Posted by Neil Paine on September 17, 2010
It's a move you see all too often in today's cost-conscious baseball world: in order to delay his arbitration timetable and keep him under team control longer, the Giants held star prospect Buster Posey down in the minors at the beginning of the season. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, and in fact many teams would have done the same thing if given the chance. But in the case of Posey, the Giants' choice has probably made the NL West closer than it should have been, and could ultimately cost them the playoffs if San Diego is able to overcome San Francisco's slim half-game lead in the division.
You see, while Posey was spending 47 games in Fresno, the Giants gave the majority of their starts -- and 221 plate appearances -- to Bengie Molina in his stead. While he was keeping the seat warm for Posey's eventual arrival, the since-departed Molina turned in a truly terrible performance, producing a .644 OPS (well below the NL average of .715 for catchers) and registering -5 fielding runs above avg. behind the plate. Add it up, and Molina's 221 PA gave the Giants -0.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
Needless to say, after Posey assumed the starting job, San Francisco's production at catcher skyrocketed. His 134 OPS+ is second only to Joe Mauer among ML catchers, and his overall performance has been worth 2.6 WAR in just 372 PA. If you assume he would have maintained the same pace had he been starting all season long, and you give Molina's early-season PA to Posey instead, you find that playing Posey all season would have increased San Francisco's win total by 1.9 wins, which would give the Giants a far more comfortable 2½-game cushion in the West, as opposed to their current ½-game lead over the Padres. If San Diego comes back and wins by fewer than 3 games, you can point to Brian Sabean's decision to delay Posey's arbitration as a big factor in their losing the division.
On the other hand, the Giants/Padres' wild card competitior in Atlanta took a different route when approaching the arbitration schedule of their young star Jason Heyward. Instead of stashing him in the minors, the Braves put him in the lineup literally from day one (he hit a HR in his first at-bat on Opening Day), and it's been one of the keys to their season. The J-Hey Kid's 4.5 WAR is third on the team behind Tim Hudson and Brian McCann, and it's safe to say the Braves would not be in the wild-card race without him playing all season.
So there you have it: two different front-office approaches, both of which served to make the margins slimmer than they could have been in this year's National League races.