Kris Bryant is almost universally hailed as the best prospect in baseball, and for what absolute little spring stats count for, he’s got a 1.561 OPS in spring training. He destroyed Triple-A in a half season of play in 2014, just like he did at every level since he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2013, putting up a 194 (!) wRC+ in 860 minor league plate appearances. The Cubs traded incumbent third baseman Luis Valbuena to Houston this winter in an obvious move to make room for Bryant, even if they won’t admit it.
Bryant is unquestionably ready for the big leagues — all four of our projection systems have him for between a 129-132 wRC+ — and yet, there’s almost no chance that he’ll actually be on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. Enjoy Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella for the first two weeks, Cubs fans. This is so, so dumb.
You already know what the reasoning is here, because it’s been discussed ad nauseam this spring. If Bryant is with the Cubs from day one, he’ll vest 2015 as a full season of service time and be eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. If they hold him down in Triple-A so that he misses the first nine Cubs games of the season (which take place over 12 days, due to three scheduled days off), they’ll enjoy Bryant’s services through the 2021 season as well — his age-29 season. It’s a simple decision for the Cubs. Two weeks of Bryant’s age-23 season just won’t be as valuable as six months of his age-29 season. Keeping him down may not be popular, but it’s unquestionably correct.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Every year, it seems, we go through this charade of teams not putting their best roster on the field not due to talent reasons, but due to service time reasons. Last year, it was George Springer, recalled on April 16. In 2012, it was Bryce Harper, who came up on April 28. Jordan Zimmermann made it up on April 20, 2009. Evan Longoria debuted on April 8, 2008. They aren’t the only ones, and for the moment, I’m only talking about teams trying to get the additional year of service time, not only attempting to avoid Super Two status as well.
As Craig Edwards explained here last week, the Cubs have three options, none ideal:
- They could try to strike a deal with Bryant that sells out his maximum earning power in exchange for immediate riches, as Longoria, Madison Bumgarner, Salvador Perez and others have done, but that’s unlikely with Scott Boras around.
- They could ignore the service time implications and have Bryant active on Opening Day, as the Braves and Marlins did with Jason Heyward and Jose Fernandez, respectively.
- They could do what they almost certainly will do, which is understand that the difference between Bryant and Olt/La Stella over six percent of the season is not worth kicking away an entire future — and presumably peak — Bryant season for.
Number one won’t happen. Number two shouldn’t happen. That leaves the Cubs with number three, which is to masquerade Bryant as an Iowa Cub in road trips to Memphis and New Orleans before calling him up to the big leagues on or about April 18, a ruse which doesn’t help the player or the fans.
How is it that we haven’t been able to do better? It shouldn’t be acceptable that teams are so transparently manipulating service time, but the blame isn’t really with the front offices here. They’re merely making strategic decisions within the rules the owners and union have agreed to, which is why MLBPA head Tony Clark’s recent comments that he’d be “paying attention to the situation” ring hollow — after all, Bryant, who is not yet on the Chicago 40-man roster, isn’t even a member of the union that Clark leads.
That’s really the main issue here, that the union has spent years bargaining away the rights of amateurs they don’t even represent, both domestically and globally. But let’s say, for the moment, that they do have an interest in resolving this situation, that beyond the PR aspect of it, the sooner they can get a top prospect like Bryant to the bigs, the sooner he can get to free agency and make some real money. With the CBA coming back up for discussion next year, and with recent reports indicating that the MLBPA will fold on the international draft issue in return for other demands, the opportunity is coming. How can we make this better?
Here’s one potential solution:
Change the requirement for a full year of service time
towards free agency to 100 days
Everyone knows “six years of service time” as what’s required to reach free agency, but it’s important the remember the wordsmithing of the CBA here as to what actually constitutes a full year of service. From our glossary:
A year of service time is equal to 172 days, and there are normally around 183 total days in the major league calendar. This means that if a team wants to keep a prospect from accruing a full year of service time, they simply need to leave that player in the minors for around 15-20 days out of the entire season.
That’s 162 games in 183 days, 172 of which a player must be active (or on the major league DL) for in order to qualify for a full year of service, meaning that it takes just 11 days in the minors to hold them back. (Yes, it says 15-20 days above, but that’s due to slight differences in the rules between 40-man and non-40-man players that aren’t worth exploring here.) While that 172-vs-183 distinction adds some confusion, simply turning the 172-day requirement into 183 wouldn’t help; all that would do would incentivize teams to have their prospects only miss Opening Day. What this needs to do instead is to get that date much further from Opening Day, to increase the pain a team would feel by holding a prospect down.
