First Pitch: Why We Won’t See Top Prospects in the Majors Until Mid-Season

Earlier today the Pittsburgh Pirates made their first cuts of the Spring, which included sending Jameson Taillon to minor league camp. Taillon is the top pitching prospect in the system, and is expected to arrive in Pittsburgh by mid-season. I say “mid-season” not because he needs about two and a half months of Triple-A experience to get ready for the big leagues. I say “mid-season” because there are strong business reasons to keep him in the minors until mid-June or later.

All around the league, top prospects arrive in the majors in mid-June or later to make their debut. It’s not a coincidence why this happens for probably 90% of the top prospects in the league. There are probably legitimate things they need to work on in Triple-A, but the main reason prospects aren’t called up before that date are due to service time and Super Two status.

The MLB season is usually about 182 days long, but a year of service time is counted as 172 days. Teams only control players until they have six years of service time. That means if you wait a few weeks to call up a player in year one, you’ll end the year with less than one year of service time. Thus, you’d have the player for six more years. If you call the player up on Opening Day, you’d only have him for five more years at the end of year one. The trade-off here is that you give up two weeks of a player at a young age, and get an extra year of that player, likely when they’re in their prime years.

But the service time only explains why a player isn’t called up until the second half of April. What about the other two months? That’s where the business decision comes into play. MLB players receive three years of arbitration, which take place in years 4-6 of service time. However, MLB designates a percentage of players as “Super Two” players, giving them an extra year of arbitration, which replaces their final year of league minimum salary. The “Super Two” players are the 22 percent of players with the most service time between two and three years. It’s hard to project an accurate cutoff here, so teams usually play it safe and call up players around the middle of June or later to avoid this status.

The focus here is avoiding an extra year of arbitration, which can be costly in the long run. D Rays Bay looked at the situation for Wil Myers last Spring, and estimated that Myers would cost an extra $15 M over the long run if he reached Super Two status. Amazin’ Avenue took a look at Travis d’Arnaud, and crunched some numbers to estimate that Super Two would cost about $11.5 M extra over the six years of service time.

Now let’s look at the situations with the Pirates this year. Jameson Taillon was sent down. Gregory Polanco will eventually be sent down. Both players are expected to arrive by mid-season to avoid Super Two and get an extra year of service time.

I don’t think I need to explain why it’s smart to get the extra year of service time. You’re trading a few weeks of Gregory Polanco’s age 22 season, all for an entire year of Gregory Polanco’s age 28 season. It’s the same with Taillon. There’s no way their value in those two weeks could match their value in a prime year down the line.

So what about Super Two? Polanco and Taillon are both projected to be impact players down the line, which means the arbitration prices could be costly. Even if they sign extensions, those extensions are going to be based off what they could make in arbitration. So the $10-15 M range would be a good estimate when calculating the added cost of Super Two for these players.

Let’s say Polanco comes up in June and performs exactly like Andrew McCutchen performed when he first came up. McCutchen arrived in early June and had a 3.4 WAR on the season over four months. That’s an 0.85 WAR per month. If Polanco performs at that rate, then you’re giving up two months, or 1.7 WAR, to avoid Super Two.

You do get some of that back with the players who will be playing in right field. Last year Jose Tabata played about half a season, and was worth a 1.1 WAR. That amounts to about 0.33 WAR per month. To make it simple, we’ll just say that Tabata would be worth 0.7 WAR over two months. That means you’re losing one win by not calling up Polanco after he gets an extra year of service time.

If you want to play the “one win could be the difference between success and failure” game, then have at it. But one extra win is not worth $10-15 M in future costs. Plus, there are legitimate things that players need to work on, no matter how good their Spring Training numbers look.

Take a look at Gerrit Cole for an example of this. He had a 3.60 ERA in 10 innings last year, and people wanted him in the rotation from day one, using the Spring numbers as evidence that he was ready. Then he went to Triple-A, and in the month of April he had a good ERA, but a 19:15 K/BB ratio in 23.2 innings. In the month of May he cut down the walks, but started giving up more hits and runs, and wasn’t dominating with the strikeouts (20 in 31 innings in his first five starts in May). Finally, Cole strung together two strong starts, combining for 14.1 shutout innings, and the Pirates called him up, mostly out of need due to so many injuries.

