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Insider

'Super Two' rule stifles best prospects

6/14/2011

There are several reasons that clubs delay the promotion of top prospects to the major league level. The reasons can include physical ability, maturity, adjustments to breaking balls, hitting left-handed pitching, baserunning, developing a secondary pitch, fastball command, smoothing out a delivery, timing or shortening a swing.

Unfortunately, there is another reason: the ability to delay a player’s arbitration eligibility and potentially save the club millions of dollars. This is what baseball people call protecting against “Super Two" status.

Last year, the Washington Nationals delayed the promotion of Stephen Strasburg until June 8, although general managers, field staff, scouts and even teammates felt he was the best pitcher on the team coming out of spring training. This year, the promotions for top prospects like Mike Moustakas of the Kansas City Royals and Anthony Rizzo of the San Diego Padres were delayed. Granted, there were also baseball reasons contributing to both the Royals' and Padres' waiting until June to purchase their contracts, but when you analyze the exact timing of their promotions, it’s also clear that "Super Two" status contributed to the delay.

Here is the definition of salary arbitration-eligible players, including the breakdown of what a "Super Two” player is (from the MLB Players Association site):

A player with three or more years of service, but less than six years, may file for salary arbitration. In addition, a player can be classified as a "Super Two" and be eligible for arbitration with less than three years of service. A player with at least two but less than three years of Major League service shall be eligible for salary arbitration if he has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season and he ranks in the top 17 percent in total service in the class of Players who have at least two but less than three years of Major League service, however accumulated, but with at least 86 days of service accumulated during the immediately preceding season.

If Moustakas and Rizzo perform as expected, when they become first-time eligible players, they will be paid in the range of $3 million to $5 million. Assuming they both have moderate success for their talent, both the Royals and Padres will save approximately $13.35 million over the period of 2011 through 2017 for delaying their call-ups just one month, from May 1 to June 10. This delay will push back their arbitration eligibility from 2014 to 2015. The savings in 2014 should be approximately $2.35 million and in years 2015-17 will be closer to $4 million. Based on normal production and past contracts, here is an estimation of the difference. Note: Service time is indicated in the following manner (years+days):

The significance is not just that arbitration eligibility was pushed back from 2014 to 2015, but that the players will be eligible for arbitration a total of only three times during the club’s control years rather than the four times that a "Super Two" player will get before reaching free agency after the 2017 season.

Of course, if either Rizzo or Moustakas wins an MVP award in the next couple of years, the difference will be even more staggering, probably in the range of $20 million or $25 million.

Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum became the highest-paid "Super Two" player in major league history when he agreed to a two-year, $23 million deal before the 2010 season. Lincecum, with first-time salary arbitration eligible rights, had asked for $13 million and the Giants had countered with $8 million when the settlement took place. Delaying Lincecum's promotion would have resulted in significant short-term savings for the Giants. Here is the approximate difference: