Anthony Rizzo’s Call Up: Was the Timing a Good Signal for Cubs Fans?

The man that many consider the Cubs top prospect, slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, made his Cubs debut Tuesday against the Mets.  Prior to that, he had spent the entire season tearing up Pacific Coast League pitching while playing for the Iowa Cubs.

Rizzo looked like he had little to prove by spending more time in the minor leagues, but the Cubs’ brass still kept him in Iowa to begin the season even as the parent Cubbies struggled to score runs.   Why?

Part of the reason may have been a question of what to do with him.  Bryan LaHair has played well at first base and Alfonso Soriano has had a productive season in left field, despite a very gimpy knee.  The Cubs had said they wanted Rizzo to play every day and he would not have been able to do that in Chicago.  I don’t think this had much to do with it because LaHair has played outfield in the minors in the past and the Cubby outfield isn’t loaded this year.

A more important reason was that his coaches altered his approach at the plate in an attempt to correct the struggles he had in his stint with the Padres last year (his OPS was 0.523).  Specifically, his coaches had him lower his hands at the plate.

Keeping him down at Iowa to face allowed him to work on that new approach against pitching with which he was more/less familiar.   But it was apparent to outside observers that Rizzo was ready weeks before his promotion.

In addition, the parent club was wretched.  They are flriting with a 100 loss season and presumably had the flexibility to get him in the line-up at first.   So why did the Cubs wait?

The timing of his call up can be understood by looking at his accumulated service time last year with the Padres. Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune put it this way late last week.

The Anthony Rizzo countdown is on now that the slugging first baseman has been at Triple-A Iowa long enough to avoid collecting enough major league service time that would make him a free agent one year earlier than otherwise.

There is actually a glimmer of hope in this timing.  Why?  Arbitration.

Baseball’s labor market is a three-tiered system, the reserve system, the arbitration system, and the free agent system.  In general, players with less than three years of service are bound by the reserve system.  Players with at least 3 years of service are eligible for arbitration and players with at least 6 years of service are eligible for free agency.

Players get credit for a year of service when they amass 172 days of service on a Major League club’s active list.  While most players become eligible for arbitration when they amass three years of service, Baseball’s Basic Agreement allows the set of two-year players who are in the top 22% in service time to be eligible for arbitration.  These are the so-called “Super Two Players.”

If a player is not a Super Two, he becomes eligible for arbitration after amassing  516 (172*3) days of service.   We can’t, however, say exactly how many days of service a player needs to be a Super Two because it depends on the distribution of service time for all two-year players at the end of each particular year.  Paul Sullivan gives us a guess by noting that the cut-off for last year was 146 days.  Assuming that to be the cut-off in the average year, a player would have to amass 490 days of service to be a Super Two.

Rizzo earned 68 days of major league service playing for 6 weeks for San Diego last year.  Assuming he sticks in the big leagues every day for the next few years, he will have amassed 512 days of service by the end of 2014 and 684 days of service at the end of 2015.  So by bringing Rizzo up now, he may be eligible for arbitration after 1014 (I still assume the Super Two cut off is 146 service days).  If they waited 22 more days to call him up, then he would not be eligible for arbitration until after 2015.

Generally speaking, the average reserved player earns less than the average arbitration-eligible player who.  Some of this difference is attributable to differences in experience, but just moving from tier to tier pays off nicely to players.  A 2004 study by Dan Marburger includes this passage that shows what becoming arbitration-eligible does to the average player’s salary (the salary numbers are for the 2001 season).

The mean salary for the monopsonistic group (less than roughly 2.5 years of service) is clearlylower than for the other two groups, and one can easily infer the rate at which salaries would continue to increase if free agency and arbitration did not exist. However, as the figure indicates,the mean salary jumps from $482,360 for players just below the arbitration-eligibility threshold to $1,179,271 for those in their first year of eligibility.

Assuming the percent-increase holds for other years as well, just becoming eligible for arbitration more than doubles the salary of the average player.  The Cubs could have waited about approximately one month, maybe less, if they wanted to delay Rizzo’s arbitration-eligibility.  With the worst record in the majors, the Cubs are going to have to wait until at least next year to make the playoffs no matter who’s on first.  Again.

So why is this a good sign?  It’s a good sign to me because the Cubs may be serious about building a team, even if it means a sacrifice of profits in the near future.  It’s not a huge sign, but long-suffering Cubs fans will look for any silver lining in this dismal season.

But there’s still that damn goat.