Is arbitration eligibility impacting the St. Louis Cardinals' decision to promote (or not) Oscar Taveras, Stephen Piscotty, or Randal Grichuk?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals' bench is punchless. The Triple-A outfield is chock full of quality bats. Is arbitration eligibility one of the factors influencing the Cards' decision on whether to promote an outfielder to be a major-league bench bat?

On Saturday, fourstick examined whether the St. Louis Cardinals should promote Oscar Taveras to the big-league roster. I’m by and large in agreement with his rationale for keeping Taveras in Triple-A, where he can rack up multiple plate appearances every game after missing about three months of the 2013 season due to season-ending ankle surgery. I want to explore another consideration that is a factor in keeping not only Taveras in the minors, but also Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty (in addition to their unique developmental needs).That is "Super Two" arbitration eligibility.

We’ve previously delved into the tiered earning system established by Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Seniority through MLB service time dictates all. 172 days equals one year of MLB service time per the CBA. A player’s earning potential is based on the number of years in MLB service time he has amassed. Typically, players are guaranteed the league-minimum salary ( this year, it's $500,000, although teams have the discretion to pay them more than that) until the season after they notch three years of MLB service time and qualify for salary arbitration.

MLB SALARY ARBITRATION

Every offseason, MLB teams decide whether or not to tender a contract to the arbitration-eligible players under their control. Last Hot Stove, the Cardinals tendered contracts to Peter Bourjos (whose rights they acquired from the Angels), Jon Jay, and Daniel Descalso. St. Louis also elected not to tender a contract to the arbitration-eligible John Axford (whose rights they acquired from the Brewers) and the reliever became a free agent, ultimately signing to be Cleveland’s closer.

After the club tenders a player a contract, the player and team exchange salary numbers that set up two poles—one high, the other low—from which an independent panel of three arbitrators will choose from if the matter proceeds that far. The either-or structure of salary arbitration gives both parties incentive to reach an agreement that finds a middle ground on the player’s salary prior to proceeding to an adversarial hearing (which the Cardinals did this past winter with Bourjos, Jay, and Descalso). If the player and club are unable to reach an agreement on salary for the following season, there is a hearing at which both sides will present their respective cases. Based upon the parties’ presentations, the three-arbitrator panel will select one side’s proposed salary figure over the other’s using the following factors:

  • "Player’s contribution to his Club during the past season (including but not limited to his overall performance, special qualities of leadership and public appeal)"
  • "the length and consistency of his career contribution"
  • "the record of the Player’s past compensation"
  • "comparative baseball salaries"
  • "the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the Player"
  • "the recent performance record of the Club including but not limited to its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance"

The panel may not consider the financial standing of either the player or the club. In other words, if the player is independently wealthy, the arbitrators can’t base their salary decision on his relative need for wages. Likewise, in deciding on the player’s salary, the arbitration panel cannot consider whether the player’s controlling club is a big market franchise with a lot of money to spend (like the Dodgers) or a small-market team with lesser revenues (like the Rays).

Additionally, arbitrators are prohibited from considering press testimonials and other media coverage, except for offseason player awards like the MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, etc. Also barred from consideration are any offers made prior to hearing in an effort to reach an agreement without prior to arbitration. The panel is forbidden from considering the cost of the parties’ respective representation in the proceedings, too.

As a general rule, players typically earn approximately 40% of what they would as a free agent in their first year of arbitration, about 60% in year two, and around 80% in their third year of arbitration. The jump in salary from a player's league-minimum years to arbitration-eligible years is often in the millions of dollars.

SUPER TWO PLAYERS

There is a small group of players who qualify for salary arbitration before accruing three years of MLB service time. These are the players who qualify for arbitration via Super Two status. To qualify for Super Two salary arbitration, a player must:

1) Have at least two but less than three years of MLB service time;

2) Accrue 86 days or more of MLB service time in the immediately preceding season; and

3) Rank in the top 22% (rounded to the nearest whole number) among players who meet the criteria of Nos. 1 and 2.

Super Two players qualify for salary arbitration in the offseason before they otherwise would have by reaching the plateau of three years of MLB service time. This means Super Two players qualify for four years of salary arbitration and only earn the league minimum for two seasons. So early salary arbitration means a raise in pay for the player.

ARBITRATION & THE TIMING OF PROMOTIONS TO MLB

Because arbitration and free-agency eligibility are dependent on MLB service time, clubs have been known to manipulate the call-up dates of top prospects in order to ensure that they are paid as little as possible for as long as possible. For example, the Astros called up George Springer just enough days into the season that he won’t be able to qualify for salary arbitration until after his fourth MLB season and free agency until after his seventh. Springer has the potential to qualify for Super Two status, however, which he wouldn’t have if Houston had waited until later in the season to promote him. An example of Super Two denial can be found in Andrew McCutchen, who the Pirates waited to promote until after Memorial Day 2009.

To the Cardinals’ credit, the organization seems to rarely base prospect-promotion decisions on service-time considerations. Instead, St. Louis has shown a tendency to promote prospects to the MLB roster because they have the talent to help the team win now. Jaime Garcia started the 2010 season in the St. Louis rotation. Colby Rasmus, the club’s top prospect at the time, made the 2009 MLB opening day roster (and, as a result, is poised to make a lot of money this offseason, after the minimum six years of MLB service time and just six seasons in the majors). Likewise with the organization’s top prospect entering the 2013 season, Shelby Miller, made the opening day rotation.

A closer case comes in the form of Michael Wacha, who the club did not promote to St. Louis until May 30, 2013—a date that falls right around Memorial Day, the usual benchmark date for Super Two eligibility. Shortly after his promotion, the club sent him back down the minors. The ostensible rationale for the organization’s handling of Wacha was banking innings so he could pitch in October, but one wonders whether tamping down his salary by limiting his MLB service time accrual was another factor in the front office’s calculation. After all, because of his late call-up and trips on the Memphis-St. Louis shuttle, Wacha amassed just 0.062 years of MLB service time in his rookie season. He probably won’t qualify for Super Two status and definitely won’t be arbitration eligible until 2017 (after participating in four MLB seasons). The situation was a win-win for the Cardinals: develop Wacha at the club’s preferred pace and limit his earning potential.

This season, Taveras, Piscotty, and Grichuk find themselves in a position more closely analogous to Wacha in 2013 than Rasmus in 2009. Each player will benefit from playing every day for Memphis. A call-up later in the season for any of them has the potential to hit the sweet spot on both the player-development curve and salary spectrum.

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