HOUSTON -- Just because the Chicago Cubs head into play Wednesday with the worst winning percentage in baseball doesn't mean they don't have a magic number.
Whether the Cubs want to admit it or not, that magic number is 104.
If red-hot slugging prospect Anthony Rizzo is on the major league roster for 104 days this season he would be eligible for free agency in 2017 instead of 2018. It could mean as much as $10 million in the difference between an arbitration-eligible contract and a free-agent one.
And if the Cubs aren't in a position to retain Rizzo, it could mean one less year with the club.
Cubs management has insisted all along, though, that service time has nothing to do with whether guys like Rizzo or Brett Jackson are called up to the major leagues. But when seeing how Rizzo has torn up Triple-A pitching, and with the major league offense in dire need of help, it has become a hot topic of conversation.
"Service time is not really a factor," president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said way back in spring training, well before Rizzo was crushing the ball at Iowa. "With potentially impact young players we always try to make decisions based on what is best for their development.
"There is certain criteria for advancement that we have at each level of the minor-league system and a checklist that goes into how those decisions are made. The same is true for the promotion of a potential regular player from Triple-A to the big leagues."
Raw numbers aren't always the only criteria for advancement, but Rizzo has certainly made a case for himself with a .352 batting average, a .697 slugging percentage, 15 home runs and 42 RBIs. He easily leads the Pacific Coast league in home runs and is second in RBIs, just two behind Reno's Randy Ruiz.
So what more does Rizzo have to do?
"I'd like to see players get a significant amount of time at Triple-A, usually a full calendar year if possible," Epstein said. "And certainly I'd like to check all the boxes and make sure all the criteria are fit before they advance up here. So as talented as some players are, and as talented as Anthony and Brett are, there are still some issues left in their development so we would like to see those addressed before they get up here."
Rizzo had 93 games of experience at the Triple-A level last season and another 43 this year gives him 136. When it comes to his major-league experience he had 68 days of service with the San Diego Padres last season and another 104 days would put him at the magical 172 mark that would mark a full season and alter his arbitration-eligible/free-agent status.
Jed Hoyer was the San Diego Padres GM last season and called up Rizzo on June 9, but he struggled with 14 hits in 98 at-bats (.143) and was sent back down. He was called back up in September.
So if the Cubs do go ahead and recall Rizzo for a two-week stretch in June, when the team would need a designated hitter in a June 8-10 series at Minnesota and a June 18-20 series across town against the White Sox, he could then go back down again if the Cubs want to keep his service time under 172 days. He could then be recalled again after the All-Star break.
Or if what Epstein said was true and that service time isn't a factor he could stick around. But he only will play first base, which means Bryan LaHair could move to left field. What that means for Alfonso Soriano, who is making $19 million not only this season but also $19 million in each of the next two as well, would remain to be seen.