But Cole didn’t exactly dominate when he first arrived. His first 11 starts saw a 3.92 ERA in 66.2 innings, with a 47:15 K/BB ratio. Those are good numbers, but when people talk about bringing up top prospects early, they’re usually expecting the prospect to reach his ceiling from day one. Cole looked like he was reaching his ceiling in September, when he posted a 1.3 WAR. That was higher than his June, July, and August numbers combined (1.1 WAR). And that’s an example of a big success story with a rookie.

Looking back, the idea that Cole should have been in the majors on Opening Day because of ten decent innings during Spring Training seems ridiculous. Cole didn’t look ready in his first two months in Triple-A, he posted league average numbers in his first month and a half in the majors, and didn’t start to look like he was reaching his upside until September.

It’s the same with Taillon, Polanco, and every top prospect. They have legitimate things to work on in the minors. It might not be exactly 2.5-3 months of work, but there is stuff to work on. And if they’re ready before the Super Two deadline, then their production is just not going to be worth the $10-15 M increase in price down the line.

Putting that in perspective, that $10-15 M for two players is $20-30 M. If you’re dreaming of a future five-year, $100 M extension for Andrew McCutchen, then you pretty much pay for that with the money you saved from delaying Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, and one or two other top prospects from Super Two time.

So the Pirates will be like almost every other team with a top prospect that has zero service time. They’ll wait until mid-season, get an extra year of control and save $10-15 M, then call up the top prospects when they’re conveniently ready in mid-June or later.

Links and Notes

**If you haven’t ordered the 2014 Prospect Guide yet, I just got a small shipment in from the publisher over the weekend. This year the Prospect Guide has sold three times as many copies as last year’s version. I thank everyone who ordered for the first time, or continues to order year after year. As long as there is a steady demand, and as long as the publisher offers me discounts where I can sell the book to you for $21 instead of $25 on the publisher site, then I’ll try to keep the book in stock. But right now the orders will be small and limited, usually aimed at keeping the book in stock for a few weeks at a time. You can order your books on the products page of the site.

**Pirates Cut Six Players, Including Jameson Taillon

**The Path to the Majors For Jameson Taillon and Casey Sadler

**Pirates 2013 International Signing Recap

**Some Early Mock Drafts For Pirates First Round Pick

  • A question I have is this. If every team in baseball keeps holding back their top prospects to mid / late June to avoid Super II status, at some point holding prospects back to mid / late June isn’t going to be enough to avoid it, right? Could Tim or someone provide a link or an update to this article of who the top 22% are that didn’t avoid Super II status after this past season. I guess what I’m saying is that in theory, if every team does somewhat the same thing (holding the player or players to mid / late June to avoid Super II status), at some point that threshold of the top 22% is going to include guys that weren’t called up until mid / late June.

    • Without doing the research that Tim obviously can do, I would say that most of those call ups are Michael McHenry/Brandon Cumpton types or bullpen help. Teams always have injuries that require bringing someone up, and that someone doesn’t have to be a top prospect. Just my two cents

  • Even though Tim completely explains how it works it is still like reading directions while trying to put together something you just bought, lol! But the fact that we know the reason why guys don’t come north with the team in those situations, some Gm’s still will say they needed more work. The reality is more like Tim put it. You get the extra year team wise and the player does get the extra time to work on things at AAA.

  • Or you could offer these players lengthy contracts – they will only get more expensive the longer you wait to extend them. Why not offer Polanco an 10 year, $100 million contract. The odds that he will not produce more than $80 million over that period are very low. I would not offer Taillon 10 years – the odds of Taillon needing TJ surgery within the next few years are close to 100%.

  • Daniel S. Williams
    March 11, 2014 7:41 pm

    I always like to ask, which player would you rather have? Player #1 appears in 113 games, bats .223, hits 16 HR/48 RBI. Player #2 appears in 159 games, bats .336, hits 46 HR/123 RBI. Both players are Barry Bonds, in his first season with the Pirates and in his first season with the Giants, after leaving via free agency. What might have been if the Pirates had one more season of control?

