Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

Top prospects are called up to the big leagues for the first time (or, for the second/third/fourth time, but, like, for good) for a variety of reasons.

They’ve crushed it in the minor leagues, and there’s nothing left there for them to accomplish. They’re too old to continue destroying younger players. They’re pressed into service by an injury on the big club. They are being rewarded late in the season. They are necessary for a second half push on a team that is surprisingly competitive. And so on.

There are a number of reasons a kid is brought up to the show, and any number of those reasons could be involved in a decision to call up two of the Chicago Cubs’ top prospects – outfielder Brett Jackson and first baseman Anthony Rizzo – this season. Both are expected to see time in Chicago this year, but when? Is it possible to state with confidence when they will or will not be called up, given all the variables involved in the decision?

Well, absent a rash of injuries, it’s fair to say that, yes, we can comfortably assume neither Jackson nor Rizzo will be in Chicago at any point before midseason. How can we be so confident?

Because there’s another consideration when calling up top prospects, one that I didn’t list above: service time.

It is, perhaps, an uncomfortable consideration because it has nothing to do with ability or need, and few like to acknowledge the consideration because it can ultimately take money out of players’ pockets. But it is a legitimate consideration, and one that will directly impact when we see Jackson and Rizzo this year.

Let me explain.

In broad terms, a player’s salary is directly impacted by his time in the Major Leagues. More specifically, while he has zero to three years of service time, he makes very little. From three to six years of service time, he makes a fair bit more (in arbitration). The player is eligible for free agency once he reaches six years of big league service time. Then, his salary goes way up – if you can keep him at all, that is.

By way of example, if Brett Jackson started this season with the Cubs, he’d make the Major League minimum this year, and then something just north of that in 2013 and 2014. Then he would be eligible for arbitration in 2015, 2016, and 2017. And then, finally, he would be a free agent before the 2018 season.

But … what if he didn’t start the season with the Cubs? Well, then that entire timeline changes.

In the Cubs’ favor.

In that case, Jackson wouldn’t accrue enough service time to reach free agency in 2018. Instead, he’d still be under the Cubs’ control that year. In a way, the Cubs would have just grabbed an extra year of control (in Jackson’s prime, mind you), at a rate much cheaper than what he would presumably cost on the open market. This is not an insignificant consideration.

There is one more wrinkle to the financial equation. Even if you delay a prospect a hair at the start of a season (which ensures you an “extra” year of team control), you may end up paying him a little more in arbitration than is typically the case. Why? Because you might have lined him up for “Super Two” status.

You’ve probably heard folks discuss “Super Two” status and the fourth year of arbitration (Matt Garza, for example, is now in his third of four arbitration years because he was a “Super Two”). All that means is that there is a group of young players who haven’t yet reached three years of service time, but nonetheless qualify for arbitration. It doesn’t change how many years you control him, it just gives the player an extra arbitration year (thus the “fourth” arbitration year). For such a player, his years would look something like: first year is partial, and he makes the minimum; second year he makes just north of the minimum; third year he makes just north of that; fourth year is his first year of arbitration; fifth year is his second year of arbitration; sixth year is his third year of arbitration; and seventh year is his fourth and final year of arbitration.

Who qualifies for Super Two status? Well, the new CBA actually changed the classification slightly, making the group larger. Previously, the top 17% (in length of service) of players in that more-than-two-but-not-quite-three-years-of-service-time group would get qualify as Super Twos. Now, that has been bumped up to 22%.

So, there are two “deadlines” to consider when addressing the financial ramifications of calling up a prospect. First, how early can you call him up without losing the extra year of control? Second, how early can you call him up without having him qualify for Super Two status? Where the player is a brand new call-up, with no MLB experience (and where you plan on keeping him up for the rest of the year), the answers to those questions are: late April, and mid-to-late June, respectively. Where the player has some service time already, or where you plan on shuffling him up and down throughout the year, the timeline changes a bit.

How does this all impact Brett Jackson and Anthony Rizzo, specifically? MLBTR put together a chart of top prospects who might see action this year, and looked at their specific service time situations. Jackson’s situation is simple enough – as a player with no service time, the Cubs would retain control of him through 2018 so long as they wait until late April to call him up, and they avoid him reaching Super Two status so long as they wait until late June to call him up. Jackson needs some more time in AAA anyway, so keeping him in the minor leagues until late June is not out of the question – indeed, Jackson’s first appearance may well come in late July if the Cubs trade someone in their outfield at the deadline.

Rizzo’s situation is slightly more complicated.

Because Rizzo was called up for a portion of 2011 by the Padres, he has accrued some Major League service time – 68 days, to be precise. For that reason, if the Cubs want to retain an “extra” year of control of Rizzo, they’ll have to wait until late June to call him up. If the Cubs want to prevent Rizzo from reaching Super Two status, they’d have to keep him down until late August. In other words,  he’d have to be a mere September call-up. Few expect that will actually happen, though it is plausible if Bryan LaHair is healthy and productive.

Thus, ultimately, if these financial considerations drove the Cubs’ call-up decisions with respect to Jackson and Rizzo, we probably wouldn’t see either of them, at the earliest, until late June.

All of that said, there are still a number of reasons we could see Jackson and/or Rizzo in the big leagues before mid or late season, as discussed at the outset of this piece. If Bryan LaHair suffers a season-ending injury in late May while Rizzo is tearing up AAA, he probably gets the call. If the Cubs suddenly find great deals out there for Alfonso Soriano and Marlon Byrd in early June, combined with an injury or two, and maybe they’re forced to pull the trigger on Jackson earlier than they’d like. Nothing is certain.

And, let’s be clear: these are real people (both the prospects and the management). Keeping kids down to save future money is a practice easily discussed on paper, but perhaps not quite as easily implemented in the real world. It’s a consideration in the promotion decision, but it is not the only consideration.

But you can be confident that, if all other things were equal, because of the financial considerations discussed here, the Cubs would greatly prefer not to see either of Jackson or Rizzo in Chicago for a little while yet.

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