On Friday, Gerrit Cole made his debut start.  But instead of wearing the black ‘n gold for the Pirates, he was wearing the black ‘n red for the Triple A Indianapolis Indians.  Coincidentally (or not), Cole’s start matched up with the Pirates’ 5th starter slot.

By pure talent alone, Cole should be in Pittsburgh.  However, there is strong merit for allowing him time to continue to develop in Triple A.  In 2012, Cole only had 2 starts at the Triple A level and needs a little more refinement on his command of pitches.  By command, I mean where the ball goes within the strike zone when the catcher sets up — if he wants it down and in, that’s where Cole should deliver it.  Control refers to pitcher’s general ability to throw strikes; command is the refinement of one’s control.

Even though Cole needs some finishing touches that has not stopped some people, including Cole himself, from questioning why he is not in Pittsburgh to start the season.   Aside from the need for refinement, there is also the issue of service time and his “arbitration clock”.

Each player is under control with his team for 6 seasons.  In baseball terms, a season is 172 days of service time with the major league team.  Each day that a player spends on the major league 25 man roster, the 15 day Disabled List, or the 60 day Disabled List counts towards his service time.  A normal baseball season lasts 180-185 calendar days, an important point coming up.

A typical player will be in service to his team for 3 minimum-salary seasons (starting at $490,000) and then 3 seasons of arbitration eligibility.  During the arbitration seasons, the player and his agent negotiate with the team on what each side thinks the player is worth.  This typically occurs from December to February during that player’s arbitration-eligible offseason.  If both sides can not come to an agreement, the two sides head to arbitration.  At arbitration, each side presents their very detailed case to a three person panel that is not affiliated with Major League Baseball in any way.  The panel hears both sides and then picks one side’s figure.  The other side then has to abide by that decision and accept that salary.

The exception to the 3 min-salary/3 arb-salary model is when a player falls into the “Super 2” category.  Super 2 refers to a player that has 2 years of full service time and then just enough to warrant going to arbitration for 4 years instead of the usual three.  This happens when a player falls with the top 22 percent of service time for players between 2 and 3 years of time.  Typically, this figure falls around the 130 day mark, meaning a player would have (typically) 2 years and 130 days of service time.

For top prospects, such as Gerrit Cole, teams have been known to “game the arbitration clock” by keeping a player in the minor leagues to extend how much service time control they have over a player and try to avoid Super 2.  Using the typical 130 day mark and knowing there’s around 185 days in a season, you can see that nearly two months of a season would need to elapse before you could feel somewhat safe to be out of Super 2 range.  To be extra safe, a team will wait until 2-1/2 months (middle of June) to call up top prospects.

Here’s the three most common scenarios of how to handle a top prospect:

Scenario 1 —  Start him in the majors right from the start of the season and have 6 years of time

 The Boston Red Sox just did this with OF Jackie Bradley, Jr.  They felt he was too good to put down in Triple A and brought him north from Spring Training.  As long as they never send him down to the minors, the Red Sox will pay Bradley minimum scale salaries in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and then go to arbitration in 2016, 2017, and 2018.  Bradley would be a free agent after the 2018 season in this scenario.


Scenario 2 — Wait until you feel safe that the Super 2 timeline has passed and get 6-1/2 years

A good example of this is what the Pirates did with Andrew McCutchen.  The Pirates called him up on June 3, 2009 and he accrued 123 days of service time that year.  Keeping in mind that it takes 172 days for a full year to count, the Pirates got a “free” half-season of control out of McCutchen.  If McCutchen did not sign his long term deal last year, his minimum salary seasons would have been 2010 through 2012, his arb-eligible seasons 2013 through 2015, and he would have been a free agent after 2015.

 To put this in Cole’s terms, if he falls in this scenario he would have a “free” year in 2013, minimum salaries for 2014 through 2016, arbitration from 2017 through 2019, and then be a free agent after 2019.  Compared to Scenario 1, you can see that the Pirates control Cole for an extra year (2019 versus 2018).

 Scenario 3 — Wait until you gain a year of control but don’t worry about Super 2 and get nearly 7 years

The Tigers have done this RHP Rick Porcello.  Porcello made his debut April 9, 2009 and accrued 170 days of service time in 2009.  Because they waited those 2 extra days, Porcello did not get a full year of 172 days and the Tigers got, essentially, 7 years of service time out of Porcello by “gaming the system”.

What the Tigers did not avoid, though, was the Super 2 cutoff as Porcello finished 2011 with 2 years and 170 days of service time.  Obviously, that’s well above the typical 2 years and 130 days of service time cutoff.  Porcello played for the minimum salary in 2010 and 2011, then has four years of arbitration years after that.  Porcello will go to arbitration in 2014 and 2015, then be a free agent after that.

Using Gerrit Cole as an example, if the Pirates were to call Cole up around the middle of April, 2013 would be a “free” year of control for the Pirates.  In 2014 and 2015 he would be paid the minimum salary, then go to arbitration four times from 2016 through 2019.  Cole would then be a free agent after 2019.  Under this scenario the only difference is that with 4 arbitration years, Cole’s salary commitment would be several million dollars for the Pirates.

Ultimately, though, Cole’s performance will be tied to the performance of the five pitchers in the Pirates’ starting rotation.  If all of them are pitching well and healthy, the Pirates will keep Cole in Triple A, even if he is doing well.  But if Cole is pitching at a high level and there is a clear opening, he’ll be up and in Pittsburgh.  But if all things were equal, the Pirates would choose Scenario 2 and try to avoid Super 2 if at all possible.

Kevin Creagh

SCB Pirate Staff Blogger