The Fearsome Foursome and The Super Two Quandary

Every year around this time, the cries grow louder for teams to call up top prospects from the minors. Sluggers are raking, pitchers are dealing, yet fans don’t get to see their team’s best young players at the major league level. We can thank the dreaded Super Two rule of salary arbitration eligibility for that.

The good news is that Major League Baseball is, if you believe the rumors, possibly considering scrapping or at least reforming the Super Two rule this offseason, as part of the next round of collective bargaining with the players union. Some teams are operating as if the rule will go away. For instance, Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore sits on MLB’s Rules committee, and he had no qualms about calling up top prospects Eric Hosmer and Danny Duffy before the likely Super 2 cutoff date. The Seattle Mariners didn’t look like contenders at the start of the season, but M’s GM Jack Zduriencik called up stud starter Michael Pineda anyway, to great results.

Still, many teams are carrying on as if the rule won’t change, in the process holding back players who by most objective standards should be playing in the big leagues.

Here are four of the top position players prospects we’re watching, how their absence is affecting the big club, and when we might expect to see them crack the majors.

Brett Lawrie, 3B, Toronto

Cathal Kelly has a good rundown of the Lawrie situation in today’s Toronto Star. In a nutshell:

Edwin Encarnacion has zero homers and minus infinity defensive value at third base, such that in the span of mere weeks, manager John Farrell has all but abandoned his vow to stick with E5 as his third baseman.

–Lawrie’s hitting .342/.401/.638 at Triple-A Las Vegas, impressive numbers even in a hitter’s park and a hitter’s league, especially since Lawrie’s just 21 years old.

–A June 1 callup would put Lawrie’s service time at 2 years, 120 days at the end of the 2013 season, assuming he stayed on the big league roster throughout. As Kelly notes, player agency CAA did a study and estimated the 2012 Super 2 cutoff at 2 years and 146 days of service. The preceding season, the cutoff was 2 years, 122 days.

Though you’d expect the Yankees and Red Sox to improve and separate themselves from the pack, for now the Jays are in the thick of a muddled AL East race, just 2.5 games out. If Jose Bautista continues his vintage Babe Ruth, ~13 WAR pace, the Jays could be a surprise contender. Given the alternatives are Encarnacion and career utilityman John McDonald, getting Lawrie in the lineup ASAP can’t help but improve the team’s chances.

Brandon Belt, 1B/OF, San Francisco

Funny thing about sample sizes. Teams will dismiss them as too small when it’s convenient for them, only to attach huge significance to them when a younger player is involved. Thus we have 23-year-old Brandon Belt, smiter of minor league pitching (still a small sample, but at least it’s a year-plus), demoted after 60 plate appearances, with manager Bruce Bochy proclaiming his young slugger has lots of work to do before he can be ready.

All Belt has done since then is hit .351/.484/.553 in 124 plate appearances at Triple-A Fresno. Belt is ready, and the Giants are running out several players at the corners who shouldn’t be playing much at all, let alone nearly every day. The Giants got swept up in post-World Series glow when they re-upped Aubrey Huff for two years, $22 million; he might not be 631 OPS bad, but Belt’s likely a better option at first base by now. Nate Schierholtz (offense) and Pat Burrell (defense) also have major holes in their game. And while the Jays might be fringe contenders for the moment, the Giants sit in first place, with legitimate hopes for a repeat. Shortstop is the bigger problem right now, but calling up Belt is an easier path to improvement given who the Giants currently have in the organization.

Desmond Jennings, OF, Tampa Bay

You know we’re bros, Sam Fuld. But it might be time for you to reclaim that role as Baseball’s Most Fascinating 4th OF. The Rays have one of the most top-heavy offenses in baseball, with particularly large (current) offensive holes at shortstop and sadly, left field.

Super Two considerations aside, the Rays have long vowed not to call up a player until they feel absolutely certain (or as certain as can be with a young player) that their prospect is ready for the show. Rays fans shrieked in agony as Matt Joyce destroyed Triple-A while Hank Blalock destroyed rallies, then clamored for Jeremy Hellickson to get his dominant arm up to the Trop. The 24-year-old Jennings may have been a reasonable send-down to start the year, having not yet shown he can hit for power in the high minors. But he’s showing it now, hitting .272/.383/.455 at Triple-A Durham, rounding out a talent base that includes excellent defense and baserunning and a fine batting eye. The Rays can look especially overmatched against left-handed pitching as currently constituted, and Jennings’ right-handed bat would surely help. Nestled right between the Jays’ slight longshot status and the Giants perhaps growing more comfortable with a three-game lead and the Rockies likely losing Jorge de la Rosa for the year, the Rays’ great pitching and defense makes them contenders, but their offense leaves them lacking.

