Why Did Stephen Strasburg Get Sent to the Minors?

March 30, 2010

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Two young pitchers signed big deals last year. The Nationals signed highly touted Stephen Strasburg to a deal that will pay $15.1 million between 2009 and 2012. The Reds signed Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman to a six year deal worth at least $30.25 million (if Chapman is arbitration-eligible after the 2012 or 2013 seasons, he can convert subsequent salary amounts into bonus and go through arbitration – a great deal for him).

The Reds are seriously considering bring Chapman to Cincinnati with them to start the season (although it has become increasingly likely that Chappy will also start the season in the minors). The Nationals are sending Strasburg to AA Harrisburg to start the season (not even AAA, but AA!). Does this mean that Chapman is better than Strasburg?

First of all, why is Strasburg being sent to AA instead of AAA? One reason is that Harrisburg’s average April temperatures (average high 61; average low 41) are a bit higher than those of Syracuse (high 56, low 35). Low temperatures can contribute to injuries.

The bigger question you may be asking is this – why send Strasburg to the minor leagues at all? Why not have him start the season with the Nationals?

As with many things in life, the short answer is easy: money.

Baseball players become eligible for free agency when they have accumulated 6.00 or more years of Major League service with a team. This is based on the number of days on the major league roster (or disabled list). You can accumulate six years of service in a six years span, or you can bounce up and down for twenty years and never reach this threshold.

There is one wrinkle to this – if you send a player to the minor for less than 20 days, he still gets credit for the entire season. Send him to the minors for 21 days, and he gets credit only for his actual time served.

If you aren’t grasping the significance yet, it’s this: if you can keep a guy’s service time at 5.9 years instead of 6.0 years, you delay his free agency by a year – saving quite a bit of money on the 7th year.

The point of having Strasburg start the season in the minors, then, is to delay his free agency eligibility until after the 2016 season.

A smaller issue is whether the Nationals can delay Strasburg’s arbitration eligibility. All players are eligible for binding salary arbitration after they have 3.00 or more years of service. Additionally, amongst players with more than 2 but less than 3 years of service, the top 17% (in terms of service time) are also eligible for arbitration. These players are referred to as “Super Twos”. The cutoff for Super Twos has historically been between 2 years, 128 days and 2 years, 140 days (but it’s a moving target, since it’s based on the current year’s group of players). In recent years, many teams attempt to game the system by giving a player slightly less than 128 days of service their rookie year, in an effort to have them fall short of Super Two status. If the Nationals can manage to do this, this would make Strasburg arbitration eligible after the 2013 season instead of after the 2012 season.

So, what does this all mean for Strasburg’s salary?

Note: Strasburg also got a $7.5 million signing bonus.

  • 2010: $2M (per contract)
  • 2011: $2.5M (per contract)
  • 2012: $3M (per contract)
  • 2013: If a Super Two, salary determined by arbitration. If not, the team can impose a salary (must be at least 80% of the previous year’s salary).
  • 2014: Salary determined by arbitration
  • 2015: Salary determined by arbitration
  • 2016: If Strasburg has six years of service, he becomes a free agent following the 2015 season. If he has less than six years of service, his salary is determined by arbitration.

At any point in this path, Strasburg and the Nationals can sign a new contract that would remove him from the arbitration process. This is quite likely, since arbitration can be quite adversarial and tends to hurt some feelings. However, if Strasburg’s arbitration year is pushed back to 2014 and his free agency pushed back until after the 2016 season, these years are worth less money, and this will be reflected in any long term contract offered by the Nationals.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Evan @ 40Tech
    Mar 30, 2010 @ 12:54:47

    GREAT article. I knew the basics of the baseball economic system, but not all the specifics like this. This would probably explain many of the puzzling decisions that teams make.
    .-= Evan @ 40Tech´s last blog ..A Tech Morning Show – Coming Soon =-.


  2. Living with Balls
    Mar 30, 2010 @ 17:49:50

    I have to disagree with you on this one Kosmo. The Nats have made quite an investment in Strasburg. It would be prudent for them to take their time with him. Could he pitch effectively in the majors now? Maybe…but past history has shown that there are few players who can make the jump right to the major leagues.

    There’s quite a difference between pitching in college and pitching in the major leagues. Some time in the minors will give him a chance to get his feet wet on the professional level. The Nationals aren’t exactly pennant contenders this year so there is no need to rush him.
    .-= Living with Balls´s last blog ..Win a Trip to the Kentucky Derby! =-.


  3. kosmo
    Mar 30, 2010 @ 18:46:19

    @ LWB – Strasburg will get 115-125 days of service this year. I guarantee it. It’s not a bad baseball move to give him time in the minors, but the money decision trumped the baseball one. Let’s check back on Memorial Day.

    The fact that the Nats won’t be contender (but will be much improved) is a good reason to keep him down for 6 weeks – why waste the money?

    For what it’s worth, Stras did also pitch in the fall instructional league.

    @ Evan – Yeah, lots of baseball decision are made for reasons like this. Lots of times, a superior player will get sent ton the minors and a lesser player kept in the Majors because the superior player has “options” remaining (i.e. he doesn’t have to clear waivers to be sent down).


  4. Evan @ 40Tech
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 06:48:37

    @kosmo Regarding the options, there was speculation that would happen to Kyle Kendrick this year. He was lights out for the Phils all spring, but had options left. He ended making the bullpen, though.
    .-= Evan @ 40Tech´s last blog ..Shelfster vs Evernote — Well, Sort Of =-.


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