It's all about the calendar and something called "Super Two arbitration status."
First, a brief explanation of the arbitration rule:
Players who have at least three years, but fewer than six, of Major League service time, are eligible to file for arbitration. In addition, there there are the so-called "Super Two" players. These are the top 17 percent of players, based on service time, with at least two but fewer than three years of service. The rule states that a player must have at least 86 days of service in the immediately preceding season to qualify for this status. Typically, the cut-off for the top 17 percent has been around two years, 130 days of total service, though the days fluctuate from year to year.
Lincecum had two years, 148 days of service, making him a Super Two. Reynolds was at two years, 138 days, just short of qualifying.
In short, if a team calls up a player early -- such as Lincecum in 2007 -- and that player sticks in the Majors, he will be eligible for arbitration after his second full season. Lincecum would have been due a huge raise in arbitration prior to this season, two-plus years after coming up. Lincecum's camp had filed an arbitration request for $13 million, and there's a reasonable chance he would have gotten it. So the Giants signed him to the extension to buy out his next two arbitration years.
All of that happened because he came up on May 6 instgead of a week later. Think there's a chance the Giants are looking at those May starts of Lincecum's rookie season and wondering if it was worth it, considering he could've been making a lot less than $9 million this year?
Calling this simply a money issue is an over-simplification. Sure, the dollars mentioned above are not inconsequential, but having control of the player is equally important, if not more so, for some teams.
The service clock is crucial. The D-backs and Brewers, using the example above, had Reynolds and Braun under control for nearly an entire extra year -- before Braun's big extension, at least -- than the Giants did with Lincecum. That three-quarters of a season in 2007, in effect, doesn't really count. It's bonus.
"To get the guy for 6.8 years instead of six years, the money kind of goes out the window," said former general manager John Hart, who's now a senior advisor for baseball operations with the Texas Rangers and an MLB Network analyst. "I'm not so worried about Super Two, but if I bring this guy up [early]... When you have a Super Two and you get whacked, you say, 'Did I really need that guy?'"
A popular view is that small-market clubs wait to promote players to save money. But that's not a complete picture. The D-backs, who kept Reynolds down just long enough to avoid Super Two status, don't really qualify as "small-market." Neither do the Orioles, who didn't bring up Matt Wieters until he was past that threshold. The Boston Red Sox spend freely in the Draft and the free-agent market, yet it's believed that they have never had a Super Two player since Theo Epstein took over as general manager.
"If your club is a competitive club and you think this player is going to be an integral part of a competitive team, I'm not sure how you face the other 24 players, the staff, the fans and say, 'We're going to keep him in the Minor Leagues.' I can't do that. We'll figure out his contract way down the road."
-- Braves GM Frank Wren
There are more variables that come into play in addition to the financial component. Development stages -- both of the player and of the team -- are often considered.
"As the world has changed financially, there are a variety of markets and clubs at different stages," Hart explained. "There isn't one blanket feeling on protecting service time or protecting from the Super Two. Everybody in the industry is aware of it.
"When I had good clubs, it never crossed my mind. When I felt we were growing or building and a guy could use more development time, I'll admit, I did pay more attention to it because he was going to fit for a longer period of time."
That's vitally important when considering today's landscape.
The Braves believed they had a chance to compete in 2010 and a budding star who was ready to play every day in Jason Heyward. So they didn't hesitate to put him on the Opening Day roster. The Rangers were undoubtedly thinking the same thing when they called up Justin Smoak recently.
"I think those are decisions you make in different circumstances with your club," Braves general manager Frank Wren said at the time. "If your club is a competitive club and you think this player is going to be an integral part of a competitive team, I'm not sure how you face the other 24 players, the staff, the fans and say, 'We're going to keep him in the Minor Leagues.' I can't do that. We'll figure out his contract way down the road."
For teams that aren't as close to competing in their division, there is some sense to keeping players in the Minors. Why burn that extra service time when it's not necessarily going to help the team's fortunes right away? Nothing is that cut and dry, as two examples this year point out.
The first is the Nationals and Stephen Strasburg. He is, in many ways, an entity unto himself, both in the unique talent he is as well as the fact he hadn't thrown a professional pitch before April. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has been clear about wanting Strasburg to get some development time in the Minors before bringing him up, that it has less to do with things like Super Two status and more to do with what's best for the player and team in the long-term.
Example 2 is the Pirates, whose fans want to know when Pedro Alvarez will be deemed ready for the big leagues. More than perhaps with any other team, any Super Two-related decisions could be a money-related issue. In addition to being fiscally responsible, the Pirates must pay attention to things like where Alvarez is developmentally and the fact the club already has two players -- Andy LaRoche and Ross Ohlendorf -- who will likely be Super Two players this year.
"We promote players when we believe they are prepared to compete and succeed at the next level," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "The landscape of Major League Baseball is littered with former super-prospects that have been rushed to the Major Leagues and as a result failed to reach their potential. While we anticipate continued growth and development at the Major League level, we work hard to put our players in a position to be successful and avoid the rushed-prospect syndrome.
"The best agents understand that development is a process and most even agree with us that it is better to be a month conservative in a promotion than it is to be a week too early. While organizations certainly consider the business side of the game in every transaction, for us, Super Two status is not a deciding factor. The player's place on his development curve is the deciding factor."
Huntington touches on one last variable that makes the whole Super Two decision process a bit more complex: the agent of the player. Huntington would not comment directly, but Strasburg, Alvarez and Wieters all share the same agency, Scott Boras Corp. And one thing that's been fairly constant with Boras clients is that they will not negotiate contract extensions when they are approaching arbitration eligibility.
"In Alvarez's case, he needed some Triple-A time, [and] the Pirates are still trying to build," Hart said. "They give him some more development time and they avoid the remote possibility of Super Two. That's a back-breaker because you have to figure in the agent. He's not Evan Longoria or Troy Tulowitzki. They have a shorter window [of controlling the player]."