In the spring of 2015, Kris Bryant was coming off a historic minor league season. Splitting the year between Double- and Triple-A, Bryant hit .325/.438/.661 with 43 homers and a 192 wRC+. He then hit .425/.477/1.175 in spring training. But he didn’t make the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. Mike Olt, who had also spent some time in Triple-A in 2014, hit a good .302/.348/.545 in Iowa before posting an ugly .160/.248/.356 line in half a season with the Cubs; he started at third base ahead of Bryant. Olt was hit on his wrist by a pitch on Saturday, April 11, and didn’t start any games the next week. On April 17, with 171 days left in the season (exactly one day short of the 172 Bryant would need for a full year of service time), Olt hit the Disabled List with a hairline fracture and Bryant made his debut.
Due to the obvious attempt by the Cubs to manipulate his service time, ensuring he would not reach free agency until after the 2021 season, Bryant filed a grievance to recoup that lost day. According to Jeff Passan, Bryant has lost that grievance and will not become a free agent at the end of this season, having instead to wait an additional year. The ruling will be made public in a week, per Passan. While we don’t yet know the arbitrator’s exact reasoning, it’s hard not to see a decision in the Cubs’ favor as much else than a tacit approval of baseball teams keeping otherwise ready players in the minors for a few weeks at the beginning of the season in order to gain another year of team control. Bryant was the ideal player to file a grievance for service time manipulation, given his track record in the minors, his great spring, and lack of decent options ahead of him on the depth chart. If he can’t win, then who can?
The arbitrator may well have warned teams that while there was no real precedent to award Bryant his lost day, future cases might be decided differently; we’ll have to wait for the decision to be made public to know for sure. But even if that’s the case, the practical effect of such a decision is minimal given that the current CBA expires at the end of the 2021 season. The decision is a reminder that while service time manipulation is against the spirit of the CBA, proving such violations is extremely difficult. What’s more, the changes needed to curb the practice will have to be far more explicit in the next CBA. Service time manipulation like Bryant’s aren’t especially common and affect only a handful of players every year. But those it does effect tend to be among the game’s best young players, kept in the minors for reasons that have nothing to so with their ability. And the practice represents part of a larger issue involving the time it takes to get to free agency and the pay players receive before they get there.
The financial incentives for teams to engage in service time manipulation are obvious. Including playoffs, Bryant has averaged 186 games per full year of service time due to being held down for two weeks at the beginning of his career. Kris Bryant’s trade value is now higher with two seasons of team control remaining rather than one, and even at a salary potentially above $25 million in 2021, Bryant is still a bargain compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars he would receive in free agency. Every year of his prime a player spends under team control significantly reduces the amount of money that player could gain on the open market.
Service time manipulation is the result of a system that underpays players for their first six (or in Bryant’s case, nearly seven) seasons. A shorter path to free agency and greater pay for players under team control would lessen the incentives teams have to engage in this disappointing behavior. Those are issues that must be addressed through the next CBA, as relying on a convoluted grievance system, in which an arbitrator attempts to divine a team’s intent, appears to be insufficient to protect players. (Playoff positioning also seems to be an insufficiently compelling force in the players’ favor. The 2015 Cubs made the postseason, but as the second Wild Card, finishing three games out of their division; they were dispatched by the Mets in the NLCS. One wonders what a few more October home games or a more well-rested Jake Arrieta might have yielded.) I’ve proposed one solution previously with regard to this issue, but there are certainly many options out there.
Some teams have recently eschewed the practice. Last season, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Pete Alonso both made their respective Opening Day rosters, perhaps because their teams wanted to avoid grievances of their own, perhaps because they just wanted to win some baseball games. But the Blue Jays were clear about their intent to keep Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the minors before he went down with an injury; Nick Senzel’s agent called his client’s demotion to Triple-A “a simply egregious case of service-time manipulation.” And while a desire to avoid a years-long grievance may have motivated the White Sox to offer Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert extensions in lieu of a brief and unnecessary stay in Charlotte, the team was able to secure options for some of those players free agent years likely because of the specter of service time manipulation, and the diminished bargaining position Jiménez and Robert occupied as a result.
As for what this means for Bryant and the Cubs, Chicago has been looking to cut payroll after missing the playoffs in 2019. Including their competitive tax bill, the team spent around $250 million on the roster last season. This season, even with a very small projected tax, the Cubs have already cut payroll by $35 million. Trading Bryant would save them even more money as they start their new team-owned television network. In looking to cut payroll, the team likely doesn’t want to trade Javier Báez, and Bryant is the only high-salaried player who possesses any real value in trade.
Given Bryant’s ability to play third base and the outfield, the Cubs should find a lot of suitors. The Braves couldn’t retain Josh Donaldson. The Nationals let Anthony Rendon go. The Rangers still need a lot of help. If the Padres are in on Mookie Betts, they might as well make a call on Bryant. The Angels could get creative by taking on more than Bryant’s contract in exchange for Justin Upton. Maybe the Rockies and Cubs maneuver a third base swap of some kind. The Cubs could use some young pitching as well as a center fielder and, well, a third baseman. They might be able to make up some of Bryant’s lost production elsewhere, but if they do move him, it certainly looks like they are closing an otherwise open window of contention in favor of more money and minimal long-term baseball gain.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.