Earlier today the Pittsburgh Pirates made their first cuts of the Spring, which included sending Jameson Taillon to minor league camp. Taillon is the top pitching prospect in the system, and is expected to arrive in Pittsburgh by mid-season. I say “mid-season” not because he needs about two and a half months of Triple-A experience to get ready for the big leagues. I say “mid-season” because there are strong business reasons to keep him in the minors until mid-June or later.
All around the league, top prospects arrive in the majors in mid-June or later to make their debut. It’s not a coincidence why this happens for probably 90% of the top prospects in the league. There are probably legitimate things they need to work on in Triple-A, but the main reason prospects aren’t called up before that date are due to service time and Super Two status.
The MLB season is usually about 182 days long, but a year of service time is counted as 172 days. Teams only control players until they have six years of service time. That means if you wait a few weeks to call up a player in year one, you’ll end the year with less than one year of service time. Thus, you’d have the player for six more years. If you call the player up on Opening Day, you’d only have him for five more years at the end of year one. The trade-off here is that you give up two weeks of a player at a young age, and get an extra year of that player, likely when they’re in their prime years.
But the service time only explains why a player isn’t called up until the second half of April. What about the other two months? That’s where the business decision comes into play. MLB players receive three years of arbitration, which take place in years 4-6 of service time. However, MLB designates a percentage of players as “Super Two” players, giving them an extra year of arbitration, which replaces their final year of league minimum salary. The “Super Two” players are the 22 percent of players with the most service time between two and three years. It’s hard to project an accurate cutoff here, so teams usually play it safe and call up players around the middle of June or later to avoid this status.
The focus here is avoiding an extra year of arbitration, which can be costly in the long run. D Rays Bay looked at the situation for Wil Myers last Spring, and estimated that Myers would cost an extra $15 M over the long run if he reached Super Two status. Amazin’ Avenue took a look at Travis d’Arnaud, and crunched some numbers to estimate that Super Two would cost about $11.5 M extra over the six years of service time.
Now let’s look at the situations with the Pirates this year. Jameson Taillon was sent down. Gregory Polanco will eventually be sent down. Both players are expected to arrive by mid-season to avoid Super Two and get an extra year of service time.
I don’t think I need to explain why it’s smart to get the extra year of service time. You’re trading a few weeks of Gregory Polanco’s age 22 season, all for an entire year of Gregory Polanco’s age 28 season. It’s the same with Taillon. There’s no way their value in those two weeks could match their value in a prime year down the line.
So what about Super Two? Polanco and Taillon are both projected to be impact players down the line, which means the arbitration prices could be costly. Even if they sign extensions, those extensions are going to be based off what they could make in arbitration. So the $10-15 M range would be a good estimate when calculating the added cost of Super Two for these players.
Let’s say Polanco comes up in June and performs exactly like Andrew McCutchen performed when he first came up. McCutchen arrived in early June and had a 3.4 WAR on the season over four months. That’s an 0.85 WAR per month. If Polanco performs at that rate, then you’re giving up two months, or 1.7 WAR, to avoid Super Two.
You do get some of that back with the players who will be playing in right field. Last year Jose Tabata played about half a season, and was worth a 1.1 WAR. That amounts to about 0.33 WAR per month. To make it simple, we’ll just say that Tabata would be worth 0.7 WAR over two months. That means you’re losing one win by not calling up Polanco after he gets an extra year of service time.
If you want to play the “one win could be the difference between success and failure” game, then have at it. But one extra win is not worth $10-15 M in future costs. Plus, there are legitimate things that players need to work on, no matter how good their Spring Training numbers look.
Take a look at Gerrit Cole for an example of this. He had a 3.60 ERA in 10 innings last year, and people wanted him in the rotation from day one, using the Spring numbers as evidence that he was ready. Then he went to Triple-A, and in the month of April he had a good ERA, but a 19:15 K/BB ratio in 23.2 innings. In the month of May he cut down the walks, but started giving up more hits and runs, and wasn’t dominating with the strikeouts (20 in 31 innings in his first five starts in May). Finally, Cole strung together two strong starts, combining for 14.1 shutout innings, and the Pirates called him up, mostly out of need due to so many injuries.
But Cole didn’t exactly dominate when he first arrived. His first 11 starts saw a 3.92 ERA in 66.2 innings, with a 47:15 K/BB ratio. Those are good numbers, but when people talk about bringing up top prospects early, they’re usually expecting the prospect to reach his ceiling from day one. Cole looked like he was reaching his ceiling in September, when he posted a 1.3 WAR. That was higher than his June, July, and August numbers combined (1.1 WAR). And that’s an example of a big success story with a rookie.
Looking back, the idea that Cole should have been in the majors on Opening Day because of ten decent innings during Spring Training seems ridiculous. Cole didn’t look ready in his first two months in Triple-A, he posted league average numbers in his first month and a half in the majors, and didn’t start to look like he was reaching his upside until September.
It’s the same with Taillon, Polanco, and every top prospect. They have legitimate things to work on in the minors. It might not be exactly 2.5-3 months of work, but there is stuff to work on. And if they’re ready before the Super Two deadline, then their production is just not going to be worth the $10-15 M increase in price down the line.
Putting that in perspective, that $10-15 M for two players is $20-30 M. If you’re dreaming of a future five-year, $100 M extension for Andrew McCutchen, then you pretty much pay for that with the money you saved from delaying Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, and one or two other top prospects from Super Two time.
So the Pirates will be like almost every other team with a top prospect that has zero service time. They’ll wait until mid-season, get an extra year of control and save $10-15 M, then call up the top prospects when they’re conveniently ready in mid-June or later.
Links and Notes
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