Make the move, Andrew.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B, San Diego

The player performing best in this foursome is also the one who can probably be kept in dry dock the longest, all things considered. The 21-year-old Rizzo is hitting a Nintendo-like .368/.441/.724 at Triple-A Tucson and would be a gigantic no-duh upgrade over the dynamic duo of Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu at first base. But the Padres aren’t contenders this year, so being extra-cautious with service time makes sense in Rizzo’s case.

There’s also the matter of Kyle Blanks, the 6’6″, 270-pound first baseman who’s hitting well at Double-A (.311/.373/.515) after battling early injuries. Blanks turns 25 in September and has already tasted the big leagues. Even if he’s likely trade bait once Rizzo does come up, the Padres should at least give Blanks a shot to see what they have, and to showcase him for a deal. If Rizzo gets a September cup of coffee, then starts 2012 as the Padres’ Opening Day first baseman, that could be a reasonable solution for all parties involved.

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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

25 Responses to “The Fearsome Foursome and The Super Two Quandary”

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  1. SKob says:

    “Nestled right between the Jays’ slight longshot status and the Giants perhaps growing more comfortable with a three-game lead and the Rockies likely losing Jorge de la Rosa for the year, the Rays’ great pitching and defense makes them contenders, but their offense leaves them lacking.”

    I’m confused! Are all these teams supposed to be in the same division?

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  2. Jonah Keri says:

    Nah, just lousy sentence construction. I was saying the Giants might be slightly less urgent because they’re 3 games up, while Jays might be a little fringier. Rays on the other hand are maybe slightly more legit than the Jays, but with far less certainty than the Giants. Making their situation more urgent.

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  3. Yirmiyahu says:

    I find it interesting that teams are so obsessed with avoiding Super Two status, when its really a roll of the dice. In order to qualify for Super Two status, the prospect needs to actually stick in the majors, without being sent down again, for the next 2.75 years. And even then, it just means you have to pay him a bit more.

    Why aren’t teams similarly obsessed with holding guys in the minors for the first 20 days of their rookie season? The result of doing so, if the guy sticks, is that the team gets a whole ‘nother year of team control. That seems like it’d be more valuable than saving some arbitration cash.

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    • john says:

      For the Jays/Rays, saving arbitration cash is the whole game. Being rewarded 2 million in the third year instead of the minimum, for instance, means that every arbitration is based off of the Super 2 number of 2 million. That slight miscalculation could lead to 10 million dollars at the end of the contract. For the Rays, that could decide whether they keep a player or not. Effectively, it could be an extra year of arbitration.

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    • joser says:

      In 2007, the Giants miscalculated the threshold for Super 2 status and called up Tim Lincecum a week early. As a result, in 2010 Lincecum was due about $10M (he asked for $13M; the team offered $8M) as a Super 2 instead of under a million as a normal zero-to-three player. Even in baseball terms, that’s more than just “a bit” more. Of course the Giants then bit the bullet and just bought out his 2010-2011 seasons for $23M instead.

      And actually, it’s pretty common to see teams hold players down for those first 20 days. But the players that are really going to hurt from a salary perspective are the ones that are good enough to be Super2, so if you’re going to hold them down 20 days to get the extra year you might as well hold them a bit longer and make that year relatively cheap, too.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        Good points.

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      • Tom G says:

        There was no miscalculation, they explicitly didn’t care. They thought, and all evidence has supported them, that he needed to face Major league hitters to develop any further.

        It is insanely stupid to say that the Giants have gotten a penny less than an astronomically good deal from having Lincecum in their rotation for the last four years.

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      • Trotter76 says:

        Even the most optimistic of projections for 99.999999% of players doesn’t include having 2 Cy Young awards by the time that first arbitration rolls around. Lincy is the EXTREME example.

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      • Drakos says:

        Tom, do you really think Lincecum’s development would have been hurt or the Giants would have had less of a bargain if he had started 22 games in the majors his first year instead of 24?

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      • Tom G says:

        I think that if they were worried about super two status it would have been no more than 16 starts. and to answer your question I think that his development and motivation would have been irreparably harmed if the team had told him to f-off that way.

        You guys talk about saving money, I, and the players involved, see it more obviously as stealing money from a player. To do this is a deliberate calculated insult to the player. To pretend that has no effect is utter idiocy.

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  4. joser says:

    Countering the Pineda anecdote, we have that same Jack Z holding Dustin Ackley in the minors while his Su2 clock runs out. Now, it’s true that they have a legitimate reason/excuse for holding him down — he’s still learning to field at 2B — and a glance at his current AAA offensive line doesn’t suggest he’s banging on the door. But that line is weighed down by poor early numbers (as was his 2010 line, not surprising given he’s adjusting to a new level of competition each year). He’s been on fire in May, producing the kind of numbers that would improve the mostly-woeful M’s, even with after the MLEs are accounted for. But he continues to play for Tacoma, and given how close the Super2 deadline now seems to be — and the not-inconsiderable fact the M’s have been winning recently in spite of that offense, thanks in no small part to that same Mr Pineda — I expect that to continue until the clock is no longer a consideration.