    • That all depends on such factors as timing, team strength and other factors. The Bucs were reeling from two last place finishes, the drug trials etc. and they literally had no one blocking Bonds. This is a stronger organization. You can say with a straight face, “We’re going to give Tabata/Snider another shot” in April.

  • Call me sentimental, but I want to see that future 100 million dollar extension for Cutch. After the crap we endured for two decades to see the one really, really special player that we got to see and build with, from the 100 loss seasons as the laughing stock to a few division titles and an NL flag or two, to retire as a Pirate and join that dying breed of Kirby Puckett’s and Robin Younts in the Hall.
    Much as I would be wary of giving a hundred million dollar extension to the 32(?) year old Cutch in 2018, do you think it would be possible to give a three year deal (17-18 million) a year sometime around 2016, that would take us to 2021 and a 34 year old Cutch?

  • This all makes perfect sense. I smile when I hear how easily fans are willing to spend (someone else’s) money for that one Win. Then, when they would no longer have that (other fellow’s) money, later on, they enjoy complaining about having to watch the player slide away to some other money-bagged Team. Maybe it makes them feel intelligent – I don’t know.

    • A little harsh don’t you think. First the increased cost as a percentage of 2020 payroll is hard to quantify. Second, as as an average fan, yes it is easy to spend someone else money. It kind seems like the MLB is using monoply money already with all the crazy contracts. What’s 15(?) million more in 2020 dollars. And last, you wouldn’t do this with every prospect. As a simple minded fan, I would like the see my team but the best team they can on the field

  • I think it is a little quick to dismiss the one extra win argument and cited Wil Myers in the same article. It is highly conceivable that the if the Rays had promoted Myers sooner they could have avoided the one game play-in. Thus used their best pitcher in the Bud Selig Memorial Wild Card Game, and dramatically improved their odds of advancing to the ALDS.

    Obviously this type of projection would have been impossible, and to get near a 1.0 WAR gap you have to project Polanco’s first year production to future MVPs, which is very suspect.

    • The Rays won the Wild Card game 4-0 and went to the ALDS. The one game play in really didn’t matter. Promoting Myers sooner would have avoided the one game play in, but the rest of the results would have been the same.

      • Perhaps for them, but it’s not inconceivable that having Cole start the year in Pittsburgh instead of Indy cost the Pirates at least 2 wins. Sanchez gave us a -.9 WAR, and Cole had a 1.3 WAR in September. Swap those plus give Cole another 1.0 WAR for the increased starts in May-June, and you’ve got a tie for 1st with the Cardinals, maybe even an outright lead if a win came against St. Louis.

        The difference of having to face Wainwright only once (rather than 1 and 5) in the NLDS could have been the difference in advancing.

      • I am basically agreeing with and my factual error hurt my point but missing a one game play in is a fairly big return, raw probabilities, your chance of making the DS, drops from 0.5 to 0.25.

  • lonleylibertarian
    March 11, 2014 9:04 am

    Good article Tim – as usual. Some thought though on the intangibles. The Pirates always have attendance problems in April and May – until school is out – could a good – smart marketing department do some promotions around the two rookies to drive an incremental 3-4,000 fans for the 23 or so home games I counted after the opening two weeks. Not sure what a 100,000 in incremental attendance is worth – but would think it is a couple of million $. Then consider the difference if having these two players means the Bucs are in contention or not the last month of the season.

    With Polanco I think the decisions is pretty straight forward. If Snyder/Tabatha are perform at 1.0+ WAR in April and May there is no need to call up Gregory – let him play every day and work on whatever the coaches thing he can improve. BUT if they struggle and are not productive then why not take the risk.

    With Taillon the problem is a bit different. If Volquez implodes – as he most likely will, then you need a #5 starter – you might be able to bridge the gap with Gomez and Pimentel – maybe Cumpton [although his spring is not encouraging] and get to mid-june. I do think 10-12 starts at AAA will be a good thing for Taillon based on ST.

