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March 13, 2013

EXTRA INNINGS: Cole will start in the minors for Pirates

OPINION — GERRIT COLE’S fifth appearance of the spring will probably come this weekend, following his performance Sunday when he allowed two runs on two hits in four innings, walking one and striking out two in the 5-2 Pirates win over Baltimore.

Against a lineup of players from the Orioles’ projected major-league roster, Cole’s allowed runs came on a Ryan Flaherty homer (on a 2-0 count) following Cole’s only free pass.

"He's a smart kid," Cole’s catcher du jour Russell Martin said. "Of course he's got ability like not a lot of people have, but he's pitching out there with his mind and he has a plan. I feel like he's pretty polished for a young guy."

Unless you understand the financial part of major league baseball these days, you might think that Cole’s a candidate to make the Pirates’ opening day roster.

Not gonna happen. He’ll be in Pittsburgh in 2013, but not for a while.

Here’s how 2013 baseball works: Players not on the 40-man roster are controlled by the team until they have accrued at least six seasons of major/minor league experience. Since young stars (like Cole—drafted in 2011—and Jameson Taillon—2010) haven’t been in the system that long, they generally are omitted from the major league roster in favor of those whose six years are up and must either be placed on the 40-man roster, traded, or released.

Players on the 40-man roster but not on the 25-man active roster don’t earn major league service time until they are added to the active 25-man roster for the first time. This is often referred to as “starting a player’s clock.” (A minor leaguer on the 40-man roster who is called up in September earns a small amount of major league service time, but that does not “start his clock” because of the expanded rosters permitted during September.

One year of major league service time is accrued for every 172 days in a season. (There are roughly 182 days in a typical season, which ends on the last day of the regular season.)

Here’s where Cole’s situation comes into play.

Teams generally don’t want to add a rookie to the 25-man active roster in their first year until late April or early May, because then their first season will not add up to 172 days, which means that in this case, the Pirates effectively get almost seven years out of Cole instead of just six.

If a team further delays a rookie until the middle of June, then they will also likely prevent that player from becoming a “Super Two” for arbitration purposes.

The Pirates used this strategy with Andrew McCutchen, not called up until June 4 back in 2009.

The team controls players’ salaries until a player accrues three years of major league service time, when he becomes eligible for salary arbitration. This is why you often see outstanding players getting a relatively small salary despite a superb season. For example, Angels’ super Mike Trout will earn just $20,000 more than the major-league minimum of $490,000 because he has no power until he becomes arbitration eligible despite being an All-Star and American League rookie of the year.

A player with more than two years of major league service time can also become eligible for salary arbitration beginning in his third year if he is among the top 17% in service time among all players who have between two and three 3 years. These players (like Neil Walker) are also known as “super two’s” and are arbitration eligible for four years.

Still scratching your head? Just remember that it boils down to teams maneuvering players to get the most time for the least money.

Think of it this way: Would you want Cole to start the 2013 season in Pittsburgh and be a potential free agent in 2018 or have a delayed 2013 start and have him under team control until 2019?

So would the Pirates.

 

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