So instead of focusing on days, why don’t we focus on seasons, or “qualified seasons,” if that helps. Any season with 100 days of service time would count as a qualifying season towards free agency. Or, to look at it from the other perspective, a team would have to keep a prospect on the farm for more than half the season to delay free agency by a year. Get enough qualified seasons, you’re a free agent; to avoid a team hanging on to a part-time player for a decade, you could still keep the old rule in place and make it “six qualified seasons or 1,000 total days of service time,” which is roughly what six times 172 is now. Simple. Easy. Better.
In all honesty, I pulled 100 days out of the air because it’s a nice round number, so if you prefer 90 days or 110 days or something similar, there’s room to discuss. For now, 100 seems to work. That would be roughly three months and a week-plus, so let’s say a rough deadline of June 20 to get a player up. For a player like Bryant, that would remove all incentive for the Cubs to hold him down, because whether he’s up on April 6 or April 18 or May 15, he’s getting those 100 days.
The easy devil’s advocate response to that is, “well, we see teams hold players down until June all the time to avoid Super Two, so why wouldn’t they do the same here?” Perhaps they would, but for a player of Bryant’s caliber, it would be far more difficult for the Cubs to weather three months of public angst — not to mention a real, actual hit to playoff hopes — than it would be for them to do it for under two weeks. There’s a present/future balance where it becomes a very difficult decision of whether to surrender current performance for extra team control, but two or three weeks is clearly not that balance point; two or three months is likely much closer to that tipping point.
From the union’s side, it’s a no-brainer. For example, Rick Porcello — who fell two days short of free agency despite six straight seasons of at least 162 innings pitched — wouldn’t be working for $12.5 million in his final season of arbitration, he’d be kicking off what might be a potentially massive payday. David Price wouldn’t be in his fourth and final year of arbitration because he’s eight days short of six years of service time — note that after his star turn in the 2008 season and playoffs, the Rays still kept him down until May in 2009 — he’d have been a free agent this winter alongside Max Scherzer. (Not that Price would get a ton more annually than the $19.75 million he’s making, he’d just have a lot more long-term security.)
The problem is getting the owners on board, because a significant reduction in the number of days required for a service year will push players into free agency faster, moving players to more expensive rates at a faster clip. While eliminating this dog-and-pony show is good for fans and good for the players, it would result in higher costs for owners, which they are almost always universally against. So, the player’s association would have to give up something of real value in order to get this as a concession in the next CBA. In general, the union asks for things that benefits its current members, especially the most senior portions of the union, while this would be a benefit passed on to those not currently members or with the fewest dues paid.
So what would the player’s association give up in order to help a group of players it has generally not protected? Perhaps the natural trade-off would be agreeing to MLB’s desire for an international draft, since that would lead to a cost reduction for ownership but not at the expense of any money currently being allocated to union members. Trading the international draft for the end of the service time charade would harm players who will be union members farther down the road while helping players knocking on the union’s door; that’s the kind of trade off they’re generally interested in making.
Would it be enough to get ownership on board? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a good place to start, at least. And it would have the secondary benefit of also making the Super Two system entirely unnecessary, so the additional costs added on via earlier free agency would be offset to some degree by the elimination of fourth-year arbitration raises, which aren’t all that different from free agent prices in many cases. If owners got an international draft and Super Two went away, perhaps the marginal cost increase of granting free agency slightly sooner wouldn’t be a deal breaker.
It’s not a perfect solution, because it can’t be. So long as players are tied to their original team for a certain amount of service time, there’s going to have to be a rule on when that time starts, and teams are going to try to get around that. You’d still have disputes in-season about when a player should be called up, but you have that now. This would at least remove the incentive to do it on Opening Day. Maybe 100 days isn’t the right number. Maybe September roster expansion days only count as half credit for players who are newly-added to the 40-man roster. Maybe there’s another way entirely. Whatever the right answer is, a scenario where everyone pretends that Bryant heading to Iowa is strictly on the up-and-up isn’t it. There’s got to be a better way.