    Bottom line is – yes there is money involved, but this team is third from last in payroll and wasted $5 Million on a pitcher who either walks a batter each inning or gives up a HR an inning if he throws strikes.

    Crying that we can’t waste $20-30 Million will fall on deaf hears if they leave these guys at Indy and are fighting the Brewers for 4th in the division on Labor Day

    • Two things:

      1. If the Pirates aren’t getting attendance in April/May coming off a winning season and a playoff appearance, then promoting prospects won’t give them a boost.

      2. If they’re fighting for 4th place on Labor Day, then two top prospects won’t help them at all.

  • In talking about this, no one ever seems to factor in the possibility
    that it may backfire if your guy is part of the 22% who come up in June
    but nonetheless become Super Twos. After all, every team is playing this
    same game, no?

    • PiratesFan1975
      March 11, 2014 6:46 am

      It won’t backfire if you bring them up mid-June, that is why they do it. Most of the time early June is still good enough. There are hardly ever players brought up in June that become part of the 22% unless they have previous service time. A lot of MLB players don’t get called up then never get optioned to the minors. Most players aren’t star caliber so they spend time getting sent back and forth. Most super 2 players are those type of guys, not future stars. Think Garrett Jones and Micheal McKenry. Usually you will see one or two really good players qualify as Super 2 each year in a pool of 15-20 players. You’ll see good MLB players who weren’t necessarily expected to be stars also, guys like Neil Walker. He was a September call-up so the next year they could call him up early because they knew they wouldn’t be able to avoid Super 2.

  • The Masked robshelb
    March 11, 2014 2:09 am


    Mr. Williams,

    I can see and easily understand the rationale behind retaining the extra year of control. And yes, avoiding Super 2 will certainly provide some cost savings. But I wonder if those Super 2 savings might be a little exaggerated. (btw, thanks for directing us to the Amazing Avenue link. That was a great analysis.)

    But behind those data was something un-addressed, and probably hard to quantify. Namely, Super 2 players get higher arbitration awards in part because they are indeed better than the “average” ball player.

    Rummaging around, I found this —

    MLB Salary Arbitration

    As defined within the current CBA

    (12) Criteria

    (a) The criteria will be the quality of the 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 (see paragraph (13) below for confidential salary data),
    the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the
    Player, and the recent performance record of the Club including
    but not limited to its League standing and attendance as an indication
    of public acceptance (subject to the exclusion stated in
    subparagraph (b)(i) below). Any evidence may be submitted
    which is relevant to the above criteria, and the arbitration panel
    shall assign such weight to the evidence as shall appear appropriate
    under the circumstances.

    iow, the “record of the Player’s past compensation” is only one factor among many in determining arbitration awards. (Admittedly, a healthy chunk.) Nonetheless, said arbitration eligible player has to perform well — and he will be compared, salary arbitration wise, to selected peers.

    So in year three, by avoiding early arbitration, yes, there will be a nice cost savings. But let’s jump, for example, to years five and six. (The final two years of arbitration.) By then, won’t a significant amount of the higher salary be because of performance factors (better players make more money), especially in comparison with the salaries of peers who put up comparable numbers ?? Assuming he performs as well as everyone expects over a full six year time-frame, in Year Five, and especially in Year Six, won’t he be making roughly the same salary, for each of those years, if or if not he was awarded Super 2 status back in Year Three ?? (okay, he’ll make a little more if he was Super 2, due to the “record of the Player’s past compensation” variable, as that will jack up the numbers, somewhat, for each succeeding year.)

    Bottom line, I’m not sure one can simply take Super 2 players’ future earnings versus “average” players’ future earnings and then say that the relative increase in the former was solely because they were awarded Super 2 status. (And then use that as a reason to avoid Super 2 at all costs.)

    And then there’s the added possibilities that aren’t factored into the Amazing Avenue article. (Not to be critical of that analysis. Maybe they can’t be.) Namely, there’s always the possibility of signing the Super 2 player to a longer-term contract, or trading him, before one even gets to arbitration years five and six.

    I’m not saying avoiding Super 2 doesn’t save the ball club some money. Clearly it does. But how much over the long haul ?? To me, that’s hard to pin down, precisely.

