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June 12, 2015

Rubbing Mud

Super Boo

by Matthew Trueblood

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On Monday, Carlos Correa became the 14th prospect on our preseason Top 101 list to make his big-league debut this season. It’s fair to assume that he’s now up for good, and if that assumption holds, Correa will finish the season with 119 days of service time in MLB.

Joey Gallo’s situation is less certain. Called up to replace the injured Adrian Beltre a week and a half ago, Gallo debuted on June 2nd, and should he remain in the majors for the balance of the season, he’ll finish it with 126 days to his credit. Of course, Rangers GM Jon Daniels made it clear at the time of Gallo’s promotion that Gallo isn’t expected to remain in the majors. Once Beltre returns, the plan is for Gallo to head to Triple-A Round Rock and round out his development. Beltre’s healing has been frustratingly slow, but he’s probably not all that far away. Gallo is hitting .313/.371/.531 in his first 35 career plate appearances, but unless he at least sustains that pace, he’s headed back to the farm in a few weeks. The only possible explanation for that is this: If Gallo does end up with 126 days of service this year, two years later, he’s a 50/50 or better bet to be Super Two–eligible.

It might seem that the Rangers are set to make a self-immolating decision in the name of pinching a few pennies, but take a close look, and the Astros have already done the same thing. Jed Lowrie got hurt on April 27th. Since then, Houston has been limping by with Marwin Gonzalez as their primary shortstop. (Gonzalez has a .453 OPS in 91 plate appearances at the position.) The Astros were 12–6 in the 18 games Lowrie played. In the 40 they played without Lowrie before calling up Correa, they were 22–18. You can probably see already why it took so long for the Houston front office to summon help: Never, in the last six years, has the Super Two cutoff dipped below two years, 122 days of service. The projected cutoff for this coming winter, for what it’s worth, is an astoundingly high two years, 140 days.

On the occasion of Kris Bryant’s demotion in late March, I wrote an article about the coming CBA negotiations, in which I talked a lot about these issues. The Cubs’ choice to keep Bryant in the minors long enough to ensure control of his services in 2021 is akin to the one the Astros made by keeping Correa there long enough to keep him ineligible for arbitration in 2018, and to the one the Rangers appear ready to make by sending Gallo back down, for the same reason. All three of these teams are future-focused, with two of the three several years into prolonged rebuilding projects. Yet, the Astros and Rangers are in first and second place in the AL West, and the Cubs are one of the best teams in the National League. Surprising or not, there’s nothing fake or fluky about any of their playoff candidacies. In that light, it’s ugly and unseemly to see them all making major on-field decisions based on financial, not competitive, interests.

In aforelinked article, I discussed the idea of allowing players to reach free agency sooner (when their service time rounds to six years, instead of once they actually achieve six full years), but abolishing Super Two in exchange. I’m no more certain about the viability of such a proposal now than I was two and a half months ago, but seeing Correa and Gallo held back by the Super Two shuffle certainly raises the urgency of the issue again. I still believe that teams will manipulate service time to the fullest extent the rules allow or incentivize, so the best solution would be one that obliterates at least one of these two cutoffs. The easier one to eliminate, of course, is Super Two.

Let me mention one thing that will seem obvious once I say it, but that many people might not think about. One very important reason the players’ union should push to eliminate one of these cutoff dates is that, under the present model, teams manipulating the free-agency clock are helping themselves (and all of their competitors) manipulate the Super Two clock, too. Say Bryant had broken camp with the Cubs, Carlos Rodon had done so with the White Sox, and Noah Syndergaard with the Mets. Instead of being in line to get Super Two eligibility in 2018, each of those guys would be three-plus players that season, headed for free agency after 2020. Instead, those three are likely to reach that winter of 2017-18 with just a few days short of three years’ service. They’ll be part of the pool of players with between two and three years of service, 22 percent of whom get Super Two eligibility. In other words, one way or the other, those three players are going to be arbitration-eligible after 2017, but because they're in the Super Two group rather than the three-plus group, they push the lowest three two-plus players off the rolls of the arbitration-eligible. If you think being able to nudge that Super Two threshold up and keep, say, Steven Matz from attaining it didn’t help the Mets decide not to carry Syndergaard, you’re kidding yourself.

We’re past any reasonable estimate of the cutoff now. There are arguments (of varying merit) for promoting Kyle Schwarber, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Matz, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Stephen Piscotty to their respective parent clubs. It’s fair to question the judgment of the teams who are holding those players in their farm systems, but there’s no longer cause to question their motives. Rather, we should have spent the last month doing that, because the Rangers and Astros have a chance to make the AL West a shocking, delightful two-team race, and the Cubs have a chance to reach the playoffs sooner than anyone expected a year ago, and none of them treated those chances with the respect they deserve. If cases as high-profile as Bryant’s, Correa’s and Gallo’s can’t effect change, the labor system in MLB is broken worse than I thought.

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

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