For any team that has a high level prospect who has yet to play a game at the Major League level, questions of service time are bound to arise. It’s no different for Brett Lawrie and the Toronto Blue Jays. So, before we can talk about Lawrie’s place on the team and what we can expect from him offensively and defensively, let’s straighten out some of the pesky issues around service time and what it means to Lawrie’s future arbitration and eventual free agency.

No doubt, you’ve heard the term Super Two bandied about in discussions about top prospects waiting to be called up. Super Two refers to players in the top 17% for total service time that have accumulated at least two, but less than three years. Once you’re in that top 17%, you’re eligible for an extra year of arbitration. So, instead of the standard three years that most players receive, a Super Two player will get an extra year of arbitration instead of the last year of league minimum (or slightly higher) payment.

The way that the current collective bargaining agreement works out is that a non Super Two player, through the first three years of his career, will receive pretty much whatever his club wants to pay him, after that he’ll get three years of arbitration and then he’s eligible for free agency. A Super Two player will play his first two seasons for whatever the club wants to pay him, then play through four years of arbitration before he has the option of putting himself on the free agent market.

For the purposes of arbitration and free agency, 172 days of service time is considered a season, even though the entire 2011 season is actually 182 days. Typically, the cut off for Super Two has been around 130 days, meaning that if the Blue Jays intend on having Lawrie be the starting third baseman for all of next season, he’s more than likely going to become a Super Two player. The real question is when.

Now that we’re more than ten days into the 2011 season call ups will accrue just under a year of service time, meaning that players called up today who stick around until September won’t reach a full year of service time until next season. So, if Lawrie is going to be called up at any time this season, it doesn’t matter when, now that we’re past the ten day period.

So, if the Blue Jays were to call Lawrie up today, assuming they’re prepared to let him play all of next season, he’ll become a Super Two after the 2013 season, and become a free agent ahead of the 2018 season. Considering the type of player that the Blue Jays think that Lawrie will become, it makes sense to worry less about Super Two status and a whole lot more about his future free agent eligibility.

Consider the following salary schedule:

Just by not breaking camp with Lawrie, the Blue Jays have already pushed back his potential free agency to 2018 at the earliest. And if they wait to bring him up until ten days into next season, they could push it back another year. Now, you could be considering that if Lawrie is the type of player who stays up once he’s called up, which this chart assumes, wouldn’t the Blue Jays want to sign him to a long term contract making this chart unnecessary.

Service time makes a difference even in long term contracts because locking up potential free agent years are more expensive to a team than locking up arbitration years. A player in arbitration has only a single option as to who he plays for and the salary numbers that are exchanged represent this limitation. A player entering free agency potentially has thirty different options and offers to good players represent the lack of limitations.

In other words, pushing free agency back as far as possible is beneficial to the club in many ways.

Still, there are those that suggest dollars be damned, the Blue Jays have a responsibility to the fan base to field the best team possible. These same people are likely the ones dismayed with Edwin Encarnacion’s defense and Juan Rivera’s lack of visible effort. To them, I’d ask what makes them believe that Lawrie is better defensively than Encarnacion or will put up better offensive numbers than Rivera.

We talked a little bit about this in our post game webcast last night:

While his offensive numbers after thirty plate appearances are through the roof, there’s no evidence to suggest that Lawrie would be any better as a defensive option than Edwin Encarnacion. And as much as that .552 wOBA seems appealing, it’s been accumulated in such a limited number of at bats in a league known for inflated offensive numbers. Should the Blue Jays really be prepared to completely dismiss Juan Rivera after only 38 plate appearances, a guy who had a career year only two seasons ago?

I don’t understand the rush. By keeping Lawrie down at Triple A, the Blue Jays are able to keep their options open, both on the field and in the front office, during a season in which there’s absolutely no need to rush or misuse talent. After all, Lawrie is only 21 years old and if he can continue to do what he’s done so far this season, there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing a lot of him in our future anyway.