    And it’s interesting that the Amazing Avenue article, about why to hold Travis d’Arnaud back until mid-season, does conclude that one of the reasons for not calling him up early (but still retaining the extra year of control), is because the Mets, even with him coming up early, it wouldn’t make or break a difference in the Mets’ making the post-season this year. That may not be the case with someone like Mr. Polanco, if for example, RF looks like it’s otherwise going to be somewhat of a dud/black hole for the first 3 1/2 months of 2014.

    And here’s a most telling point, now that I think about it. The theme of that article is Super-2-costs-a-lot-of-unnecessary-money-so-therefore-don’t-do-it.

    And yet apparently a lot of teams over that time-frame, knowing the additional future costs that would be involved, *did* do it.

    Or else there wouldn’t even be two sets of data to compare . . .

    So some GM’s, with some teams, in some situations with some players, obviously came to the conclusion that waiting until mid-summer was just too long to wait. So unless we’re assuming that none of them made the right decision, clearly there must be some situations where a late-April call-up, instead of a mid-summer call-up, makes good baseball and good business sense.

    (And with that, I’m now going to go soak my fingers in a bowl of warm water.)

    • PiratesFan1975
      March 11, 2014 6:31 am

      There will be significant savings in years 5 & 6 because arbitration consistently raises salaries, even when the player sucks they get a raise. That’s the reason Garrett Jones isn’t on the Pirates right now. He was pretty bad last year but still would have gotten a raise from $4.5M to ~$5.3M ( estimate) and still had one year left which would have probably been at least $6M. That is for a replacement level player. You start figuring good players and the numbers escalate quickly. Look at Hunter Pence, a Super 2 player. 2010-$3.5M, 2011-$6.9M, 2012-$10.4M, 2013-$13.8M. At best he probably would have been $4M/$8M/$12M as a non-Super 2. That is a $10M difference.

      And to your conclusion that a lot of teams do call up guys early, they actually rarely do with top prospects. They are more the exception than the rule. Most Super 2 players are mid-level to lower-level/non prospects that got September callups a previous year then get called up during the season the next year.

      • The Masked robshelb
        March 11, 2014 8:30 am



        I agree with all your points. It does cost more to allow a player to fall into Super 2 status. But the question, as I see it, is how much more, over time (especially if the player never gets to arb years five and/or six). I still find that hard to quantify, precisely. And then the really important question — is, or is not, that additional cost worth it.

        As the Amazing Avenue link states, of course don’t bring up Travis d’Arnaud early. Clearly not worth the additional long-term cost in that case, because even if by doing so Travis produces two or three extra wins, given the relative team strengths in the NL East, an early Travis by himself isn’t enough to carry the Mets to the post-season.

        And I think you example of Hunter Pence is a good (and accurate) one. On the other hand, Mr. Pence never made it to arbitration years five and six with the team he was on when he achieved Super 2 status. So that team (Houston) never had to carry the additional out-year costs of bringing Mr. Pence up early.

        I guess all I’m saying is that I don’t see it as a cut-and-dry, never-do-it, issue.


        • The Masked robshelb
          March 11, 2014 8:49 am



          Not the case with Mr. Polanco, surely. But in the “theory” of Super 2 (overall), there’s yet another factor that should be included. Suppose you put a rookie sensation on the Opening Day roster, guaranteeing future Super 2 status. But by doing so (in this hypothetical example) you’re able to trade away a really high-priced player (whom the future Super 2 replaces). There may be some actual cost-savings there, even when factoring in the Super 2’s out-year arbitration increases.

          In many cases, it must be a difficult decision given all the things that have to be considered, but one which sometimes GM’s do seem to make in favor of early call-up.

          Not always, and granted, not usually. But now and then — for perfectly valid reasons — it does seem to happen for some young players with potential super-star futures ahead of them.

          • Only thing I don’t like about your example is “opening day roster.” A player who has zero MLB experience and breaks camp the next year as the starter and subsequently never looks back is not a Super 2 player. He will have 3 years of minimum salary and 3 years of arb salary. Super 2 players get roughly 2.75 years of minimum salary and 4 years of arb salary. June callups, like the anticipated Tailon and Polanco (and Cutch and Cole before them) get roughly 3.66 years of minimum salary and then 3 years of arb salary.

