Harper's debut could be delayed

Harper's debut could be delayed
November 23, 2011, 1:29 pm
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The formal announcement yesterday of baseball's new collective bargaining agreement spawned all kinds of analysis, drawing praise from some corners, disdain from others and an overall state of awe from plenty who were amazed that owners and players were able not only to ensure labor peace for five more years but agreed to a boatload of significant changes to the sport.

But perhaps one of the seemingly small details that was overlooked could prove vitally important for the Nationals by next summer and could lead to the club delaying Bryce Harper's big-league debut by several weeks.

What am I referring to? The decision to increase the percentage of players who are classified as "Super Two's" in baseball's arbitration system.

You may have some vague recollection of the Super Two rule as it related to Stephen Strasburg's debut in 2010. If you've forgotten how it works, here's a refresher course:

All players who have accrued between three and six years of big-league service time are eligible for salary arbitration, which typically results in some big-time raises for those players. In addition, a small chunk of players with less than three years but more than two years of service time -- specifically, the top 17 percent -- are deemed arbitration-eligible as well. Those 17 percent fall into the Super Two category.

Knowing how the system works, general managers try to finagle things, delaying their top prospects' first call-up until a date that is sure to fall beyond the Super Two deadline. Which is a big reason -- probably the biggest reason -- Strasburg didn't make his debut for the Nationals until June 8, 2010, despite his utter dominance at both Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Syracuse over the previous two months.

Why do teams do this? Because, plain and simple, it saves them money down the road. Super Two players wind up being arbitration-eligible for four seasons instead of the usual three. Which creates four opportunities for those players to receive hefty raises. The difference for an elite young player like Strasburg or Harper could easily top 5 million and perhaps even approach 10 million.

Now, let's fast-forward to yesterday's CBA announcement. One of the many changes included in the agreement is a tweaking of the Super Two system that has bumped the number of qualifying players from 17 percent to 22 percent.

That may not sound like that big of a deal, but it could turn out to be a really big deal for Harper and the Nationals.

There's no way for GMs to know precisely when the cut-off date for Super Two players will be in a given year, but they were almost always safe in past years waiting until late-May or early-June before promoting top prospects. Now, though, that cut-off date will be pushed ahead, perhaps several weeks.

Which means GMs are probably going to have to wait until early-to-late June if they want to ensure their top prospects don't qualify as Super Twos. Which means it's quite possible Harper's arrival in D.C. could be delayed by several weeks next summer.

Now, we have no idea when Harper will actually be called up. Mike Rizzo hasn't ruled out the possibility of the 19-year-old making the Opening Day roster, though that seems an incredibly unlikely scenario, if for no other reason than it would ensure Harper became a free agent at the end of the 2017 season instead of the end of the 2018 season.

Ultimately, Harper's performance will dictate when he's called up to Washington for the first time. Rizzo probably wants to see the kid succeed at Class AAA before pulling the trigger.

But if Harper is indeed tearing up the International League in, say, the final week of May, don't be surprised if he stays down there for a couple more weeks as the Nationals try to keep his salary in future seasons down.

That could be one of a whole lot of ramifications -- some big, some small -- of a new collective bargaining agreement that is likely to have some real lasting effects on the way baseball operates over the next five years.