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Why wasn't Jay Bruce called up sooner?

The Reds have announced that they are calling up Jay Bruce. Bruce is currently hitting .364/.393/.630 through 49 games in triple-A with ten homers, nine doubles, five triples, and eight steals. Sure, his K/BB ratio is a miserable 45/12 but even so: why hasn’t he been in the majors sooner?

It certainly isn’t the fact that there is no room in the Reds’s outfield. Center fielder Corey Patterson is hitting a miserable .201/.242/.354, while right fielder Ken Griffey Jr is hitting .251/.338/.380. It certainly isn’t the fact that Bruce is too inexperienced: even though he’s only 21 years old, he dominated triple-A last season too, hitting 305/.358/.567 with 11 homers, 12 doubles, two triples and two steals in 50 games at triple-A (granted, with a 48/15 K/BB ratio).

The reason Jay Bruce was not in the major leagues sooner boils down to one thing: money. 

Young players are important to teams because they are almost always underpaid. If a player has less than three years of service time, his salary is solely at the team’s discretion, so long as it is at least the league minimum. A player cannot become a free agent until he accumulates six years of service time. After three years, the player is eligible for arbitration. While arbitration usually means a raise for a player, players often do not receive as much money in arbitration as they would on the open market – and, furthermore, arbitration is only a one-year contract, thus lowering the risk for the team.

Major league baseball players accumulate one year of service time by being on the 25-man roster for 172 days (not including the postseason). The major league season lasts between 178 and 183 days. Thus, by keeping a player in the minor leagues for one or two weeks in the beginning of the season, the team guarantees extending the player’s services for one whole year. 

Take, for example, Evan Longoria. By starting him in triple-A and calling him up April 12, the Rays guaranteed that Longoria would have approximately 0.9 years of service time at the end of this season. Thus, after the 2013 season, Longoria would only have 5.9 years of service time, and would still be under the Rays’s control for the 2014 season. If Longoria had started the season on the Rays’s roster, he would be a free agent after the 2013 season. (While this may seem moot because the Rays signed Longoria to a long-term deal, they still were able to save themselves money by keeping him in the minors for a week, thus increasing their leverage in long-term contract negotiations.)

However, MLB has an interesting provision written into the collective bargaining agreement called “Super Two.” Most players have three seasons of pre-arbitration (where they can be paid whatever the team chooses to pay them, so long as it’s above league minimum), and three years of arbitration (and usually, players receive a raise from the previous year in the second and third year of arbitration). However, “Super Two” players become arbitration-eligible after two years of service, and thus have four years of arbitration, rather than three. 

According to MLB rules, Super Two players must meet two criteria: “(a) he has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season; and (b) he ranks in the top seventeen percent (17%) (rounded to the nearest whole number) in total service in the class of Players who have at least two but less than three years of Major League service, however accumulated, but with at least 86 days of service accumulated during the immediately preceding season.”

It is likely that major league teams keep track of service time for all players. Thus, they could make an estimated guess as to how to avoid having a player achieve super two status by keeping track of the service time of all other players. It is no coincidence, for example, that Jay Bruce is being called up on May 27; last season, Ryan Braun was not called up until May 25, although he too was mashing in triple-A. 

Is this worth it? Certainly, it’s worth it to keep a prospect in the minors for a week or two in April in order to extend his services one additional year (thus keeping him cost-controlled for nearly seven whole years). However, is it worth it to keep a prospect in the minors for two months in order to avoid his achieving super two status?

This can only be answered on a case-by-case basis, but I argue in most cases – especially with top prospects – it is in the team’s best interest to avoid super two status. While arbitration still favors the team because it is only a one-year commitment and often pays the player less than he would receive on the open market, arbitration can still be very expensive for a team. For example, Ryan Howard – a super two player this year – will make a whopping $10 million in his first year of arbitration. Howard is likely to receive a raise in his subsequent three years of arbitration. Howard could realistically make at least $52 million in arbitration over four years – and perhaps even more. 

Thus, by waiting until now to call up Jay Bruce, the Reds likely ensure that Bruce will only be arbitration eligible for three years. Therefore, in 2011, Bruce will likely make the league minimum of approximately $450,000, rather than somewhere around $10 million. That’s a huge difference, and is well his spending two months in the minors in 2008. Additionally, the Reds are missing out on production of age-21 Jay Bruce for two months this season; in exchange, they are only going to paying age-24 Jay Bruce league minimum. As good as Bruce is likely to be this year, he’s going to be even better in three years.

The Reds were right to keep Bruce in the minors until now. Their mistake was not finding a better stop-gap than Corey Patterson and his .295 career OBP.