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April 18, 2014

Painting the Black

Super Twoing

by R.J. Anderson

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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.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Service Time,  Super Two

5 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Dodger300

Actually, eliminating the Super Two designation would only be a loss for some players, but would probably bring about a financial gain for many of the better ones who suffer under the current system.

For example, for Wil Myers the current system was a total loss, as he was arbitrarily held down in the minors when he clearly should have been playing in the majors.

Instead, the system rewarded whichever lesser player took his place on the list of Super Two players last year.

Thus, under the current system weaker players can be rewarded with increased bargaining power at the expense of the better prospects.

I understand why the MLPA does not want to give back bargaining rights that it negotiated for its members.

However, in light of the skewed results, it would behoove the union to offer to end the Super Two system in exchange for some other benefit for its newest players.

Apr 18, 2014 06:01 AM
rating: 1
 
jfranco77

If the union really cares about all its members wouldn't it be worth it to raise the minimum salary to like 700k and eliminate super 2? I honestly don't know but it's worth considering.

Apr 18, 2014 06:43 AM
rating: 0
 
Dodger300

I'm sure the union cares about all of its members.

When I suggested that the union find a different benefit for its newest members to replace the Super Two program, I purposely avoided suggesting raising the minimum salary.

While the amount you suggest looks like a nice bump for now, is there anyone who believes that the minimum won't be far more than that in ten or twelve years, if not sooner?

Trading the permanent benefit that players can receive through Super Two status for an increased minimum salary that will be swallowed up and disappear in a few years would not be something I would agree to if I were running the union.

I am not sure what to suggest (immediate vesting in the pension plan based on days of service rather than years?), but I believe that raising the minimum salary would not be a fair trade-off, nor would it facilitate reaching an agreement between the owners and players.

Apr 18, 2014 10:08 AM
rating: 3
 
kmostern

Premise: the goal of this discussion is not to pity one or another party (the owners, the players, the fans) but to cause personnel decisions to be made on the basis of maximizing the likelihood of winning rather than on the basis of arbitrary cost issues.

The problem: real service time happens within seasons and pieces of seasons, while contract/arbitration matters are settled on an annual basis.

Basic form of a solution: since it is the tension between these two time frames that produces the problem, if the time frames can be reconciled, a real solution can be reached.

I don't have a full proposal here, just an outline. My point is that you can remove the incentive to manipulate service time immediately by allowing for arbitration that governs partial seasons. You can have an arbitration hearing in February for a dollar amount that kicks in in June, rather than on March 31. Sure, at the end of the team control period the player still loses the year of free agency, but it can be figured into the arbitration that a particular mid-season date is really the beginning of the player's seventh season, not the end of his sixth.

Voila. The original intent of the basic agreement - six years team control - is maintained, while the frustrating manipulations that suppress salaries for an extra year disappear. And yes, I know the owners will feel like they lose something here (I don't pity them) and will need to get something back, but they can't honestly ask for much - after all, even if it costs a little money, they share in the benefits when they increase their chances of winning ballgames.

Apr 18, 2014 09:01 AM
rating: 1
 
Plucky

At a high level, the best way to end service time manipulation is to switch from a service time framework to an age-based framework. That probably couldn't happen since it would require a total revamp of the CBA structure. As a legal matter that might get dicey though. MLB could probably pull it off with the antitrust exemption, but they really don't like leaning on that nowadays.

There are a couple ways to fix the service-time issue. The 7th year of control is a fact of life for all intents and purposes, but you could end the incentive to keep rookies off opening day rosters by making the service-time cutoff 6.01 service years instead of 6.00, and specifically exempt September service time from the clock if it's the first time a guy gets called up.

Fixing the super-2 issue is harder. One possibility is to set the arbitration threshold at a fixed service time, which would at least clarify things. Another would be scrapping super-2 altogether. Obviously this would be an unequivocal negative for the union, so there'd have to be some kind of giveback, e.g. an NFL-style scaling up minimum where 2nd year players get 25% more than league min and 3rd-year players get 50% more than league min, and require mandatory bonuses for things like making the all-star team, awards, etc.

Apr 18, 2014 22:01 PM
rating: 2
 
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