12/24/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Worry over 'starting the clock' a waste of time
Clubs instead should focus on roster of 25 best players, regardless of age
By Tracy Ringolsby / MLB.com
During the spring of 2001, there was a strong feeling among some in the St. Louis organization that it wasn't wise to jump Albert Pujols to the big leagues after just one season in the Minors because it would "start the clock'" on the six years of playing time necessary to become a free agent.
In the final days of the spring, as the roster was being reduced to the season-opening 25-man limit, a veteran scout raised the question: Was it more important to win games in 2001 or '08?
The answer was easy: 2001.
Then, the man asked, why the debate? Pujols was the best pure hitter in the organization, and even if the lineup was pretty well set, the veteran scout was confident that Cardinals manager Tony La Russa would find a way to get Pujols' bat in the lineup.
La Russa endorsed the idea.
And nobody ever questioned the decision.
Pujols never did have a regular position that rookie season. He started at five positions -- 52 starts at third base, 38 in left field, 33 in right field, 31 at first base and two as the DH.
Oh, and he led the Cards with a .329 average, 37 home runs and 130 RBIs.
That "starting the clock" theory never was a factor.
Pujols was so good, that after his third year in the big leagues, the Cardinals signed him through 2011. He eventually become a free agent and signed with the Angels, but that wasn't until after his 11th big league season.
There is too much time wasted on worrying about "starting the clock" on a young player's potential free agency when constructing rosters. The decision should rely on a very simple question: Is the player among the best 25 to give his team a chance to win?
The bottom line is the game is in such a transient state that not many players even play six years in the big leagues with the organization that originally signed them.
There are 1,200 spots available on the 40-man winter rosters of the 30 Major League teams. Only 33 of the players on a current roster are still with the organization that originally signed them and have at least six years in the big leagues.
Five of those 33 players are with Philadelphia, and those multiyear deals have guaranteed $82 million this season alone to Ryan Howard ($25 million), Cole Hamels ($22.5 million), Chase Utley ($15 million), Jimmy Rollins ($11 million) and Carlos Ruiz ($8.5 million). That's more for five players than the entire 2013 Opening Day payroll of 12 teams.
LaTroy Hawkins, who has signed with Colorado, Jason Giambi, returning to Cleveland, and Derek Jeter of the Yankees are set to join the 20-year-career club in 2014. Jeter has spent his entire career with the Yanks and will become one of only 16 players to have at least 20 years of big league service time with one team. Hawkins has been with 10 franchises and Giambi with four.
There have been 149 players who have appeared in 20 or more big league seasons, including current players Darren Oliver, who is a free agent, and Alex Rodriguez, who is fighting his suspension for violating baseball's drug agreement.
Nolan Ryan (1966-93) and Cap Anson (1871-97) hold the all-time record of 27 seasons in the big leagues. Brooks Robinson, with Baltimore, and Carl Yastrzemski, with Boston, have the record of 23 seasons with one team.
Octavio Dotel has played for the most franchises, having been with 13 during his 15-year career. Signed out of his native Dominican Republic by the Mets, he debuted with them in 1999 and pitched in six games for Detroit last season. Dotel played for three teams in 2010 -- Pirates, Dodgers and Rockies. He also spent time with the Astros, A's, Yankees, Royals, Braves, White Sox, Blue Jays and Cardinals.
Ron Villone appeared with 12 teams in a 15-year career, Matt Stairs with 12 in 19 years and Mike Morgan 12 in 22 years, including Oakland, which selected him in the first round of the 1978 Draft and brought him directly from high school to the big leagues.
Among active players, Henry Blanco, who recently signed to return to Arizona, has played with 11 teams in 16 seasons. Hawkins and Jamey Wright have been with 10 franchises. Both signed this winter as free agents with teams they previously pitched for -- Hawkins with Colorado and Wright with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
For Wright, getting the big league deal with the Dodgers is big. He signed as a non-roster player each of the past eight seasons, although he made the Opening Day roster all eight times.
Lots of nothing
Adam Dunn has appeared in more big league games (1,870) than any active player who has never played in the postseason. He ranks 22nd on the all-time list. Vernon Wells is second on the active list and 34th all-time with 1,731 games.
Dunn has played on a team with a winning record only twice -- the D-backs (82-80) in 2008 and the White Sox (85-77) in '12. Wells has been on two teams that finished in second place -- the Angels in 2011 and Blue Jays in '06. He was with the Yankees in 2013, when they failed to advance to the postseason for the second time in 10 years.
Ernie Banks holds the all-time record with 2,528 games played and never reaching the postseason. Luke Appling is second at 2,422. Banks and Appling spent their careers on the opposite sides of Chicago -- Banks with the Cubs and Appling with the White Sox.
Banks never played on a team that finished higher than fourth place until his final five seasons (1967-71), when the Cubs finished second twice and third three times. Appling played on only five teams with a winning record in his 20 seasons (1930-50), and never played for a team that finished higher than third in an eight-team league.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.