On Saturday, against the red hot Dodgers, Washington Nationals phenom, Bryce Harper, made his big league debut at the tender age of 19. Even though the great Matt Kemp stole the show, Harper’s raw ability was evident and impressive. The kid obviously has the potential to be one heck of a ballplayer.
The interesting thing about Harper’s early call up is that it went completely against the Nationals plans. He has been in the minors for a very short amount of time and has struggled a little in both AA and AAA. They’ve said all along that they would take their time with Harper. And of course, there is the dreaded Super 2 status that Harper will definitely qualify for if he stays in the bigs all year. You have to hand it to the Nationals though. They have a chance to compete this year, but have a major production problem in the outfield and are dealing with a slew of unfortunate injuries. They put future financial considerations on the back burner in order to make their team better now. Naturally, the obvious question, for the purposes of this blog, is whether the Rockies should take a similar approach with Nolan Arenado.
Any discussion about the Rox calling up Arenado needs to include a quick summary of baseball’s Super 2 rule. So, if you already know how this works, feel free to skip ahead. If you don’t quite have a handle on it, here is a breakdown. Basically, MLB teams maintain rights on players for six full years once they begin playing in the majors. Once a player reaches three complete years of big league service time, they become subject to arbitration, and unless a contract extension is agreed upon, they will continue to be arbitration eligible every year until they reach free agency. This process leads to large yearly pay increases even for average players.
The “Super 2” rule is dreaded by GMs because it adds another year to the process, taking qualifying players from three years of arbitration to four. It kicks in for players who have two plus years of service in the bigs and were in the top 22% of callups during their debut season. In the past, when the cut off was the top 17% of callups, teams could usually get around the Super 2 rule by waiting to promote deserving prospects in late May or early June. However, this year, they will have to wait longer because the new CBA changed the cut off from 17% to 22%. Right now, the projected cut off line is late June or early July.
For an example of how detrimental this can be to teams, we need to look no further than the arbitration history between Tim Lincecum and the Giants. In 2007, despite being nowhere in sight of the pennant race, the Giants called Lincecum up in early May, putting him into Super 2 status. In 2008, the year he won his first Cy Young, the Giants paid Lincecum $405,000. The next year, when he won his second Cy Young award, they paid him $650,000. After that season, his Super 2 status kicked in, and since arbitration is based on performance, Lincecum was awarded $9 million. If, in 2007, the Giants had waited a month longer to call him up, they probably would’ve paid him less than $1 million in 2010. The extra month they got out of Lincecum in 2007 came with an $8 million penalty and the price tag has skyrocketed every since. Needless to say, a similar scenario with Arenado would not be in the Rockies best interest. Granted, he probably won’t already have two MVPs under his belt when he is first up for arbitration, but it’s still a matter of saving millions.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the season up to this point is that third base is once again the biggest hole in the Rockies’ lineup. Chris Nelson’s career sample size isn’t quite large enough to draw any permanent conclusions from, but he has racked up enough plate appearances for us to at least pay attention and there has been very little to indicate that he will ever be anything more than a replacement level ballplayer. Jordan Pacheco’s bat is promising, but it’s doubtful he will ever be a solid defender. He was a second baseman at New Mexico and was moved to catcher by the Rockies because they didn’t think he was quick enough to play second. His biggest issue at third, and catcher really, is a lack of arm strength. No matter how much work he puts in at third for the Sky Sox, his lack of range and arm strength isn’t going to change. Pacheco is just a guy without a position. His bat has been ready for two seasons now, but the Rox don’t have a place to play him. So, it’s a waiting game with Jordan. Right now, they need him at third, but are having to wait to see if his defense can develop to a point where he is at least serviceable. Something has to give though. In the NL, in terms of WAR, only the Cubs have received less production from third than the Rockies. (Obviously, the change of scenery hasn’t done much for Ian.)
The answer to this riddle is obviously really easy – Nolan Arenado. Recently, Kevin Goldstein rated him the second best prospect for fantasy baseball in 2012. (Sorry, this is behind the ESPN Insider wall.) Goldstein believes that Nolan’s ability to make contact will lead to a high average at Coors Field, and most importantly, the Rockies need him so badly at third that he will be given the job at some point this year. It really is just a matter of time. Unfortunately, it can’t be now because the Rox can’t afford to pay the penalty in a few years.
This is the major problem with MLB’s Super 2 rule. Teams are actually discouraged from promoting young talent to the bigs. Obviously, the players like this rule because it leads to early pay days for elite performers, but it’s an awful rule for fans. At this point, there really is no reason why we shouldn’t be watching Arenado at third in May, but we will have to wait until July most likely. If anything, teams should have incentives to display their young talent, but since the players and owners just had a chance to change the rule and actually made it more restrictive, it’s doubtful that this will change any time soon. So, we’ll just have to live with it. And honestly, who can blame the Rockies for waiting around? They’re just operating within the confines of the system.
The only other option for the Rockies on Arenado is to approach it like the Rays did with Evan Longoria. Over the last couple of seasons, Longoria has been baseball’s most valuable player. I don’t mean that in the traditional MVP award sense. I mean it literally. His production on field combined with his extremely team friendly contract makes him more valuable than any other player in baseball.
In 2008, after Longoria had logged just six big league ballgames, the Rays took a leap of faith and signed him to a six year extension with only $17.5 million guaranteed. Lincecum blew past $17.5 million in his second year of arbitration. Basically, the Rays took the mystery out of Longoria’s arbitration years by agreeing to a pre-determined contract for their six years of control over the player. But, that’s not all. After the first six years are up, the Rays hold a team option in 2014 for $7.5 million, in 2015 for $11 million, and in 2016 for $11.5 million. That’s three team options tacked on to the end of the deal, and compared to today’s contract prices, all three options are a bargain. You probably won’t find a more team friendly contract in all of professional sports.
The Rays took a risk by committing to Longoria that early, but it has paid off enormously. A couple of things have to happen for this kind of deal to work out for the Rockies and Arenado. First of all, the Rays were sure about Longoria. Because of the difference in age and playing experience at this stage of their careers, Arenado is more of a risk than Longoria was for the Rays. It may require Arenado to prove himself at the big league level in the second half and then the Rockies can feel more confident about this approach in the winter. And secondly, Arenado would have to be open to this type of thing. Without a doubt, Longoria has cost himself quite a bit of money over the long term. Plus, it’s hard to imagine that the players’ union looks too kindly on this kind of deal. There will be pressure on Arenado to get to free agency. Longoria hedged his bet. When he signed that deal, he no longer had to worry about the financial implications if he flamed out in the bigs. Arenado would have to be in that kind of mindset for it to work.
Today, the Rockies sit 5.5 games back of the Dodgers, and based on the performance of the starting rotation, they may be .500 ball club all year. If they call up Arenado, will it really increase their chances of winning the division this year? Last I checked, he can’t pitch, so I’m skeptical. I’d love to see him at third tonight, but waiting to call him up until July is the more prudent move. Unless something changes – a big win streak for example – expect the Rockies to wait it out at third until the second half of the season.
Regardless of when it happens, Arenado’s debut probably won’t garner the attention of Bryce Harper’s first game. However, for Rockies fans, it will be an equally momentous occasion and will definitely be one of the high points of the 2012 season. Like Harper, the kid can flat out rake.
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