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The cost of keeping Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. in the minor leagues

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The Blue Jays are burying a potential star because they don’t want him to make too much money or leave too soon. It makes sense for them, but it doesn’t make sense for Major League Baseball.

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Blue Jays have saved money by keeping Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. in the minor leagues. If we’re just talking about the next seven years, the savings will be quantifiable. The team is missing out on a month’s worth of shirsey sales and gate receipts, but pushing Guerrero’s free agency back a year might save them $30 million if he’s as good as advertised. They’ll avoid Super Two status. They’ll get an extra year of team control.

In the shadow of cold, unfeeling rationalism, what idiot wouldn’t keep Guerrero in the minor leagues? If the Blue Jays projected to be a contender this season, that would be different. But they’ve reverted back to their true form, which is an amorphous ball of feathers that finishes between 76 and 86 wins every year. If they’re to escape that, they’ll need a superstar like Guerrero, and they’ll need him for seven years.

This discussion is over. It’s just smart business to keep Guerrero in the minors.

Unless, let me make the argument that keeping Guerrero in the minor leagues is bad for baseball. That is, Major League Baseball, a 30-team collective that depends on the strength of the league as a whole to survive. It’s not just the Blue Jays we should be worried about, and it’s not just Guerrero. It’s the system, man. It kind of stinks.

Start with what the younger Guerrero represents. He’s hitting .433 with 10 homers and nearly as many walks as strikeouts in Double-A. That would be impressive for a 25-year-old, but it’s absolutely ludicrous for someone who’s been 19 for two months. Bryce Harper would be the best comparison, and before that, we might have Andruw Jones? It’s tricky to compare one teenaged prodigy with another; they’re so unique, so impressive in their own way. Some teenagers flitter around the outfield like dragonflies, some of them are well-rounded, and some of them mash home runs off a tee.

Guerrero is the latter kind:

He is the distillation of hope for all Blue Jays fans. They’ve seen the baseball world go gaga for Mike Trout. They have to watch Mookie Betts 18 times every year. Here’s their chance for a superstar, someone who can be on a record-setting pace before he turns 25.

The best player in Blue Jays history might be Dave Stieb, who was outstanding, but not quite a Hall of Famer. After him, there’s a legacy of players who were almost-but-not-exactly Blue Jays for life, like John Olerud, Roberto Alomar, Roy Halladay, Carlos Delgado, and Josh Donaldson. It’s not that the Blue Jays don’t have great players; it’s that they haven’t had that one Stan Musial or Cal Ripken to stick around for a couple of decades and define the franchise for the next hundred years.

It’s too soon to suggest that Guerrero will be that player. Much too soon.

On the other hand, Guerrero has a better chance to be that player than almost anyone else since Toronto was awarded an expansion team.

And if he is that player, Blue Jays fans will be happy that Guerrero was kept in the minors. The excitement lost from these last two months will be repaid with interest in that seventh year, most likely.

But baseball will lose. Not a whole bunch, considering that Guerrero is just one kid in a sea of 750 baseball players, but there’s something substantial to lose. Right now, there’s a human billboard for baseball who is trapped in the basement. It’s dark in that basement, and he can’t spread the gospel of baseball. There’s nothing more exciting than a hot prospect tearing up the league — nothing — but Guerrero is relegated to ruining the days of underpaid 21-year-olds in the Eastern League.

Baseball won’t lose too much without these past two months of potentially thrilling Guerrero content. It’s a drop in the bucket for them.

What I’m suggesting is this: There are a lot of drops that can fill that bucket. It’s not just these two months of Guerrero. It’s two months of Kris Bryant (drip) or George Springer (drip) or Ronald Acuña, Jr. (drip). It’s two months of this guy (drip) and that guy (drip), players we haven’t heard of. Players who are still mashing action figures together right now. There are so many months of pure adrenaline that we’re missing out on because of service-time manipulation, so many chances for MLB to put a megaphone to its lips and yell, “LOOK, YOUTHS OF TODAY. WE ARE EXCITING. BASEBALL IS INCREDIBLY EXCITING.”

All of these months of service-time manipulation over a decade can add up to a full career, in other words. It’s the full career of a hypothetical patchwork player who thrilled the masses and had moments we’ll never forget. And every time this patchwork player did something amazing, the MLB Twitter account would get to send words, images, and video into the social ocean, with the hopes that they could hook a new fish. It’s Kris Springer Acuña Guerrero Jr. Jr., and he’s the best young player you’ve ever seen.

Instead, there are modest savings for each of their 30 teams. It’s not as if keeping Guerrero down will push the Blue Jays’ budget down; it’ll just make them reallocate the money elsewhere over the next few years. And when they’re paying him $24 million in his final year of arbitration, it’s going to affect how they pay veteran free agents, but it’s probably not going to mess with their overall payroll when the dust settles. What the Blue Jays were going to commit in payroll in 2024 was probably going to be the same with or without Guerrero for the first two months of this season.

Baseball will have lost something, though. They’ll have squandered the “IN THEATERS NOW” excitement of a 19-year-old burgeoning superstar who happens to be the son of one of the most memorable and watchable stars of his generation. Just like they lost something with Acuña not being with the Braves on Opening day, just like they lost something with Bryant years before that.

I worked at a restaurant for about two minutes in college, and something my manager said has always stuck with me. She said, “If the customer decides not to come back because of something you’ve done, that’s not just $30 lost in a week. That’s $30 times 12 months for 20 years. You just cost the owners $7,000.” While we can quibble with the math or likelihood that the person decided not to come back because of my greasy Phish shirt, her valid point was that the effects are cumulative. A seemingly tiny transgression could become a huge problem over time.

This is the Guerrero gambit. Baseball is risking these customers, the young and the curious, the kids who would have gotten sucked in by an exciting new player and stuck around for 60 years because of it. And the payoff is that, see, the Blue Jays will have an extra year of team control. Isn’t that exciting, kids? The Blue Jays probably won’t spend more or less than they would have, but they have that extra year of team control. Can you say, “Team control,” children?

tuphlem grdlphump

Gooooood. And, trust me, “team control” is very exciting.

Which is all a long, tortured explanation about why baseball might make concessions when it comes to service-time manipulation in the next CBA negotiations. It’s not necessarily a net positive for the teams, and it’s a burden for a sport that’s desperate for viral excitement. The teams aren’t spending less with their extra year of team control; they’re just spending differently. But baseball is losing something. This all might be overestimating what those losses are, but they exist. Baseball is incrementally less watchable than it otherwise might have been, and it’s a pattern that will be repeated over and over again.

One of the most exciting baseball players on the planet isn’t playing Major League Baseball right now. This will be the case next year, the year after that, and the year after that, even as the names change.

That seems like a problem.

That seems like a problem that’s easy to fix.