Tigers in both 2012 and 2013. At the time he was traded, he was with Triple-A Toledo. On that same day, the White Sox called up Jordan Danks. While they needed an outfielder, they elected to send Garcia to Charlotte. Why? Because he "needed to play every day."
Again, this wasn't completely false. Garcia did need to play every day. And the White Sox did have Alex Rios still manning right field, who was still trade bait, as well as Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo - not to mention Paul Konerko at DH. Superficially, it made sense. But, once you think about it, this was a 40-65 team on July 31, losers of six in a row on their way to a 10-game losing streak, bad players all over the lineup. Surely playing time could have been found.
And maybe it would have. Except, if the White Sox had put him on their 25-man roster immediately, by the end of the season Garcia would have accrued just a few days more than one year of service time. Instead, they waited until they traded Rios, which happened to be after Garcia spent eight days in the minors. Garcia accrued 167 days of service time and won't be a free agent until after the 2019 season. Thank God Rios wasn't traded until after the non-waiver trade deadline. Otherwise, Garcia would have had a spot to "play every day" on the White Sox and, instead, would be a free agent after the 2018 season.
Davidson is in a bit of a similar position. Thanks to those almost two months in the majors last season with the Diamondbacks, he's got 50 days of service. If he is on the Opening Day roster, and remains on it the whole season, he'll have accrued well over a year of service time and be on track to be a free agent after the 2019 season. But, if instead the White Sox have him "work on some things" at Charlotte until 61 days have passed, he won't and the White Sox will control him until through 2020.
For those asking themselves how this applies to Marcus Semien, he was called up for not quite all of September, good for 27 days. He won't have to work on some things for quite so long -- only 38 days.
Now, just like with Garcia, a team normally doesn't make it quite so blatant as to aim for exactly 171 days (though see what the Mets did). There's usually a few days of buffer. So expect Davidson to be declared ready for the majors the first week in June. Flights to the West Coast from Charlotte are such a hassle so maybe a home debut against the Tigers on June 9 sounds right. For Semien, maybe they'll have him join up in time to take the trip out to Oakland on May 12 since that's right by his hometown and his college.
Of course, who really knows. The White Sox might not bother with this. They aren't worried about this with Erik Johnson, just like they weren't worried about it in the past with the likes of John Danks or Addison Reed. Maybe Rick Hahn will free up some roster spots between now and Opening Day and decide that the White Sox need to put a decent product on the field and Leury Garcia and Jeff Keppinger aren't that. Or a series of injuries forces their hand, and they deal with it.
But I suspect the economic sense of it is compelling to Hahn. They'll both have some things to work on after spring training. And, when Gordon Beckham gets hurt again in April, it won't be Semien who gets called up to fill in. Not at first, anyway. He'll be ready once he's done working on some things in a few weeks.
Viciedo and De Aza postscript
For those SSSers with long memories, they may remember the SSS-Daily Herald Service Time Kerfuffle of 2011. That was also about how the White Sox were keeping a player, Viciedo, in the minors to get an extra year of team control. We had underestimated the White Sox there because not only did they want the extra year, they wanted to ensure he wasn't a Super Two. So they didn't call him up until Aug. 28, 2011.
As we all know, Viciedo was a Super Two this past offseason. The new CBA agreed to after the 2011 season allowed more players to be eligible for an extra year of arbitration. That pool used to be limited to the top 17 percent of players who had accrued between two and three years of service time. The new CBA opened it up to the top 22 percent.
The White Sox were certainly aware that there was going to be an increase, but they either underestimated what that increase would be, or just didn't leave themselves enough buffer. In any event, Viciedo has 2.123 years of service time and the Super Two cutoff was 2.122. Oops.
Given Viciedo's career numbers, it seems like warehousing him in the minors probably didn't matter much in terms of wins in 2011. And it probably didn't matter much in terms of salary, either. But it does show how service time manipulation can backfire.
Interestingly, the guy who came up in 2011 and did matter in terms of wins was De Aza. He was another guy who fans were beating a drum to have brought up - though not nearly as vociferously as for Viciedo. He, of course, batted .329/.400/.520 in 171 PA after being called up July 27, and he ended up being worth 2.5 WAR. Whether by design or happenstance, he was kept in the minors long enough to avoid being a Super Two by seven days.