The baseball world was pretty impressed with the return that the Milwaukee Brewers were able to get for starter Zack Greinke last month from the Angels, most notably 22 year-old shortstop Jean Segura. After playing only eight games for AA Huntsville after the trade, the Brewers called him up, and inserted him into the starting lineup, where he’s stayed on most nights. Since then, things haven’t gone particularly well at the plate or in the field. Over his first 18 games and 66 plate appearances in the major leagues, Segura is hitting .194/.227/.226. In the field, while he’s certainly made some plays, he’s also committed three errors and neither UZR or FRAA have him as being above average with the glove. The natural question to ask, then, is why exactly is Jean Segura up at all right now?
There are two main reasons that teams summon prospects from the minor leagues: team need and player readiness. Let’s deal with need first. It seems pretty clear that the Brewers had little short-term need to summon Segura to the majors. Even with a recent hot streak, the Brewers currently stand 9.5 games back of the last NL wildcard spot. When they called up Segura to take the place of the traded Ceasar Izturis, they could have just as easily called up Jeff Bianchi, who is now up anyway, and split time at short between him and Cody Ransom. The team can just as easily finish somewhere around or just south of .500 with either of them as with Segura.
Moving on to readiness, when he was called up he had played 103 games above A-ball, 102 in AA and one brief appearance with the Angels right before being traded. That amounted to a total of 454 plate appearances, all in 2012. As a 22-year old in AA, Segura was sporting a solid-but-unspectacular .304/.358/.413 line. While it’s not uncommon for players to rush through or even entirely skip AAA on their path to the big leagues these days, it’s generally reserved for either the very best prospects or to keep pitchers out of certain awful environments for developmental reasons. Segura is a good prospect, but he wasn’t hitting with such authority in AA that the number cried out for a quick promotion to the big leagues.
It’s also possible that by looking a little deeper into the major league numbers, we can glean some information about just how ready he was to face big league pitching. According to fangraphs, Segura is currently swinging at 42.6% of pitches he sees outside of the strike zone. That is higher than all but three qualified major league hitters and is over 10 points higher than the big league average of 30.5%. He’s making contact with those pitches at a slightly-above-average rate of 71.7%, compared with 67.1% league wide, but he’s not making the kind of hard contact one would hope for. Overall, he’s putting the ball on the ground a staggering 68.0% of the time, which is higher than any qualified player in MLB and more than 20 points higher than the 45.2% league average. Yes, his BABIP might be .231, but it’s not a fluke, rather it’s because he’s swinging at everything and making very poor contact as a result.
The Brewers didn’t really stand to gain much from having Segura up, at least in the short-term, and he doesn’t seem to be overly ready for the assignment, at least so far. So, again, why is Segura in Milwaukee? The only reasonable explanation is that the team must have been looking at this move with more of an eye towards the future, specifically next year. With the Brewers deciding not to trade either Corey Hart or Aramis Ramirez at the deadline, it seems pretty clear that they are intent on trying to make the playoffs again in 2013 and that they would like to give Segura a chance to be the starting shortstop in that effort. It’s a nice thought, and Segura is somewhat close to the majors, but is it really in his or the team’s best interest to have been up the last month?
There are two main areas of concern when it comes to calling up guys earlier than necessary from the minors. First off, there is the possibility that this could stunt his growth. It’s not unheard of for young players thrown into the big leagues to either overreact and make poor adjustments or just lose confidence. It is less than measurable, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of it right now, and it’s impossible to prove anyway, but it’s at least worth mentioning. What is very tangible, though, is the issue of service time.
If the team had waited until late next April to call him up to the big leagues, they could have gained a full extra year of control over Segura, pushing back his free agency date from after 2018 to after 2019. For those not familiar with MLB service time rules, players need to accrue six full seasons before becoming eligible for free agency. For a player to get a full season, they need to spend 172 days in the major leagues either in one year or in parts of multiple years. This is why teams often wait until late April to call up top prospects, as if there aren’t 172 days left in the season when a player is called up and he has no previous service time, he cannot accrue a full year that season and the team essentially can get almost a complete year out of the player without him getting a year closer to free agency. Manipulating this rule is something that small market teams simply have to do whenever possible, to try and keep players under control as long as possible because, once players are eligible for free agency, teams often can’t afford the price tag for market value deals.
In essence, the bet the Brewers made on Segura’s service time is this: calling him up in August 2012 will make him a better player in 2013 than he would have been had they not called him up, and the result of that will be significant enough to have an impact on a pennant race. It’s going to be awfully hard to determine the outcome of the first condition, as it’s not really something that can be measured accurately. The second part, though, should be fairly easy to determine. If the Brewers don’t contend and/or Segura doesn’t produce towards that end, then it should be clear enough that the team rushed Segura to the majors unnecessarily. The best case scenario in cases like this is always that the player and the team succeed, and the Brewers certainly wagered on that outcome this time. Ultimately, only time will tell if that bet was a smart one or not.