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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Super Two, Super For Who?

The Memorial Day weekend was filled with baseball drama.  Roy Halladay hurled the 20th perfect game in baseball history, and the second of the month.  Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols each hit three dingers in a single game.  And, Ubaldo Jimenez became the first player in the modern era to have ten victories before the first day of June.

I would argue, however, that despite all the drama on the field this weekend and throughout 2010 thusfar, the season has been defined by two words: Super Two.
The Memorial Day weekend also featured the promotion of Buster Posey, who compiled six hits in his first seven at-bats.  It was a great ending to a week that had not begun so well for the Giants top prospect.  On Tuesday, San Francisco GM, Brian Sabean, had barked into the Giants sympathetic muzzle, the San Francisco Chronicle, that it was still too early to evaluate Posey's progress:

"There are a lot of sides to it.  He is catching, his playing first base, and he is swinging the bat in a league where it's tough to evaluate a high average.  Under those circumstances, we can't see how Posey would immediately fit in as regards to playing time.  We want an idea that he's going to get significant time.  In this snapshot, it's not presenting itself yet."

Three days later, Posey was playing first base against the Diamondbacks.  How did Sabean's "snapshot" change in those 72 hours?  Well, it had nothing to do with the Posey or anybody else on the Giants roster, that's for sure.

On the opposite side of the nation, the very same cat-and-mouse game was being played by the Nationals GM, Mike Rizzo, in the Washington media.  The Nationals 2009 #1 pick, Stephen Strasburg, easily the most anticipated prospect since A-Rod, has been the subject of speculation for months.  Several media outlet reported that Strasburg's first start would come on either on May 29 or June 4.  On Monday, the 26th, Rizzo responded to those rumors with this statement:

"No, that hasn't been determined yet.  There are factors that will be involved when we announce it.  And even when we announce it, it's not going to be settled on until a couple days after he starts his last start in Triple A."

Those ambiguous "factors," among them the Nats desire to milk as many ticket sales out of the speculation as possible, were apparently fully resolved a week later, when Rizzo announced that Strasburg would make his first start on June 9th, against Pittsburgh.

So, what gives?  Why is it that more and more often we here managers and general managers treating reporters with snarling indignation when asked about the arrival of their top prospects, only to see them turn around and eat those words in only a matter of days?

The simple answer is, of course, Super Two.  The Super Two designation has changed the landscape of baseball, and not to the benefit of the fans or the players.  At the last round of collective bargaining, the Players Union negotiated the Super Two rule with the assumption it would help to get a few more players to the arbitration table each winter.  But they have been foiled by ownership.  Quite to the contrary, it is the teams who have used the Super Two designation to get four extra months of "cheap" labor, especially from burgeoning superstars.  

Last year, the Braves did it with Tommy Hanson.  In '08, it delayed the arrival of Evan Longoria (until after Rays could get him signed to a guaranteed contract).  And, in '07, it pushed back the promotion of Ryan Braun.

By holding off on Strasburg and Posey, the Nationals and the Giants are hoping neither will be eligible for arbitration until the winter of 2013.  In the case of premium talents like these, a few weeks delay could save their franchises as much as $5-$10 Million.  

GMs like Rizzo and Sabean will continue to use the stale rhetoric of "conservative development," but they aren't fooling anybody.  The careers of Posey, Strasburg, Aroldis Chapman, and Michael Stanton are getting late starts for reasons which are purely economic. 

In the "Moneyball" era, I certainly don't blame teams for making decisions informed by fiscal responsibility, but for the betterment of the game, the Super Two rule needs to be among the priorities at the next round of negotiation between MLB and the MLBPA, because there is no denying that these decisions have a detrimental effect on competition.  (If you're a Braves fan who suffered through two months of starts by Jo-Jo Reyes in 2009, you know what I've talking about.)

We can certainly argue about the relative merits of the Nationals and Giants, with or without Strasburg and Posey, but one can't deny that on June 1st, with approximately a third of the season in the bag, each team is sitting only 3.5 games out of first place.  If you're a Nats fan, you can't help but wonder how many more victories your team could have right now if Strasburg had taken some of the starts which were instead handed to Craig Stammen, Matt Chico, J. D. Martin, and Garrett Mock.  If you're a Giants fan who has just suffered through a month in which your team lost ten games by three runs or less and Bengie Molina hit .184, you have the right to ask whether Posey might not have done a little better.

Unfortunately, it won't be long before this issue take on an even more sinister aspect.  Carlos Santana is currently hitting .315 with 10 HR and a 1016 OPS for AAA Columbus.  The Indians current catching tandem of Mike Redmond and Lou Marson are hitting .221 with 0 HR and a 561 OPS.  Santana should've been the Indians backstop on Opening Day and perhaps he will be within a couple weeks.  However, the Indians are also a dozen games back in the AL Central, sitting on one of the worst records in the major leagues.  It may be more than a year before they play meaningful games.  Is there any reason they shouldn't wait until next June to promote Santana, thus delay his arbitration by more than two years, rather than just one?  For a catcher, whose career is could last fifteen years at the most optimistic extreme, two years is a very long time.

Hopefully, it won't every come to this, but in an effort to protect the livelihoods of young players and encourage every organization to put its best product on the field Opening Day and every day thereafter, it's time to stop the abuses of Super Two.

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