Last Friday afternoon, it seemed like the cynical view of the Cardinals Front Office was the correct one. On the eve of an AL road swing when they would need a Designated Hitter, the team would leave their best hitting prospect in Memphis. Instead, Randal Grichuk got the call. Oscar Taveras would have to destroy the Pacific Coast League for a couple more weeks until the Super Two deadline passed, saving the team an extra year of salary arbitration.
But the very next day, Matt Adams was on the DL and Oscar was in St. Louis. He announced his presence with authority by sending a ball screaming into the right field seats. Cardinal fans were free to talk about baseball and not the minutiae of service time.
Our story had a happy ending, with the needs on the field seemingly trumping the dollars and cents. But Super Two remains a mysterious, underlying motivation that fans speculate about and GMs desperately want to avoid talking about.
The Wizard of Pittsburgh, Neal Huntington, still insists fans pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, despite blue chip prospect Gregory Polanco murdering AAA baseballs while their current right field platoon puts up negative WAR. When Pirates blog Rumbunter recently documented the four justifications Huntington has given for the non-move, Super Two wasn’t even mentioned. Asked directly about it by a beat reporter, Huntington conceded Super Two might be a consideration, but was "not a driving factor."
That’s the playbook when it comes to discussing Super Two: Deny or grudgingly acknowledge it as a factor, then point to other issues of development or intangibles. Last April, Rays GM Andrew Friedman told MLB.com that his primary concern was that Wil Myers' weaknesses would be exposed in the AL East. Myers overcame those weaknesses just in time to make his debut June 18 and earn Rookie of the Year honors.
The cynical fan sees this and concludes it’s really all about Super Two. The spike in top prospects arriving in mid-June has even beenshown empirically. But the other reasons to keep top prospects down on the farm are often valid, too. In the case of the Cardinals, Taveras did need to show he was healthy. It did make sense to see if he could handle center field.
Avoiding Super Two may not be the primary reason a GM keeps a top prospect in the minors. But even if it is, it’s almost impossible for them to admit it.
For one thing, to do so would be a very naked way of saying "we are fielding a less than optimal roster in order to save money." Local Sports Talk radio would start handing out torches and pitchforks.
Talking openly about the ramifications of Super Two could also have serious legal and financial consequences, as it may already have had for the Astros with George Springer.
On the surface, Springer - like Taveras - would seem to be an example of a team saying "damn the torpedoes" with a top prospect. But the reality is a bit more complex. The team reportedly offered Springer a guaranteed seven-year, $23 million contract during the offseason, which would presumably have him on the Opening Day roster. Springer declined the offer and was given a bus ticket to Oklahoma City. According to reports in the Houston Chronicle, Springer and his reps may have considered pursuing a grievance or other legal action against the Astros for manipulating his service clock, which may in-turn have motivated his early promotion.
In other words, to the extent that the Astros acknowledged that they were waiting to promote Springer in order to avoid granting him Super Two status, they were opening themselves up to action from the Player’s Association. The first rule of Super Two is don’t talk about Super Two.
But while Springer turned the Astros down, Jon Singleton has just accepted what Dave Cameron of Fangraphs called a "Sign-and-Promote" deal, which will reportedly have him in the majors later this week. Singleton's deal was reportedly for five years, with three team-option years, and a maximum value of $35 million. The Astros are not the only team to try such a move. According to multiple sources, the Pirates offered Polanco a seven-year deal in the $50 to $60 million range, which he, like Springer, declined.
As more teams try to buy out the arbitration years of young talent, Super Two - which determines how many arbitration years the team is buying - will continue to be a fulcrum. And with talking about Super Two bringing potential backlash from fans and the union, it will be very hard to know what role it has in shaping a big league roster.
The Romantic sees the Cardinals brass promote Oscar Taveras at just the right time, when he’s best positioned to help the ball club. The Cynic sees a team that tried desperately to save a buck until an injury and the need for a DH forced their hand. Super Two remains a mystery; we can see whatever we want in it.