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When Should Bryce Harper Get The Call?

The Washington Nationals have already decided that Bryce Harper [1] will begin the season in the minors, as they optioned him to Triple-A Syracuse on Sunday. However, they have another critical decision to make regarding their 19-year-old phenom, and how they decide to proceed will have a significant impact on the amount of money they’ll be paying him over the next seven years.

By keeping Harper in the minors for the entire month of April, the Nationals will ensure that he will fall short of the necessary 172 days of service required for one full year of service, as defined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Having Harper begin 2012 in the minors will allow the team to retain his rights for the 2018 season – had he began the year in the Majors and accrued six full seasons of service time by the end of the 2017 season, he would have been eligible for free agency after his age 24 season. Now, the Nationals will also own the rights to his age 25 season.

However, the timing of his debut will go a long way in determining his salaries from 2015 through 2018. If Harper is called up before July 1st, he may be classified as a “Super Two” at the conclusion of 2014 – the top 22 percent of players with 2+ years of service (but less than the full three needed to qualify for arbitration) are upgraded to early-entry arbitration. Instead of going through the process three times, they are granted four arbitration hearings, and can begin to escalate their salaries a year earlier than players with two years of service time who do not qualify as Super Twos.

The total cost differences can add up very quickly, and beyond just allowing Super Twos to receive a substantial paycheck a year earlier, the system of annual raises creates a compounding effect where these benefit from their status even after the initial trip through arbitration. For example, here are Hunter Pence [2]’s annual salaries during the first six years of his career:

2007 – $380,000
2008 – $396,000
2009 – $439,000
2010 – $3,500,000 (Super Two eligible)
2011 – $6,900,000
2012 – $10,400,000

Total: $22,015,000

Pence was called up to the Majors on April 28, 2007, so he’s just a bit short of having five full years of service. However, because he was a Super Two, he’s already had three shots at arbitration, and his salaries have risen much faster than if he had been called up later in the season.

To see the magnitude of the difference, here is the same salary table for Jacoby Ellsbury [3], who was called up from the Majors on June 30, 2007, and did not qualify as a Super Two.

2007 – $380,000
2008 – $406,000
2009 – $449,500
2010 – $497,000
2011 – $2,400,000
2012 – $8,050,000

Total: $11,802,000

Since getting called up, Pence has made twice as much as Ellsbury, even though they’ve been similarly productive players when on the field. Ellsbury’s 2011 salary was held down a bit because he missed nearly all of the 2010 season due to injury, but you can see the effects of starting arbitration early in their 2012 salaries, as Ellsbury was still not able to earn a salary as large as Pence even coming off his monster 2011 season where he finished second in the AL MVP voting.

So, what does this effect mean for Harper? It’s impossible to know exactly what he’s going to be paid in future arbitration sessions considering that we don’t know exactly how well he’s going to perform, but we can make assumptions based on projections that have him ending up as one of the game’s best players by the time he would be Super Two eligible after the 2014 season.

Here are the breakdowns of expected salaries for both situations (his 2012-2015 salaries are based on the MLB deal he signed out of the draft – he can opt out of the 2015 salary if he’s arbitration eligible), based on Harper developing into a star by the end of the 2014 season, and adjusting for normal inflation through the arbitration process.

Called up May 1st, Super Two eligible:

2012 – $500,000
2013 – $750,000
2014 – $900,000
2015 – $7,000,000
2016 – $10,500,000
2017 – $15,750,000
2018 – $23,625,000

Total: $59,025,000

Called up July 1st, not Super Two eligible:

2012 – $500,000
2013 – $750,000
2014 – $900,000
2015 – $1,000,000
2016 – $9,000,000
2017 – $13,500,000
2018 – $20,250,000

Total: $45,900,000

Harper’s starting salary in arbitration is a bit higher in scenario two, because presumably his numbers in 2015 will be even better than they were the year before, but you can see the significant cumulative effects that going to arbitration after the 2014 season can have on his salaries going forward. Just by reaching arbitration early, the total difference over the next seven years is nearly $14 million.

That’s a pretty expensive cost for giving Harper two extra months in the Major Leagues this season. If they believe that he’s going to be a drastic upgrade over their current set of outfielders and could push them towards playoff contention, it’s probably still worth doing, but if Rick Ankiel [4] is playing well, they should consider giving Harper a couple more months to hang out in Syracuse. The cost of bringing him up on May 1st compared to July 1st is substantial, and the Nationals should be sure that they’re getting enough reward to justify giving Harper an early bite at arbitration.