For more than a year now, one of the top questions for Orioles fans to wonder about has been: When are they going to call up Adley Rutschman? The structure of baseball’s rules about when a player can become a free agent have always pointed to a callup three weeks or so into the 2022 season. MLB’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement presents new incentives for teams to call up their Rutschman-level players. That changes the question to: Will any of the new rules change their mind?
The basic structure in the rules that allows for teams to manipulate the service time of their young players is unchanged. After a player has six years of service time at the end of a season, he becomes a free agent. However, a wide loophole in what counts as a full year of service time has allowed teams to keep top prospects down in the minors for a few weeks into a season, squeezing out an effective seventh year.
There are three new wrinkles into this process, all of which taken together might help to nudge the Orioles to just go ahead and have Rutschman on the Opening Day roster like pretty much every fan wants and pretty much every prospect observer agrees he deserves.
The first thing for the Orioles to chew on is that there is now a structure in place that potentially rewards a team for calling up a top prospect on Opening Day. A team that does this is now in position to receive a bonus draft pick that will now be known as a Prospect Promotion Incentive pick, which will be slotted in at the end of the first round.
The team can get a PPI bonus if it has an eligible prospect make an Opening Day roster and receive a full year of service for that season - meaning no minor league demotions. With those conditions met, the player must place either in the top three for Rookie of the Year voting, or top five for MVP or Cy Young voting in any season before the player becomes arbitration eligible.
Players bargained for one more change to this system that could easily impact Rutschman. That is, if a player finishes in the top two spots for Rookie of the Year voting, then he is credited with a full year of service time for that year, even if he was not called up in time to get the full year. There are no guarantees in life or baseball, but for Rutschman in particular, the chances aren’t bad he’ll get this extra year anyway. The Orioles may decide not to bother with a pointless charade.
To be determined is whether these two new rules in combination only lead to teams delaying some prospect debuts, especially younger players. The cynic could try to finagle a call-up so a player will not have enough games played to get serious top two ROY consideration. For example, last year, mega-prospect Wander Franco finished third in the ROY voting in part because he only played in 80 games.
The Opening Day roster draft pick bonus could potentially lead to late-season call-ups being delayed to the following Opening Day in order to collect a PPI pick. This won’t affect Rutschman, but it will become a consideration as 2022 rolls along if Grayson Rodriguez is mowing down Triple-A hitters. Would it be better to have him in Baltimore in mid-August or wait for Opening Day 2023? This might be an important question in Birdland if things go well.
These things are tied to individual players. There have also been changes made that have an impact at the team level that present less incentive for being very bad for a long time. The implementation of a lottery for the top six picks of a draft among all non-playoff teams means that there’s no longer the guaranteed benefit of picking first for the team with the worst record. According to MLB’s Jim Callis, each of the three worst teams has a 16.5% chance to end up with the #1 pick, tapering down to a 0.23% chance for the team that came closest to the postseason without making it to get the #1 pick.
If there’s now only a coin flip chance of the crummiest team picking in the top three spots of the draft, teams like the Orioles may well re-evaluate when is the time to start trying to be better. One easy way the 2022 Orioles could be better in April is just to have Rutschman on the Opening Day roster. With less benefit for staying in the cellar, it could encourage them to be more aggressive with calling up prospects below the Rodriguez level in August or September.
There’s one more thing to how the new draft lottery might impact the Orioles. Teams who receive revenue sharing money - generally the smaller markets, including the Orioles - become ineligible for the draft lottery after two straight years of picking in the lottery. The new CBA rule is that a team ineligible for the lottery can have its first round pick pick no higher than tenth, regardless of its record.
Not immediately clear is whether this new provision will be counting performance that occurred prior to the implementation of this CBA. The Orioles, who’ve picked first, second, and fifth in the last three drafts and are lined up for the first pick this year, are going to pick no higher than tenth in 2023, if this penalty process is in effect immediately.
If the reckoning only starts this year, then hopefully the Orioles will be good again before they have to worry about this. Still, even without the penalty, the mere existence of the draft lottery could be enough to change their behavior. If I have to watch a 100-loss Orioles season where the lottery may drop them to the fifth pick or the penalty to tenth, I am not going to enjoy very much of that process.
Note that none of these draft pick changes will impact the Orioles picking at #1 in the coming draft, because the 2022 draft order was set based on the 2021 season’s performance and thus covered under the previous CBA.
If you ask me, the sum of all of this stuff adds up to a simple truth: The Orioles should just go ahead and have Adley Rutschman on the Opening Day roster. With a potential reward available for having him start the season in MLB, plus the possibility that he could get called up later and still get the full year of service time, there’s no reason not to do the exciting thing. We’re less than a month away from finding out whether the front office agrees.