For die-hard Baseball America subscribers, fans of small-market teams still in contention and anyone who otherwise worships at the altar of the Top Prospect, the holiday season is here. Over the next few weeks, a steady trickle of semi-famous 20- to 23-year-old studs will be promoted to the big leagues, the timing less about their relative readiness than about the complex financial calculations that govern baseball’s labor system.
Yes, folks, it is Super Two season again. Beginning right about now (the date is never easy to pinpoint and won’t be known with certainty for several years), the deadline will have passed for young players to earn a fourth year of salary-arbitration eligibility, based on their major league service time. By keeping these players in the minors until around Memorial Day, teams essentially can save themselves millions of dollars in future salaries.
If the term “Super Two” rings a bell (you can read a detailed explanation of what “Super Two” means, and why it matters, here), it’s because we obsessed about it in Washington for much of last spring, as phenom Stephen Strasburg worked his way toward the majors, ultimately making his debut on June 8. (We may also obsess about it next year, as Bryce Harper’s debut nears.) But it isn’t just the Nationals who are fond of manipulating a player’s debut to save on future salaries. Indeed, it has become a fairly standard industry practice, and last year, not coincidentally, top prospects Mike Stanton (Marlins), Buster Posey (Giants), Jose Tabata (Pirates), Jason Castro (Astros), Carlos Santana (Indians) and Pedro Alvarez (Pirates) all were called up within two weeks of Strasburg.
This year, curiously, more teams have appeared willing to buck the Super Two suppression trend – perhaps in anticipation of the rules being changed (or eliminated entirely) in the next collective bargaining agreement. The Orioles (Zach Britton), Royals (Eric Hosmer), Braves (Julio Teheran), Phillies (Domonic Brown), Giants (Brandon Belt) and Mariners (Michael Pineda) all brought their top prospect to the majors (and in the cases of Belt and Teheran, sent them back to the minors) well before the assumed Super Two deadline.
But there are still others waiting for the call, and don’t be surprised if, in the next few weeks, Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie, Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings, Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley, Padres first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas all suddenly materialize on big league rosters. Of these, Lawrie will arguably be the most impactful, as he is putting up huge numbers at Class AAA (.342/.401/.638) and is desperately needed by a Blue Jays club that is a surprise contender and can’t seem to find anyone suitable to provide lineup protection for slugger Jose Bautista.
The teams, of course, will say finances had nothing to do with the timing. But you will know better.