When the Tigers announced that Rick Porcello would be in the rotation, and Drew Smyly would pitch out of the bullpen to start the season, Smyly was elated.
"I'm just pumped to make the team out of spring training,", Smyly said after learning of the decision.
Of course he is! Instead of earning a minor league salary in the range of $ 80,000, Smyly will now earn half a million dollars per year. And it’s not just that. By staying in the major leagues Smyly will accrue critical major league service time.
Service time is what is used to determine a player’s eligibility for free agency and for arbitration. As we are all aware, free agents make much more money than players who can only negotiate with one club, and players who are not yet eligible for arbitration only make close to the major league minimum, or about $ 500K per season.
In Smyly’s case the decision to keep him in the majors has an added impact. While he accrued 149 days of major league service time last season, he did not accrue the necessary 172 days to be credited with a full year of service time. A player is eligible for free agency after six full seasons of major league service time has been accrued.
Arbitration is another matter. A player is eligible for arbitration after three years of service time, or- here’s the super two rule- if he falls within the top 22 per cent of players who have between two and three years of service time. What this means in real time, based on last year’s numbers, that a player with two years and 146 days of service time will be eligible for arbitration. Since Smyly has 149 days after last season, you see where this is going?
Rick Porcello is a classic example of a super two player. The Tigers sent Porcello to the minors for three weeks in 2010 when he was struggling. This lost service time meant that his free agency would be pushed back a season. But since he had two years and 170 days of service time through the 2011 season, he was eligible for arbitration.
If Smyly stays in the major leagues for the next two seasons, he could be eligible for arbitration after the 2014 season, with 2 years, 149 days of service time. That means a jump in salary from about 500 K to about 3 million, or more if he pitches very well and is a starting pitcher at the time.
In fact, if Smyly is sent to the minors for a period of less than 20 days, he will still accrue major league service time for that period. If he gets injured while in the majors and has to go on the disabled list, that’s major league service time. If he is sent down for two weeks or so to be "stretched out", major league time is accrued.
Smyly is not the only Tiger on the path to super two status. Danny Worth has one year and 144 days accrued, so he’ll be right on the bubble of arbitration eligibility if he remains in the major leagues for the season. Andy Dirks has a year and 139 days, and he figures to gain a full season of service time this year. Luis Marte has 154 days, so he is two seasons away. The exact number of days required won’t be known until the season is over, and it fluctuates a bit from year to year.
The Tigers could have made a decision to send Smyly down for at least a few weeks to ensure that his arbitration eligibility would have been delayed, thereby saving themselves a few million two years from now. There is a very good rational basis for doing so. Many feel that he’d be better served by spending time as a starter in the minors rather than being the last man in the bullpen in Detroit. But the Tigers are all about winning, and winning now. Smyly is the best man for the job in Detroit, so that’s where he will pitch.
The Tigers aren't concerned about arbitration clocks. They're concerned with winning.