Future salary numbers key to when Stephen Strasburg gets called up by the Washington Nationals

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- It is the biggest question involving the Washington Nationals right now, and the one on the minds of seemingly everyone around the game: When will Stephen Strasburg be in the majors?

Even if they know the answer definitively (and chances are it's still at least somewhat fluid), the Nationals' brass is keeping it a closely guarded secret.

That remained the case Friday night following Strasburg's latest performance in spring training. He allowed two solo home runs in the first inning of a 13-5 win over a St. Louis Cardinals split squad -- Tyler Greene smoked his first pitch over the left-center field fence -- and struck out eight in four innings. Strasburg surrendered two runs and four hits in all, throwing 53 of his 73 pitches for strikes.

Before the game, the Nationals would not reveal their plan for his next spring start, let alone the first chunk of the regular season. "There's decisions to be made after each start all the pitchers have," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "We're going to assess it after we see where we're at and look at the pitching rotation and who needs the innings."

However, there are clues within baseball's complex salary structure that may shed some light on how the Strasburg situation may play out.

The bottom line: Beyond just the baseball factors -- even the greatest prospects can benefit from some time in the minors -- the Nationals have a strong financial incentive to hold off on Strasburg's big league debut until at least late May, in order to delay his reaching free agency and arbitration eligibility.

Here's how this works. Take a deep breath, because this is complex:

First, you need a basic knowledge of the breakdown of Strasburg's four-year, $15.1 million contract, which began in 2009: He received a $7.5 million signing bonus, plus salaries of approximately $100,000 in 2009 (a prorated portion of the major league minimum), $2 million in 2010, $2.5 million in 2011 and $3 million in 2012.

For the purposes of determining his future compensation -- or his "tender amount," in industry jargon -- the key number is his total earnings in 2012, which is calculated to be $4.875 million. (That's the $3 million salary plus one-fourth of the signing bonus, or $1.875 million.) This number will be important later.

You also need a basic understanding of baseball's salary structure. A player is typically under team control through his first six seasons -- three "zero-to-three" years (referring to a player's service time), during which the team essentially sets his salary, and three "arbitration" years during which a player's salary rises based on comparable players -- which means the Nationals will retain Strasburg's rights for at least three years beyond the end of his contract, after which he reaches free agency.

However, the Nationals can delay Strasburg's free agency by an extra year, and doing so is fairly simple. All they would have to do is keep him in the minors for at least 20 days, which would prevent him from gaining enough service time to qualify for free agency at the end of his sixth season, thus retaining his rights through 2016, instead of 2015. This isn't being cheap. It's being smart. And every team does it.

'Super Two' scenario

Under the above scenario, Strasburg would be tied to the Nationals for four years beyond the life of his current contract: 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Three of those will be arbitration years, which typically include a player's fourth, fifth and six big-league seasons. But for Strasburg, the nature of that fourth year would depend on whether or not he will have qualified for arbitration as a "Super Two" player at the end of 2012.

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