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Inside Baseball: Service-time game with prospects needs to end

There's no way the players' union is going to let baseball make too many maneuvers with Sept. 1 callups, which are clearly one of the most bizarre longtime traditions in professional sports and getting attacked more and more each year.

Seriously now, you play with one set of rules for the whole season — that being a 25-man roster — and then things change for the most important month? It's terrible. One team can't have 38 guys and be playing against another team with, say, 29 but it happens every season and can impact pennant races.

Still, I get that the union is never going to allow anything to happen to jobs and big-league money. Fair enough. But what the union can do in its next negotiation in 2021 is make a move to put a stop to the farce that's centering on service time. We've had a firsthand look at it for the last month.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is a major-league player right now. At age 19. By any metric you want. By any eye test — including a defensive game far better than it was advertised when he arrived to join the Bisons from Double-A New Hampshire.

But he's not going to the big leagues for September and thus won't be selling any extra tickets or merchandise for the Toronto Blue Jays. He won't be getting the at-bats and experience to start the process of taking over Josh Donaldson's spot at third base in 2019.

All because the Blue Jays are manipulating the rules, just as many other teams have done. And it's not about paying major-league salaries, either. It's far more than that.

If you keep Guerrero out of the big leagues this season — and send him to Buffalo through April 11 of next season — you can delay his free agency by a year by not starting his service time clock.

It's been done routinely in recent years. The Cubs did it with Kris Bryant, and he's reportedly filed a grievance about the situation. The Braves did it with Ronald Acuña Jr., making him play the first 23 games of this season in Gwinnett. He might be National League Rookie of the Year. He hit .344 for Gwinnett last year and had no business going back.

It gets worse. The Astros kept Carlos Correa in Triple-A into June in 2015 and the Indians did likewise that same year with Francisco Lindor to finagle their Super 2 arbitration status. Imagine if the Blue Jays did that next year to Guerrero.

The White Sox are playing the service time game now with outfielder Eloy Jiménez. His agents lambasted the club last week in an interview with longtime MLB insider Jon Heyman, who is currently writing for and appearing on MLB Network.

Jiménez entered the weekend batting .365 with 12 homers and 33 RBIs in 52 games for Charlotte. His slugging percentage is .615 and his OPS is 1.022, but the 21-year-old is going nowhere.

"How can you say with a straight face this guy needs to work on anything?” agent Paul Kinzer told Heyman. "What's he need to work on?

"Especially with elite players like Eloy and Vlad Jr., that's the nature of the business. It's not about the money. It's the extra year of control."

The Blue Jays were promoting Guerrero to Buffalo in June before a knee injury in Double-A. But with the team not in the AL East race, it's obvious the plan all along was to keep him out of the big leagues this year.

GM Ross Atkins repeatedly echoed phrases like "learning to be a good teammate" when asked about Guerrero's needs in the minors. It was silly. The Jays pushed the defense angle behind the scenes, too. Again, foolishness.

For his part, Guerrero seems to know the score. He's expertly deflected just about every Toronto inquiry since he hit town, but he shouldn't have to.

Forget about Sept. 1. Guerrero probably should have been in Toronto about two months ago. The fact he won't be there until April at the earliest is something the union shouldn't take lightly.

The sport should be about putting the best product on the field. There's no way teams are doing that by keeping the likes of Guerrero and Jiménez in the minor leagues.

Vladdy Jr. heading to Arizona Fall League

Shildt's Batavia connection

The Cardinals have gotten immediate results from the firing of Mike Matheny and took the interim tag away from manager Mike Shildt on Tuesday, rewarding him with a three-year deal. Shildt went 26-12 in his first 38 games as Matheny's replacement, putting St. Louis back in the wild-card talk.

Shildt, who never played professional ball, has a long career resume in scouting and coaching in the Cardinals' chain. He spent 2007 as the hitting coach at Batavia and '07 Muckdogs infielder Oliver Marmol is now his first-base coach in St. Louis.

The 2007-09 period in Batavia set the stage for big leaguers like Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, Lance Lynn, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter and Lewiston's Kevin Siegrist all to head to St. Louis, several of whom played in the 2013 World Series against Boston.

Cardinals rely on Batavia connection

DBacks honor McCain

The Diamondbacks paid tribute to late Arizona Sen. John McCain by hanging a No. 18 jersey in his honor in the Chase Field dugout Sunday, one day after the 2008 presidential candidate died from cancer.

McCain was a huge DBacks fan, a fixture in the box seats who memorably sat with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani during the 2001 World Series that took place just over a month after the 9/11 attacks.

Manager Torey Lovullo, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer, said that McCain invited his family and the team to take a tour of the Arizona state capitol last year when he arrived as manager.

"I was honored to be in his presence and he should be very proud of what's going on here today and what his legacy has left," Lovullo told Phoenix reporters. "I was proud to get to know him and he should be proud that we’re heading in the right place. I can still see him in the front row last year, cheering us on at various times."

The DBacks will be pushing hard in the NL West race in McCain's memory but Lovullo's crew has a brutal September schedule. It includes seven games against the Rockies, five against the Dodgers, a four-game series against the Braves that opens Thursday in Phoenix and could be a division series preview, and a three-game set in Houston.

The Arizona Diamondbacks hang a "McCain" jersey in their dugout to honor the passing of Arizona senator John McCain during Sunday's game against Seattle (Getty Images).

Jays help drive Herd sales

The Bisons' return to the top 25 teams in minor-league merchandise sales for 2017 is no small feat when you think about all the wild names in the minors these days (Take a bow, Jumbo Shrimp or Flying Squirrels or Baby Cakes or Rumble Ponies). And the popular "Buffalo Wings" merchandise gives the team a solid chance to make the list again in 2018.

The Bisons have not been on the list for many years, at least since the Cleveland Indians left town in 2008. The sales growth has clearly been driven by the six-year affiliation with the Blue Jays and by Canadian fans.

"It's breathed some new revenue streams for us that just weren't possible without being an affiliate for the Jays," said General Manager Mike Buczkowski. "The Canadian effect for us has been nothing but positive across the board. To get back into the top 25 after that many years ... is pretty cool, pretty special.

Minor-league teams set a combined record of $70.8 million in merchandise sales in 2017.

Herd grapevine

• Bisons pitcher Murphy Smith became the oldest player to make his major-league debut for the Blue Jays when he took the mound to throw 1 1/3 scoreless innings in Toronto's loss Monday at Baltimore. Smith, who had pitched 63 games for the Bisons the last three seasons, had been the scheduled starter for that night's Fan Appreciation Night game here before getting the call.

Smith, a 31-year-old suburban Albany native who attended Binghamton University, had pitched 277 games and more than 1,000 innings in the minor leagues. His career started in the Arizona Rookie League after being drafted by Oakland in the 13th round in 2009.

Said Toronto Manager John Gibbons: "It's one of those feel-good deals. He responded, did a nice job. He had a big old grin on the mound out there when he came in."

• The Bisons' playoff drought keeps going largely because they tend to fall into killer slumps during recent seasons. Specifically, what's up in July?

The Herd's record in July the last three years is 10-20, 9-18 and this year's 9-19. That's 28-57 total and pretty much the death knell to any playoff hopes.

• Interesting to note the Blue Jays have already announced they're putting spring training flex packs on sale Nov. 7 and single-game tickets for the schedule on Nov. 26. Those dates have often been in January, but next February and March in Dunedin, Fla., should see fans flocking to see Guerrero and the team's other prospects.

Mike Harrington: Lots of change coming when fans return to ballpark next season

Around the horn

• Cole Hamels is 4-0, 0.69 in six starts for the Cubs after going 5-9, 4.72 in 20 starts in Texas. Amazing what being around a winning team can do. What a weapon he can provide for the postseason, as the Cubs seem like the NL favorite to get to the World Series.

• Don't look for the Indians to join the Cubs there in a rematch of 2016. The Tribe seems a long shot to beat the Astros, Yankees or Red Sox in a postseason series. Cleveland entered the weekend 40-20 against the pathetic AL Central — and just 36-37 against the rest of its schedule.

• Manny Machado is heating up. He entered the weekend with four homers in five games for the Dodgers — after collecting just five in his first 33 games in Los Angeles after last month's trade from Baltimore.

• Hideous stats of the year: The Reds are 1-18 in Homer Bailey's starts and he's 1-13 with an ERA of 6.13 after giving up seven runs in Friday's 12-5 loss at St. Louis. Bailey also has an ugly WHIP of 1.65, allowing 135 hits and 32 walks in just 101 innings. Sometimes, you really are what your record says you are.

Mike Harrington's MLB Power Rankings

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