Why Isn't My MLB Team's Top Prospect Getting Called Up?

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Why Isn't My MLB Team's Top Prospect Getting Called Up?
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

At long, long (loooong) last, super prospect Gregory Polanco of the Pittsburgh Pirates is being promoted Tuesday, as Tom Singer of MLB.com writes. That makes it a great day for Polanco, the Pirates, their fans and baseball as a whole, since one of the sport's premier young talents will be making his debut.

As much as this news—which Polanco himself announced on Twitter—is exciting, though, it also brings to light something that has become a needless and short-sighted problem for Major League Baseball. To put it simply, teams have taken to keeping their top prospects in the minors as a way of manipulating their service time.

The reason? A little rule that has become a big deal in recent years known as "Super Two" status.

In case you're unfamiliar with the term, here's the explanation of Super Two straight from MLB.com:

A player with three or more years of service, but less than six years, may file for salary arbitration. In addition, a player can be classified as a "Super Two" and be eligible for arbitration with less than three years of service. A player with at least two but less than three years of Major League service shall be eligible for salary arbitration if he has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season and he ranks in the top 22 percent (increased from 17 percent in previous agreements) in total service in the class of Players who have at least two but less than three years of Major League service, however accumulated, but with at least 86 days of service accumulated during the immediately preceding season.

That's a long, complicated way of saying that certain players wind up going through the arbitration process four times instead of the usual three, which puts them on a quicker path to making a higher salary.

The popular misconception surrounding Super Two is that there's a hard-and-fast "deadline date" after which players can be called up. In reality, this is a moving target, as Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors shows by laying out the past five Super Two cutoffs:

Recent Super Two Cutoff Dates
Year Service Time to Qualify for Super Two
2013 2 years, 122 days
2012 2 years, 139 days
2011 2 years, 146 days
2010 2 years, 122 days
2009 2 years, 139 days

MLB Trade Rumors

While team decision-makers won't publicly admit as much, delaying the promotion of prospects is primarily about saving money. Baseball, after all, is a business, and saving money is good for business. Except in this case, it's also a maddening, frustrating way to operate, and frankly, the payoff isn't necessarily worth it in the end.

Plus, this often leads to front office executives and managers spewing tired lines and retread explanations as to why a particular prospect—including shortstop Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs, right-hander Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets and lefty Andrew Heaney of the Miami Marlins—isn't helping the big league club yet.

In Polanco's case, Pirates GM Neal Huntington repeatedly insisted the outfielder was "continuing to refine some of the intricacies of his game," as Rob Biertempfel of Trib Live reported at the end of April. This despite the fact that the 22-year-old has looked more than major league-ready while hitting north of .350 into June at Triple-A.

To be fair, Polanco, a natural center fielder, was being groomed to play right field—reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen is in center—and perhaps hit leadoff, as Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in late May. So, yes, there were some things for Polanco to work on.

Ultimately, though, the baseball world is getting its first look at Polanco on June 10 instead of May 10 or even April 10 more or less so Pittsburgh can save some money in the long run.

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press
Pirates GM Neal Huntington isn't at fault for keeping Gregory Polanco in the minors.

That amount could wind up being several million dollars, and certainly, every little bit counts for a small-market team like the Pirates. But the fact that the very structure of the sport, thanks to the Super Two rule, encourages teams to keep their top young talent out of the majors is something that dates back at least to the Tampa Bay then-Devil Rays and Delmon Young in the mid-2000s—and needs to change.

This isn't at all how it goes in other professional sports. In basketball and football, players go straight from college to the NBA and NFL—and often can have a major impact right away. In hockey, some of the non-elite drafted amateurs might spend a little time in developmental leagues, but there's nothing that benefits a team from keeping its best prospects off NHL ice.

Imagine the uproar had the Cleveland Cavaliers not immediately unleashed LeBron James after drafting him. Or the constant questions the Indianapolis Colts would have faced if they kept claiming that Andrew Luck just wasn't ready yet. Or if it wasn't in the best interests of the Penguins to promote Sidney Crosby right away.

That last example is a little more close to home for the folks in Pittsburgh.

G. Bartram/Getty Images
The Penguins, another Pittsburgh team, had no reason not to hand the reins to Sidney Crosby immediately after drafting him.

Yet because of the Super Two, baseball teams actually have money as a motivating factor for keeping their next big things in the minor leagues, where they dominate the competition and inspire awe among fans—all while riding buses and playing in ballparks with one tier of seats.

While this keep-the-prospects-down approach has become popular over the past handful of seasons as a way of doing baseball business, there are examples of clubs choosing to promote their top youngsters once they're deemed ready—Super Two be damned!—and having success because of it.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press
The Giants have a pair of World Series rings in recent years, in part because they didn't wait to promote Tim Lincecum once he was ready.

Perhaps the best for-instance of that is Tim Lincecum with the San Francisco Giants, who debuted on May 6, 2007. The right-hander put that extra experience to good use by winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009, and he remained a key contributor during the Giants' World Series wins in 2010 and 2012.

As Matt Shetler of City of Champions Sports notes, here's how that decision played out financially for Lincecum, who qualified for Super Two, compared fellow pitching phenom Clayton Kershaw, who didn't after being promoted by the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 25, 2008:

One great Super 2 example is that of San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, who qualified for it and made $9 million during his first year of arbitration. His salary went up $4-5 million each of his next three arbitration years until he was making $22 million during his final arbitration season.

To compare, Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was not a Super 2 and made $500K in his fourth season in the majors. He proceeded to jump to $7.5 million and $11 million his next two arbitration seasons.

Look, that's a big difference—and a lot of money—so it's hard to hate on the Pirates for their decision with Polanco. But the problem is that the Pirates—a franchise that just last year ended a record 20-season streak of finishing below .500 and falling short of the postseason—really could have used Polanco over the first two-plus months of this season.

They've managed to hang around .500 (30-33) and the NL playoff picture, but it's hard not to play the what-if-they-had-Polanco-all-along game right about now, isn't it?

How much will the Pirates regret waiting so long to promote Gregory Polanco?

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There's a pretty strong argument to be made that saving what might end up being a few (or even several) million dollars isn't worth it to a team when it comes to winning in the here and now—let alone creating some buzz and attracting fans to the park to come see their next star.

In essence, the Pirates are hoping that Polanco becomes so great so soon that they wind up saving several million dollars on him a handful of years from now. And again, it's not their fault for handling their prized prospect as they have.

There has to be a better way, doesn't there? Maybe the league and players association should consider shrinking the percentage of players who qualify for Super Two to, say, 10 percent during the next labor negotiations. That would encourage clubs to get their best prospects up sooner rather than later.

Or maybe the idea of the Super Two simply should be abolished. While the point of the rule is to allow more young players to get paid a higher salary sooner via arbitration, if it's actually delaying their arrival in the major leagues—and in many cases, clearly it is—then ultimately the rule is costing players service time and, thus, money.

The Super Two rule is one of the main reasons teams have been trying to lock up young players to long-term extensions very early in their careers, a trend that's gaining more and more steam. That's just what happened with Jonathan Singleton of the Houston Astros last week, and not coincidentally, he made his MLB debut the very next day.

Earlier in the season, Pittsburgh tried to do the same thing with Polanco, but he rejected the offer. Undoubtedly, that kept him in the minors—until now.

As Huntington told Menendez last month:

Everyone wants to pretend there's this magic date or this magic number [for Super Two]. ... We don't know that. That's why we don't let it drive our decisions. If you did, and you're wrong, then you should've had the player up the whole time.

Just a thought: Maybe baseball should work on making that the point in the first place.

 

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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