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    • gu03alum says:

      I trust the integrity of the front office and if they don’t think that Ackley is ready I have no reason not to believe them. He has only played second base for a little over a year. It’s possible he’s not very good yet and the Mariners place a big emphasis on defense. I think they have shown with Pineda that they are willing to bring a guy up when he is ready regardless of the super 2.

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  5. Brad Johnson says:

    I finished penning an article about why Rizzo shouldn’t be called up not quite two hours ago for THT Live. It’ll be up tonight or early tomorrow.

    Kyle Blanks is part of the reason. There’s a world where Blanks gets a year of play between now and next trade deadline, performs like an average to above average 1b, and heads somewhere like Tampa or Oakland thanks to his combo of big power, reserve clause seasons, and youth. It’s not guaranteed or even likely to happen but there’s a decent chance it could and the Padres are too stingy, talent starved to pass that up.

    There’s also the matter of Brad Hawpe being potentially trade-able with his recent hot streak.

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    • Jonah Keri says:

      Nice, looking forward to reading that, Brad.

      Have to wonder if any team would offer anything of value for Hawpe, though. Even the offense/1B-starved Rays probably wouldn’t benefit from getting him. Maybe as an ace PH, but that role’s starting to go away with these 12- and 13-man pitching staffs…and if he were acquired to be a PH, presumably the return would be a C-level prospect anyway.

      BUT…I’ve been wrong 70 times today alone, could easily be wrong on Hawpe too.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        Clearly Hawpe doesn’t appear to be a particularly valuable asset. I’m thinking a C+ type relief prospect. Someone who’s young and throws hard but might have a long path to the bigs. The Padres seem to be pretty awesome at finding relief gems.

        The main reason they would want to build value in him is to ditch the roughly $2 mil they would owe him at or around the trade deadline (1 mil in salary, 1 mil in buyout). The Padres strike me as an organization that cares about $2 million.

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  6. Tom G says:

    Brandon Belt has not mashed minor league pitching for years, his entire minor league record is slightly over a year, and consists of a small sample of small samples.

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  7. Omar says:

    As a Jays fan, just hold Lawrie. The Jays aren’t winning the WS this year, no way, I don’t care how close they might be to the top of the division right now. So might as well hold him back a little longer. Better for the long term.

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  8. CircleChange11 says:

    Any prospect that plays well enough to earn Supr 2 status is likely producing at a rate that’s still a great value to the team, right.

    Even Licecum at 10M was a big value.

    Having to pay a young player more money because they performed so well is a good problem to have. Even at max arbitration money for elite performance, they’re a big value.

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    • Mark says:

      Unless the Giants were going for the playoffs when they called up Linc the first time, then no, he’s not a great value @ 10M when he could have been the league minimum. If all it took was the Giants waiting a week or two in a year that they had no shot at the playoffs, then he could be a Cy Young caliber guy and it still wouldn’t matter.

      It’s worth it if you can make the playoffs (or at least have a reasonable shot of competing), but anything short of that and I have to disagree.

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      • Tom G says:

        a couple of points,

        1) it wouldn’t have been league minimum, the Giants are not a cheap ass organization that pays minimum every chance they get, Lincecum made significantly over minimum from his second season on. Which leads to…

        2) people that say this seem to think that this is a computer game with players that don’t notice when you screw them. When you screw a player you are burning a bridge, with the player and with the fans. It absolutely does not pay in the long run. Lincecum fully expects to spend the rest of his career in SF, because he has a great relationship with the owners and with the fans.

        3) there is not a set cutoff date for super two status, so the more teams game it the later it is. To be sure of not being a super two requires holding a player back months rather than weeks.

        4) other utter stupidities – WTF is this wisdom that if you don’t go to the playoff performance is wasted? Likewise the assumption that screwing a player won’t effect their performance later on.

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  9. Bookbook says:

    Ackley’s defense will magically be good enoughnin about ten days…

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  10. chris d says:

    Will Ackley’s offense make up for his defense? Can/will Wedge move Adam Kennedy to 3B in place of Figgins when Ackley comes up. That will be a much improved infield- Smoak, Ackley, Brendan Ryan (playing very very well both D and O) and Kennedy. Go M’s!!!

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  11. Justin says:

    I thought I read somewhere that since Jennings was in the majors last September, the Rays would have to wait until July to avoid Super 2 status for him. Is that right? And if so, would they really hold him back that long given how well he’s playing and Sam Fuld is not?

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