Nolan Arenado, third baseman in the Colorado Rockies' system, is a good prospect. He's appeared in Baseball America's top 100 prospects for each of the last three years, and Baseball Prospectus's and MLB.com's top 100s each of the last two (the latter has published its list for only two years). Arenado is about to turn 22, so now is about the time that one would figure on starting to see what Arenado can do in the major leagues.
The question, as with any prospect, is when. Most observers would tell you that sometime this season, we should see Arenado make his major league debut. The Rockies, though, seem to be getting pretty specific with the arrival date: Ken Rosenthal reported on Sunday that the team is seriously considering handing Arenado the starting third-base job out of the gate to open 2013.
As Rosenthal notes, this would go directly against the prevailing tendency toward permitting prospect call-ups to be dictated in part by service time; since Arenado has yet to make his big-league debut, the Rockies would retain exclusive rights to his services through 2019, rather than through 2018, if they waited until at least sometime in late April or early May to call him up rather than opening the season with him on the roster. Rosenthal's post seems to view this potential trend-bucking as a bold, positive move -- his tweet to the post even begins, "Eureka!"
Rosenthal's exultation oversimplifies things a bit. There are quite a lot of reasons to question whether penciling Arenado in right now would be a good idea. I count about four reasons, actually, but they're darned good reasons.
First, there's a real question regarding how ready Arenado actually is. He's never played above Double-A, which is nothing unusual for a top prospect ... only Arenado didn't really perform like a top prospect in Double-A in 2012. His .285/.337/.428 line was solid on a Tulsa team that collectively batted just .252/.307/.389 -- only Josh Rutledge, who went on to play 73 fairly solid games in Denver after his 87 in Tulsa, substantially out-hit Arenado in significant playing time - and though he finished strong (.358/.375/.569 in August), he hardly dominated the league. He's not a patient hitter, drawing an unintentional walk in less than six percent of his plate appearances, he doesn't have great or even average speed, and he doesn't have a swing that lends itself to driving a lot of balls in the air. He could hit his share of home runs eventually, but his path to success or stardom in the majors is a bit like Billy Butler's (with much better defense at a more important position): making good contact, hitting line drives for singles and doubles.
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Without the walks, Arenado is going to have to hit .300 to post a respectable on-base percentage (especially in Coors). He reportedly has excellent hands and a strong and accurate arm, but only so-so range, so unless the reports are wrong and he's another Scott Rolen or Gary Gaetti with the glove, he'll need to post a respectable OBP to really contribute. His 2012 performance doesn't strongly suggest that he's ready to do that yet.
Second, as Rosenthal notes, the Rockies do have an incumbent third baseman, and one who did reasonably well for himself last year. Chris Nelson hit .301/.352/.458 (102 OPS+, 105 wRC+) in 377 plate appearances, and is entering his age-27 season. Rosenthal says that Nelson "lacks an established track record," which is certainly true -- he'd had only 216 plate appearances across two seasons prior to 2012, and by and large, they didn't go well -- but Nelson was once a top prospect himself (ranked #26 by Baseball America in 2005), and he did perform quite well for the majority (and especially the later portion) of his minor-league career, including a .329/.366/.547 showing in 315 plate appearances at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2011. The various projection systems see Nelson putting up about a .740 OPS in Colorado in 2013, on average, while Arenado comes out at about a .750.
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Rosenthal also points out that Nelson is out of options, and probably doesn't have the range to profile as a good utility infielder, so that if Arenado gets the starting nod, Nelson may be traded. It's hard to see Nelson bringing back much in return, after half a season of decent, Coors-aided baseball. We can assume the Rockies know these two players a lot better than we or any of the projection systems do, and that if they go with Arenado, they have good reasons to believe the difference between him and Nelson is greater than ten points of OPS, but he'd have to be a lot better, in order to justify essentially giving away a cost-controlled, potentially useful player like Nelson. Otherwise, it's better to let Arenado prove himself in Triple-A for a few months and hope that in the meantime, Nelson does enough to convince some other team that he can be their starting third baseman.
Third, even assuming Arenado is a good deal better right now, what are the chances that fact makes a difference? This is a team coming off a 64-98 season. In February, Las Vegas put the Rockies' over/under at 71.5 wins, last in the west and 18.5 wins behind the favorite Dodgers. I think they're probably a bit better than that, and Baseball Prospectus agrees, giving them between 74 and 75 wins; even then, though, they've got just a five-percent chance of reaching the postseason. For an extra month of Arenado to make an appreciable difference in Colorado's chances, he would have to be the best player the game has ever seen, Nelson would have to be among the worst, and almost literally everything else has to break exactly right for this team.
Fourth, contrary to the spirit of Rosenthal's post and tweet, teams giving deference to service time considerations makes almost perfect sense in almost every case. Even if the preceding is wrong and an extra month of Arenado seemed very likely to make a difference in the race, the team would still have a very tough decision to make. Would you rather have (A) an extra month of Arenado now, when he's 22 and still very likely to struggle in his first taste of baseball above Double-A, or (B) an extra year of him later, when he's 28 and likely to be in the middle of his prime? The situation in which (A) is a defensible answer almost has to be a perfect storm: a team with a limited window to contend, that is right on the edge of entering that window, with no adequate alternative at the prospect's position, and which figures to be in the rebuilding part of its cycle in six or seven years and/or who has the financial capacity to pony up for the early-arriving free-agent season. It is, of course, exceedingly rare that each of those conditions is met; I'd argue that none of them are met here. (It would also help if the player seems to be at a high risk of an injury; pitchers seem like better candidates than position players for an accelerated arrival for that reason.)
I share Rosenthal's apparent distaste for the service time rules themselves. It makes no sense to incentivize a team to hold a player back after he's ready by allowing them to keep him for less money six or seven years down the road, but that's the sort of thing you get when agreements are strenuously negotiated by two parties (ownership and major league players) and have effects on a third, unrepresented party (minor-league players). As long as the system is in place, though, it's almost always going to make sense for any team to take advantage of it, and Arenado certainly doesn't look like a good candidate to be made an exception.