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Yoan Moncada, service time, Super Two, and you!

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A primer on service time considerations for scheduling the promotion of baseball’s top prospect

Chicago White Sox Photo Day Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Have you been wondering when the White Sox will finally promote Yoan Moncada to the major league roster? Well, you’re not alone. He’s doing quite well at Charlotte and prompting this question from many a baseball fan. It looks like we’re fast approaching the point where he’ll have nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. However, that’s not the only thing the White Sox have to keep in mind with the timing of Moncada’s promotion. They’re also monitoring his service time. What does this mean for when we’ll get to see him in Chicago? Let’s take a look.

Why isn’t Moncada here already?

Setting aside any concerns you have about things he has to work on in the minors, if any, Moncada’s service time will have a say in whether the White Sox can retain him through 2022 or 2023 before he hits free agency. Once Moncada racks up six full years of major league service time, he’ll become a free agent in the following offseason. Major League Baseball defines a full year of service time as 172 days, which is less than the typical 183 calendar days in a major league season. Assuming Moncada stays on the major league roster for all of 2018-2022, that’ll be five years, so the White Sox need to be careful to not let him accrue a full year by the end of 2017 so they can keep him for 2023.

Thanks to the Red Sox trying out Moncada in the majors last September, he’s already got 31 days of major league service. That means the White Sox don’t want to let him accrue 141 (172 - 31) days on the major league roster this year. The season concludes on Oct. 1, so some quick date math shows that 141 days elapse between May 14 and the end of the season, inclusive. So the earliest the White Sox can promote Moncada to the big leagues for good and keep him for 2023 is May 15. Hey, that’s tomorrow!

However, he might not show up right away, even if there’s no reason to think he has more to learn in the minor leagues. If the White Sox want to manage future costs, they might try to prevent Yoan Moncada from attaining Super Two status.

Super Two status? What’s that?

Typically, once a player finishes a season with over three complete years of major league service, they stop earning a salary near the major league minimum and enter the arbitration process. This is where players who haven’t signed an extension can start making some big bucks. Instead of something in the $500,000-$600,000 range, good players with three years of service can start to earn multi-million dollar salaries.

There’s an exception to this rule. Some players with only two completed years of service can enter the arbitration process a year early, provided that their service time is in the top 22 percent of all major league players with between two and three years of service. It seems arbitrary (no pun intended!), but that’s the way it works.

For example, Avisail Garcia had two years and 167 days of service at the end of 2015. Since that was only five days short of three full years, he was easily in the top 22 percent of players between two and three years of service at that time and became a Super Two. Garcia didn’t even have strong numbers but he still earned $2.1 million via arbitration rather than the $550 thousand or so he probably would have had he not been a Super Two.

Well, for one extra year of a higher salary, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. Why should we care?

The effect of becoming a Super Two isn’t just felt in the player’s third year of service. Players can get huge raises in arbitration, so there’s a compounding effect that’s magnified by having four arbitration years rather than three. When all is said and done, it’s perfectly plausible for a good Super Two player to earn over $10 million more during years three through six of service than a similarly-skilled player that doesn’t attain Super Two status. That difference is spread out over four years, but it’s something to consider, particularly for cost-conscious teams.

OK, so let’s assume Super Two is a factor. Do we know what the cutoff point for Moncada will be?

Nope! That will not be precisely determined for awhile. When the 2019 season ends, all the players with between two and three years of service will be ranked by service time, and if Moncada winds up in the top 22 percent, he’ll be a Super Two. We don’t know what the cutoff will be because between now and then, players all over the league that might fall into Moncada’s group will be promoted, demoted, released, and re-acquired at unpredictable times, so we don’t fully understand the shape of his “arbitration class”.

So if there’s no target date, do we have any information that could help the White Sox prevent Moncada from becoming a Super Two?

Yup. We’re never going to be able to pin it down with certainty, but we can look to recent history. This post from MLB Trade Rumors has a list of Super Two cutoffs for each of the last eight years. For those not feeling click-happy, here’s what those looked like:

  • 2016: two years, 131 days
  • 2015: two years, 130 days
  • 2014: two years, 133 days
  • 2013: two years, 122 days
  • 2012: two years, 140 days
  • 2011: two years, 146 days
  • 2010: two years, 122 days
  • 2009: two years, 139 days

We’re looking at a sizable range of 24 days. The higher the cutoff point, the more likely it is that Moncada will avoid Super Two status. A relatively small percentage of the players in Moncada’s class will be promoted with Super Two status in mind, as it’s typically only significant prospects for teams that can afford to wait for a promotion (recall that the White Sox promoted Carlos Rodon much earlier with an eye toward competing). Therefore, there isn’t much of a staring contest happening around baseball to see when other teams promote their guys. When trying to predict the cutoff date, we’re talking about somewhat random variance around a central point.

Dates, dates, dates! Get to the dates already!

Alright, well the most “generous” cutoff service in the sample above for the White Sox was the two years, 146 days from 2011. Taking into account Moncada’s previously accrued 31 days of service, he’ll wind up with 146 days of service at the end of the year if he’s promoted on June 9. If the White Sox promote Moncada on June 9 or earlier, there’s an extremely high chance he’ll wind up as a Super Two.

On the other end of the spectrum is the most unfavorable (for the White Sox) cutoff service in the sample, two years 122 days. Moncada will have 122 days of service at the end of 2017 if he’s promoted on July 3. Therefore, if the White Sox promote Moncada after July 3, it would take a cutoff lower than any we’ve seen in the past nine years for him to attain Super Two status. Should the White Sox wait that long, I wouldn’t be surprised if they prolonged the timing another week just to avoid an unlucky cutoff point. The All-Star break is one week after July 3, so they’d probably just wait until July 14, at the start of the second half.

Do we know how much weight the White Sox are putting on Super Two status in making this decision?

No. They’ll have to weigh the potential cost savings against what they feel is best for Moncada’s development. Maybe they’ll be of the mind that Moncada’s best future will result from beginning to experience major league pitching as soon as they control his rights for 2023. However, recent history suggests the White Sox care about the Super Two cutoff, and if a budget-conscious team has a chance to save eight figures in projected salary, it has to at least be something to think about. If the White Sox are trying to sign a key free agent a couple years down the road, that’s the kind of additional budget space that might allow them to make a winning offer.

Couldn’t the White Sox just promote Moncada and then just try to extend him like they did with Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and Jose Quintana to avoid the cost of Super Two status?

This is unlikely for two reasons. First of all, if it looks like Moncada will be a Super Two, Moncada’s agent will be aware and that would increase the annual salaries the Sox would have to bake into an extension to get Moncada to sign it, so they’d feel the higher costs there. Second, and more importantly, Moncada received a $31.5 million signing bonus when the Red Sox inked him. The primary motivation for young players like Eaton, Sale, and Quintana to sign such team-friendly deals is that they haven’t yet earned their big pay day and aren’t guaranteed one unless they take the risk that their health and skill hold up until at least their later arbitration years. Moncada has already earned his “set for life” money, so he can more comfortably go year-to-year.

But I want my Yoan Moncada noooooowwwwwwww!!

Easy there, Veruca. So do I. However, the White Sox are going to make whatever decision they believe will maximize their chances at future championships. Waiting until at least tomorrow is a no-brainer. If they do make you wait until later in the summer, though, keep the big picture in mind. They wouldn’t be waiting just to save money, they’d be waiting to make sure that future rosters are as good as they can possibly be. We don’t typically associate “financial responsibility” with “trying as hard as possible to win championships”, but barring any negative effects on development, a decision to wait on Moncada would represent both.