(Dustin Ackley slides into home during Tuesday’s Cactus League game against Texas. Photo by McClatchy Newspapers).
If you want to get a realistic gauge on when Dustin Ackley might reach Seattle this season, it’s instructive to look at when other top prospects from around MLB came up to the big leagues in recent seasons:
Matt Wieters, Orioles: May 29, 2009
Tommy Hanson, Braves: June 3, 2009
Mike Stanton, Marlins: June 6, 2010
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals: June 8, 2010
Carlos Santana, Indians: June 11, 2010
Then there’s David Price of Tampa Bay, who already had 31 days of service time from a September callup in 2008: He started the 2009 season in the minors, and came up, to stay, on May 24.
And Buster Posey of the Giants, with 33 days of service time from 2009, was called up last year, to stay, on May 29.
Sensing a pattern?
It’s all part of an elaborate game teams play to avoid having their prime prospects reach “Super 2” arbitration status, which can have financial implications in the millions of dollars. Just ask the Giants — in 2007, they called up Tim Lincecum on May 7. That turned out to be 10 days too early to keep him from becoming “Super 2” arbitration eligible after the 2009 season. Lincecum’s salary shot up from $650,000 in 2009 to $8 million in 2010 as part of a two-year, $23-million contract he signed, avoiding the arbitration process after the two teams had already exchanged figures. Had the Giants kept him down two weeks longer in 2007, Lincecum would have made a fraction of that amount in 2010 — maybe about $1 million.
The Super 2 system was instituted in the labor agreement of 1990 as a compromise or sorts between players and owners. The arbitration system had begun in 1973, a major victory for union chief Marvin Miller that allowed players with at least two years of service time to have their salary determined by an arbitrator, who had only two choices: To select the salary submitted by the player, or the team. The idea was to stimulate negotiating between the two sides to avoid an arbitration hearing. But the practical result was to send salaries skyrocketing, as players used arbitration decisions with comparable players to make their own cases. In 1985, the owners won a victory by having the threshhold for arbitration pushed back to three full years of service time, but in the labor negotiations of 1990, a system was put in place whereby the top 17 percent of players each year with more than two, but less than three, years of service time are eligible for arbitration. These are the so-called “Super 2s,” and the system is still in existence.
Of course, the exact service time necessary to be a Super 2 fluctuates from year to year, but teams now have enough history to know that the magic cutoff date is around May 20. Any player brought up before then is likely to be a Super 2 down the road. Anyone brought up afterwards is unlikely to qualify. Sometimes it’s a bit later, however, so just to be safe teams usually hold their Super 2 candidates back until early June.
It’s easy for teams to couch this delay in terms of a prospect needing more seasoning, needing to work on a specific tool, etc. And in many cases, it’s legitimate. The Mariners, for instance, can make a sound case that Ackley, a neophyte at second base, could use more on-the-job training at the position before getting thrown into the big leagues. They will face a similar decision with their other top prospect, pitcher Michael Pineda — especially if Pineda has more strong outings this spring like he did today (two scoreless against Arizona).
Teams would be crazy not to factor in the financial implications. The Washington Post did a study last year based on Lincecum’s contract and determined that holding Strasburg back from Super 2 status could ultimately save them about $18 million. He’s a special case, but as I mentioned, delaying arbitration for a year can save millions — and make it easier for teams to fortify their roster through free agency.
Sometimes, players simply make their ascension to the big leagues unavoidable, as Atlanta’s Jason Heyward did last spring. The Braves kept him on their roster out of spring training, and I doubt that they regret it, considering they beat out San Diego for the wild card by one game. The Cubs, desperate for a spark in a season that was getting away from them, called up shortstop Starlin Castro last year on May 7, probably ensuring he’ll be a Super 2 in a couple of years.
That is, if the Super 2 system is still in place by then. As this fine piece by Yahoo’s Jeff Passan from last April points out, the Super 2 system doesn’t work for either side. It hurts players because it allows teams to manipulate the system to keep their salaries down, and it hurts teams by giving them motivation to not field their most competitive club. I’d expect it to be a negotiating point in talks leading to a new basic agreement that will replace the one expiring in December.
The other factor to consider regarding Ackley and Pineda is free agency. If a player stays down for 20 days at the start of the season, it keeps them from gaining a full year’s service time for that particular season. If a player comes up to stay after that point, he would have to play six full years beyond the current season to become a free agent, whereas a player who comes up to stay before the 20-day window would only have to play five years after this one to become a free agent.
You’d like to think that the only consideration upon which teams base their roster is the readiness of the player in question, but that would be naive. For the Mariners, who are facing a rebuilding season with remote hope of contention, it would be prudent to weigh these service-time issues seriously — and folly not to. I liken it to a losing college football team that blows a redshirt year on a top prospect. The fans might want to see that player as soon as possible, but when his redshirt senior season arrives, they’re sure glad when they didn’t squander that extra year.