Kris Bryant’s grievance — the ongoing dispute between the Chicago Cubs’ third baseman and the Chicago Cubs over service time manipulation — has been one of the significant stories of the MLB offseason, mainly cast by writers as being a barrier to the resolution of the third base market. The Cubs have been rumored to be willing to deal their star third baseman, but until his grievance is ruled upon, teams don’t know whether they’d be getting one season of Bryant, or two. Until that is known, the third base market appears to be in limbo, with talks continuing to occur regarding a possible Nolan Arenado trade, Josh Donaldson’s rumored willingness to sign with the first team that meets his number, and Kyle Seager potentially being available, but teams apparently waiting to act until they know what will happen with Bryant.
The impact of the Bryant grievance on the Hot Stove, however, tends to overlook the importance of this ruling to MLB/MLBPA relations, as well as more generally how MLB front offices operate. A ruling in favor of Bryant has the potential to cause a significant change in the landscape of MLB, and because I think that such a change is necessary, and would be a good thing, I’m hoping for a favorable outcome for Bryant.
First of all, a recap of the dispute: Bryant was the #2 overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, taken by the Cubs one pick after the Houston Astros selected Mark Appel #1 overall. Bryant was a power hitting third baseman out of the University of San Diego who was widely seen as being close to major league ready, and under the old draft rules, he would have almost certainly received a major league deal upon signing.
Bryant put up a .336/.390/.688 slash line in 36 games between various low-level leagues after signing in 2013, then put up a .364/.457/.727 slash line in the Arizona Fall League. Bryant followed that up with a .325/.438/.661 slash line in 2014 between AA and AAA.
Heading into the 2015 season, he was ranked the #1 prospect in baseball by Baseball America, #2 by MLB Pipeline, and #5 by Baseball Prospectus. Luis Valbuena, the Cubs’ 2014 third baseman, was sent to Houston, along with Dan Straily, for Dexter Fowler in January, 2015, clearing the way for Bryant to be the Opening Day third baseman for the Cubs. It was obvious that, with third base open and one of the top prospects in baseball, someone who had torn up every level he had played at as a pro, including AAA the year before, ready to step in at third base, Bryant should be in the majors to start the 2015 season.
Only, he wasn’t. The Cubs sent him down at the end of spring training, prompting the MLBPA and Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, to excoriate the Cubs for the decision. MLB defended the Cubs, releasing the following statement (quoted from the above-linked article):
In accordance with long established practice under the Basic Agreement, a club has an unfettered right to determine which players are part of its Opening Day roster. This issue was discussed extensively in bargaining in 2011, and the principle was not changed. We do not believe that it is appropriate for the players association to make the determination that Kris Bryant should be on the Cubs’ 25-man roster while another player, who, unlike Bryant, is a member of its bargaining unit, should be cut or sent to the minor leagues.
Because Bryant wasn’t on the 40 man roster, he wasn’t a member of the union, something that MLB made great pains to point out. MLB also, in its statement, took the stance that an MLB had no obligation to put the best players on the Opening Day roster. Instead, MLB tacitly endorsed the ability of teams to manipulate service time, by keeping a player, such as Bryant, who is major league ready, in the minor leagues long enough to keep that player from earning a full year of service time in his first year in the majors.
Why does a full year of service time matter? A major league player becomes eligible for free agency after six full years of service time. A player will occasionally be eligible for a full year of service time despite being optioned or assigned to the minor leagues — an optional assignment of less than 20 days, for example, for a player who otherwise is on a major league roster or injured list an entire season will result in a player getting credited for a full season of service time.
However, a player who is not on the 40 man roster, who is assigned to a minor league team, and who is then called up two weeks into the season, doesn’t get credit for a full year of service time. By keeping the player in the majors for a brief period of time, that player is just a few days short of a full year of service time. And by doing that sort of service time manipulation, a team can keep a player from hitting free agency for an extra season.
And that’s what the Cubs did with Bryant. Oh, the Cubs will argue it wasn’t for service time reasons, its because he needed extra work on his defense, or some such nonsense. But here’s what Joe Maddon said about Bryant’s demotion:
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you wouldn’t like to have him in your lineup. He’s also 23. I’m looking forward to working with this guy for the next 15 years. He’s a brilliant talent. I’m not going to sit here and say things that are disingenuous. This guy is good. He’s going to be really good.
Credit to Maddon for not toeing the company line and saying obvious bullshit about Bryant not being ready. Bryant was ready. Maddon wanted him, as well as Addison Russell and Javy Baez, who were also sent down that same day, on his roster, with the Fox Sports article acknowledging that “Epstein and Maddon both said there were heated debates on the decisions when it came to Baez and Bryant.”
