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May 27, 2010

Contractual Matters

The Strasburg Clock

by Jeff Euston

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The Stephen Strasburg Watch has lasted almost a year now. When the Washington Nationals selected him with the first pick in the 2009 First Year Player Draft, he was hailed as the best college pitching prospect ever. He signed a record contract in August, then impressed in the Arizona Fall League. This spring, he turned heads in major-league spring training and now he has dominated at the top two levels of the minor leagues.

In just a handful of starts as a pro, Strasburg has become baseball’s version of the Dos Equis pitchman, The Most Interesting Man in the World: His reputation is expanding faster than the universe. After witnessing two of the phenom’s starts for his Triple-A Syracuse club, manager Trent Jewett concluded that Strasburg is so good that the hype surrounding him is actually understated.

So what is he doing throwing against Scranton/Wilkes Barre on Saturday night in Syracuse? Well, the Nationals have an answer. They have a few, actually. And they’ll list them with a straight face:

  1. Strasburg needs to adjust to starting every fifth day, not once a week, as he did at San Diego State.
  2. He needs work pitching with men on base, though his 0.706 WHIP is not allowing him much experience in that area.
  3. More generally, Strasburg simply needs development time as a professional. Or, like the Dos Equis guy, maybe he will experience an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.

The unspoken answer, of course, is that the timing of Strasburg’s major-league debut has significant financial and competitive implications for the Nationals. Keeping him in the minors to start the season allows Washington to control his rights for nearly seven major-league seasons, rather than six. Keeping Strasburg down until June is likely to prevent him from reaching the service time necessary for salary arbitration until after the 2013 season, saving the club millions.

But despite the buzz surrounding Strasburg’s pending arrival in the Beltway, his situation is not unique. Giants fans are awaiting the promotion of catcher Buster Posey, who is hitting at a .346/.441/.525 clip while working on his defense and game-calling skills at Triple-A Fresno. Indians fans are clamoring to see catcher Carlos Santana, who has compiled a .313/.447/.573 slash line at Triple-A Columbus. And Marlins fans wonder when they’ll see 20-year-old outfielder Mike Stanton, who is hitting .318/.451/.734 with 17 home runs for Double-A Jacksonville.

Developing a prospect into a major leaguer is not a hard science. The promotion of a player can hinge on countless factors, ranging from hard numbers like age, league or production to the more subjective, such as maturity, makeup, or need at the next level. But the rules regarding service time, salaries, arbitration, and free agency are there in black and white, often subjecting front office roster decisions to review from the Major League Baseball Players Association, agents, players themselves, or any fan with his favorite team’s pocket schedule.

As many fans already know, a player earns major-league service time for each day he spends on the active 25-man roster or on the major-league 15-day or 60-day disabled lists. A player also continues to earn service time while serving any disciplinary suspension. Baseball’s labor agreement defines one year of service as 172 days, though a full season generally lasts 183 calendar days. If a player is sent to the minor leagues on optional assignment for a total of less than 20 days during a season, he receives service time for the entire season. A player needs six full seasons of service to become a free agent, and players generally need three years of service to qualify for arbitration. But the top 17 percent with at least two but less than three years of service qualify under the Super Two provision, with the cutoff point usually falling between two years, 128 days and two years, 140 days.

Regardless of the reasons a club chooses to promote a player, the timing often has long-reaching consequences on the franchise’s bottom line. If Strasburg had made the Opening Day rotation, he’d be eligible for arbitration after the 2012 season and free agency after the 2015 season. Washington avoided that scenario by starting him in the minors in 2010, ensuring he’s off the free-agent market until after the 2016 season.

If, as expected, Strasburg is promoted to the majors sometime between June 8-10 for a three-game series with the Pirates at Nationals Park, he will be able to earn a maximum of 118 days of service in 2010, which almost certainly prevents him from qualifying for arbitration as a Super Two after the 2012 season. If Strasburg proves to be a smashing success in the majors, the timing of the promotion could save the Nationals as much as $18 million through 2016, according to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post, who did the math.

For the Nationals, who began the season as long shots, it’s an easy call. But for clubs trying to win now, the decision is not always so clear-cut.

Atlanta kept young ace Tommy Hanson in the minors until June 3 last season, promoting him only after Jo-Jo Reyes and Kris Medlen faltered in the starting rotation. In the last four months of the season, Hanson pitched 127 2/3 innings and struck out 116 in 21 starts for the Braves, who made a late run at the National League wild-card spot before falling six games short. Had Hanson’s 11 starts in April and May come in Atlanta rather than Triple-A Gwinnett, the Braves conceivably could have closed the gap.

The Brewers met a similar fate in 2007 when they held off on promoting Ryan Braun until late May. Braun hit 10 home runs and slugged .701 in 34 games for Triple-A Nashville before coming to Milwaukee, where he hit .324/.370/.634 in 113 games. The Brewers battled the Cubs for the NL Central title until the last weekend of the season, but ultimately finished two games out.

Obviously, the timing of a promotion is also something of a reflection on a front office’s outlook: Does the team need to win now? Or is the franchise taking a longer view and building to win two or four years from now? That issue colors roster usage and construction for every club, from how the Yankees use Joba Chamberlain to whether Cardinals manager Tony La Russa resorts to using starting pitchers in a 20-inning game with the Mets in April. It’s rare that any team has the 25 most-talented players in the organization on the active major-league roster at once. And, despite the cries from some fans, that fact hardly compromises the integrity of the game.

Money often is not the overriding consideration, anyway. The Braves put 2007 first-round pick Jason Heyward on their Opening Day roster this spring. Rookie Mike Leake made the Reds’ rotation out of spring training. Premium prospects Justin Smoak, Starlin Castro, and Ike Davis were promoted to the majors in late April or early May, putting them in position to be Super Twos after the 2012 season.

Yes, the size of the Super Two pool could be changed in an effort to encourage teams to bring premium young players to the majors before June. But any change would need to be negotiated in the next round of labor talks. The owners certainly would resist expanding the pool, and the players would resist reducing it. And in any event, as long as any service-time milestones are in place, the cost of promoting a player will be an important consideration. In a $6-billion industry, it’s both necessary and inevitable. And if Strasburg is truly worth the wait, Nationals fans will gladly trade two months of 20-year-old Strasburg in 2010 for a full season of 27-year-old Strasburg in 2016.

Jeff Euston is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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