April 18, 2014
Painting the Black
George Springer made his big-league debut on Wednesday night, and in the process opened the season on service time–related debates. Such arguments have become commonplace in early-season baseball, particularly in recent years, as teams have grown more cognizant of the Super Two service time deadline, which determines which players will be eligible for arbitration four times instead of three. But as much as we talk about the status quo, there's seldom talk about how things should change. So how could the Super Two rules be altered (by collective bargaining) for the better? Here are three proposals.
Eliminate Super Two
The extreme solution doubles as the most obvious way to end service-time manipulation. Teams would continue to hold their best prospects down for about two weeks, just long enough to gain the seventh year of control, but would thereafter have no reason to keep the youngsters down for artificial reasons. The downside to eliminating the Super Two designation is that it would further limit the earning power of the class of players who already have the least leverage in the league. This arrangement would be a win for the teams and the fans, but a loss for the players.
Incorporate performance into the Super Two equation
If doing away with the Super Two pool isn't an option, then perhaps altering what qualifies a player for the designation is. Including other factors, like performance, would minimize the importance of raw service time.
Unfortunately, while rewarding the top performances seems like a good idea, the implementation would be easy to exploit. The key determinant would still be a proxy for service days. The only difference would be a more complicated calculus for teams. Under the current rules, one day of service is the same for everyone; if counting stats came into the equation, teams would have to figure out how many games it would take Gregory Polanco (for instance) to fall short of the necessary totals. Using a rate-based measure would seem like an obvious solution, except that a playing-time threshold would still be required.
That's a lot of downside, and we haven't even mentioned which metrics would be considered. Because the league and union have to agree on these things, the chosen categories would probably start more arguments than they would end. A win for some players, a loss for the teams, and a big loss for the fans.
Provide teams with an option
What if baseball allowed teams to pick which players would be eligible to qualify for Super Two status, but in exchange, required them to pay a fee? Here's how it would work. When a team promoted a player for the first time, they could choose one of two routes. One route would be the current one: The player would make the prorated big-league minimum and potentially qualify for Super Two status depending on his service time.
The new route would allow the team to sign its player to a short-term pact that would exchange an up-front raise for the early arbitration hearing. Because the cost would exceed the prorated league minimum, teams would have to be judicious about which players they used this approach with. Of course finding the exact amount becomes key; the number must be high enough to give teams pause, but low enough for them to find it a worthwhile investment.
Last winter, the league spent more than $40 million on 23 Super Two players, according to MLB Trade Rumors. Seven of those 23 players received more than $2 million, and three topped $3 million. Keep in mind, teams that took advantage of this new route wouldn't buy out only the Super Two year—they'd also receive two and a half other seasons.
Take Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers. Since debuting in May 2011, the Royals first baseman has earned about $5 million, including $3.6 million this season,which made him last winter's highest-grossing Super Two–eligible position player. Myers, on the other hand, could make about $1.8 million through the same period of his career, because the Rays held off on calling him up. That's a difference of a little more than $3 million. Say interested teams offered their players a deal where they would earn the full league minimum in the first year (and not just a prorated amount), then $1 million in each of the subsequent three seasons, for about $3.5 million in total pre-arbitration earnings. Would that be worth it for both parties?
Obviously, there are some drawbacks here: The figure proposed is arbitrary and would need periodic upward adjustments; the potential impact on the arbitration process thereafter would need to be resolved (i.e. would players start with a fresh slate or would their previous salaries impact their earning power?); and teams would probably want some kind of protection against injury or poor performance.
Of course, teams could do this on their own if they so desired. In theory, there's nothing stopping a team from signing its top prospect to a contract like the one laid out above if it wanted to avoid the Super Two process. That few teams have done so (and that those who have have gotten additional years of discounts and control) suggests that teams are okay with the process in place, even if it proves to be a nuisance at times.
That doesn't mean that some contender in the future won't decide to try their hand at negotiating away a player's Super Two rights. And when that happens, all parties involved will win.