            But, your point about cases where this is necessary and/or justified are there. We always expect players to perform forever. Tim Lincecum and Jason Heyward are 2 examples of guys who peaked (it seems) well before their free agency years kicked in.

        • The Masked robshelb
          March 11, 2014 9:16 am


          One clear example, I think, is Buster Posey. Called up by the Giants on May 29, 2010. (And now he’s a Super 2.)

          Giants were determined to do whatever they could do that year to make the post-season. Yet over the first two months of 2010, their W/L record was only a mediocre 27 – 23.

          Damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead time !!

          And it worked. Giants wound up 22 games over .500, and Posey was named NL Rookie of the Year. And (from Wiki) —

          In the NL Division Series (NLDS) against the Atlanta Braves, Posey batted .375 as the Giants won the series in four games. In Game 4 of the NL Championship Series (NLCS) against the Philadelphia Phillies, he became the first rookie to get four hits in an NLCS game as the Giants won 6–5. He batted .217 with five hits and three RBI in the series as the Giants defeated the Phillies in six games. In Game 4 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers, Posey and Madison Bumgarner formed the first rookie pitcher-catcher tandem in a World Series since Yogi Berra caught Spec Shea in Game 1 of the 1947 World Series. Posey hit his first postseason home run against Darren O’Day in the 4-0 victory, making him the fifth rookie catcher to hit a home run in the World Series. The Giants won the series four games to one, giving Posey (who batted .300 with a home run and two RBI in the Series) his first World Series ring. Posey caught every inning of the playoffs for the Giants.

          The way it worked out, I doubt the Giants now regret that early call-up decision. (I’m sure their fans don’t.)


          • Yes, but the Hunter Pence had less trade value because his projected salary was much higher so the Astros bore the cost.

            Giving playoff stats for Posey does not really make your argument, a month after calling up Posey the Gaints were 40-36. Additionally, the Giants signed Pat Burrell around the same time as the Posey call up and he had .872 OPS on the season. But clearly the key move was the deadline acquisition of Pirates reliever Javier Lopez, who went on to pitch 19 innings, that all observers would call clutch and high leverage.

            There is a situation where calling up Polanco and risking Super Two would make sense, say he is destroying AAA, Tabata has strained his oblique and Snider brunt his hand on a grill sure. However planning on a May call up is just bad business.

          • If the Giants wait two weeks, Posey isn’t a Super Two, and they still get all of his playoff numbers, and his absence for two weeks won’t change their late season success.

            But the Giants don’t have to worry as much about Super Two status or the added costs.

            • lonleylibertarian
              March 11, 2014 11:30 am

              C’mon Tim – this team is sitting on a ton of money it chose not to spend – I have said before that they are free to do so – but if they want to play these silly games AND not be competitive then the Pittsburgh fans will remember and punish them. Third lowest payroll in baseball!!!!!

              If they do not seem to be trying and end up out of contention in the fall there will be lots of empty seats then – and even more next spring.

              I am not saying they should be stupid – if they are getting production out of T/S in right and pitching hangs together waiting is the right thing to do.

              I also think agents are going to be much better at factoring in a “super two gaming” in their negotiations – if you want to extend Polanco in a couple of years don’t expect to get the same discount you got with Cutch.

              • There is a flaw in your argument, lonely. The Pirates ARE competitive. As a small market team, it will almost always be smarter to go with the younger player they will have control over for a few seasons, than to go with a veteran who is at his peak or his best seasons are behind him. In both cases you are taking a chance on the player. The difference is it costs you much less money.

            • The Masked robshelb
              March 11, 2014 1:39 pm



              Yeppers. Excellent point !!

              I wonder why they (the Giants) did it that way. Does anyone here have any background on that late-May decision ?? (I don’t.)

              And yes, the Giants don’t have the same money constraints as we do.

              Me, I’d just sign Mr. Polanco to a ten year contract tomorrow. That way we’d probably save money overall, keep El Coffee long-term, and also bring him up any time we want.