Kris Bryant hit two more home runs yesterday for the Chicago Cubs during the Will Ferrell extravaganza. He stands tall among prospects, ranking number one according to Kiley McDaniel. The FanGraphs Depth Charts have given him a conservative 100 games played, and he still manages to top 3 WAR. The ZiPS projections give him closer to a full season, and he tops four wins despite never having taken an at bat at the major league level. He is not even on the Cubs’ 40-man roster. Despite that inexperience, he is going to make the Cubs look very bad for sending him to the minor leagues to start the season. It brings back memories of the Los Angeles Angels in 2012 holding back Mike Trout in the minors to start the season, but Kris Bryant’s situation is very different from Mike Trout’s.
In 2012, Mike Trout, like Bryant today, was one of the very best prospects in all of baseball and likely ready to play in the majors, but the Angels sent him to Triple-A to start the season. The Angels started the season 6-14, recalled Trout from Salt Lake, went 83-59 the rest of the way, and missed the playoffs by four games. Looking back at Trout’s excellence now, it might be easy to draw the conclusion that the Angels likely make the playoffs with Trout for the entire season and that the Angels were manipulating Trout’s service time to save money. The former is impossible to determine, but the latter is highly unlikely.
Mike Trout did not begin his MLB career in April 2012. He was first called up in a forgettable 2011 where he hit .220/.281/.390 in 40 games and accumulated under 100 days of service time. At the beginning of 2012, the only way for the Angels to manipulate Trout’s service time was to keep him in the minors until nearly the All-Star break. The Angels’ decision might have been partly financial, in that they poorly evaluated the sunk cost of Bobby Abreu, but keeping Trout in the minors for 20 games gained the Angels nothing in terms of free agent years or arbitration status as far as Trout was concerned.
Kris Bryant is in a different situation. He has no MLB service time. As the FanGraphs glossary explains, the Cubs have a very easy way to get an extra year of service from Bryant before he can hit free agency.
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.
If Bryant were to make the Opening Day roster or be called up within the first ten days of the season, he would have one full year of service time at the end of the season if he stayed up with the Cubs all year. This would set him up to be a free agent as a 28-year-old after the 2020 season. If the Cubs wait just a couple weeks, Bryant would likely receive four years of arbitration money as a Super-2 as opposed to the normal three, but the Cubs would retain his services for Bryant’s Age-29 season and delay free agency by an entire year. It is a somewhat cruel business decision transferring wealth from Bryant to the Cubs, but it is a decision the Cubs would be foolish not to make.
Bryant is not currently on the 40-man roster which allows the Cubs to call him up to Chicago slightly earlier than some other prospects. Players on the 40-man are technically sent down from the big league club at the start of the season. For a player on the 40-man, if the time a player is sent down amounts to less than 20 days, then those 20 days count as MLB service time. That provision helps players by preventing a team from manipulating service time such that a team could just send a player down to the minors for a few days.
The 20-day provision means that any player already on the 40-man roster must stay in the minor leagues for at least 20 days after the start of the season. Bryant has no such restrictions, meaning the Cubs could call him up April 18th, have him miss just ten games and then retain his services for an extra year. While the Cubs could contend for the playoffs this season and a full season of Bryant would likely help them in that regard, trying to project the difference between Bryant and Mike Olt or Tommy La Stella over 6% of the season yields very little.
The other option for the Cubs and Bryant is to agree to a contract extension. A contract would likely cover 2015-2021, the seven seasons the Cubs could have control over Bryant by keeping him in the minors for ten days. Jonathan Singleton signed a deal like that last year with Astros in June and he was immediately called up, avoiding any potential super-2 difficulties. Singleton’s teammate George Springer and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Gregory Polanco discussed similar deals with their teams guaranteeing roughly $25 million, and included options for future seasons.
There are several problems with the Cubs reaching an agreement with Kris Bryant. First, Bryant’s agent is Scott Boras, who tends to encourage his clients to get to free agency as soon as possible, making a contract with options unlikely. The second reason might be even more important for Bryant. The financial stability that a long-term guarantee can provide can be a great reason to sign a contract. When Singleton was drafted, his signing bonus was just $200,000. The $10 million guarantee gave him great financial stability given an uncertain future. Kris Bryant does not need that kind of stability. Just 20 months ago, Bryant received a $6.7 million signing bonus after he was drafted. Bryant already has the financial stability that Singleton sought. Even with his extension it will take Singleton until 2017 to surpass Bryant’s signing bonus in earnings.
In order to avoid the headache associated with sending Bryant to the minors for a couple weeks, the Cubs would likely have to double the guaranteed money discussed with Springer and Polanco to get Bryant to sign. It is unclear even then if Bryant would sign a deal, and highly unlikely that the Cubs would commit that much money given Bryant’s bright, but uncertain future.
If the Cubs were to try to hold Bryant back until June to delay his arbitration, then it would be fair to call the franchise cheap. Getting an extra year of service time looks like a financial decision, but it is also a baseball decision. The Cubs are trading ten games in 2015 for a full season in 2021. The Cubs are going to look bad when they do not open the season with Bryant in the lineup. He is ready to help the Cubs now, and any reasoning the Cubs provide is just an excuse for the obvious. The Cubs want the extra year, and the way the system is set up, they are going to get it. For the Cubs fans in Des Moines, it might be best to circle April 17th on the calendar. That might be the only home game the Iowa Cubs get with Bryant in uniform. The rest of baseball can look to the 18th.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.