Instead of Bryant, former Ranger farmhand Mike Olt, 26 years old and coming off a 2014 campaign where he slashed .160/.248/.356 in 258 plate appearances for the Cubs, was the Opening Day third baseman. 30 year old journeyman Chris Coghlan was the Opening Day left fielder for the Cubs.
Bryant went to Iowa, where he mashed for a week, and then was called up when Mike Olt went on the injured list. Bryant, predictably, was immediately very good — he put up a .275/.369/.488 slash line and a 6.1 bWAR, was named to the All Star Team, won the Rookie of the Year Award, and finished 11th in the MVP balloting. He won the MVP the following year.
Bryant was clearly ready to be in the major leagues to start the 2015 season, and despite the fig leaf explanations offered by the Cubs brass, the only reason he was sent down was to try to gain an extra year of service time from him. The Cubs called him up the first possible day after he passed the threshold to qualify for a full year of service time; if you look at his Baseball Reference page, it shows he has 4 years, 171 days of major league service time. 172 days in the majors qualifies you for a full season of service time — he is literally one day short.
Bryant, understandably, filed a grievance in 2015, arguing that the Cubs left him in the minors for 12 days at the start of the season for the purpose of circumventing the service time rules. That grievance was heard in October, evidence has been submitted, and a ruling is expected at some point in the coming weeks. If Bryant prevails, he could be credited with retroactive service time, allowing him to become a free agent at the end of 2020, rather than 2021.
Debates about whether to manipulate service time are nothing new. Rangers fans argued that Mark Teixeira should be sent down at the start of 2003 to buy an extra year of team control before he was eligible for free agency. If you go back to the LSB archives and read the comments from the 2008-09 offseason, there was much debate about whether Omar Vizquel should be the starter at shortstop for the first few weeks of the season, before bringing Elvis Andrus up, to delay Elvis’s free agency eligibility. Jon Daniels, at the time, dismissed such shenanigans, indicating that’s not the way the Rangers do things.
And we’ve seen that going forward. Nomar Mazara could have been sent down for a brief time at any point in the last four seasons and an extra year of service time capture. The Rangers didn’t do that. Keone Kela was sent down at the start of the 2017 for disciplinary reasons, but was recalled before he spent enough time in the minors to delay his free agency clock. When people suggested Willie Calhoun was sent down in 2018 for service time reasons, Jon Daniels pushed back at that, saying that service time manipulation is not something the Rangers do.
Other teams, however, do manipulate service time. The Cubs do it. The Astros did it with George Springer, who was a week short of qualifying for free agency this past offseason. Its become such a common practice that writers come out and say that a given top prospect who appears to be major league ready to start the season will be sent down to gain an extra year, and when a Luis Robert, for example, signs a contract extension, the reaction is that, well, by doing that he ensures he will be in the majors to start the season, rather than starting the season in the minors.
And from a cold, analytical standpoint, one can defend the position. The team, it should be argued, should view players as assets, and should do what is necessary to increase the value of those assets in any way possible. If a team can leave a player in the minors for two weeks to start the season, and gain an extra year of team control down the road, why, it would be stupid for a team not to do that, its argued.
The problem with that is that its refusing to deal with your players in good faith. It is manipulating the rules to the detriment of putting your best product on the field in order to try to better exploit your players and pay them less than what they are worth. Its dishonorable, it lacks integrity, and its bullshit.
The service time manipulation is simply one more example of the “win at any cost” mindset that resulted in the Astros receiving unprecedented levels of punishment yesterday. And what makes it worse is that it involves taking advantage of a power imbalance between the teams and the individuals that actually go out there and play the game, and using that power imbalance to unfairly reduce what a player will end up getting paid.
I’m not naive enough to believe that service time considerations are never going to come into play — but to the extent they do, from the perspective of operating in good faith and preserving the integrity of the game, it is something that should be on the margins, a minor factor in an overall decision, a tie-breaker when you’ve got two players who are basically a coin flip to make a decision on.
But teams leaving the Kris Bryants of the world off a major league roster solely for the purpose of gaining financial leverage over them is acting in bad faith and detrimental to the game. And while I’m not optimistic about his chances, I’m hoping that Bryant prevails in his grievance, and is made a free agent after the season.
Because right now, teams are doing this because there are no repercussions. There are no ramifications for behaving badly in this regard. And unless and until there are ramifications for this sort of behavior, it will continue.
Our best chance for seeing that happen at this point is with the Bryant grievance.