How about that?
The MLB season hasn’t even started yet, and we’ve already got our first major controversy.
Interestingly enough, it has nothing to do with a new rule. Last year we had controveries over three new rules (the so-called “transfer rule,” blocking the plate, and instant replay). That’s enough to hold us for a couple of years, so it only makes sense that we’d wind up fighting about something else this season.
The issue is the status of Cubs’ prospect Kris Bryant. He stormed through the minors–he started in Class A-Short Season at the beginning of the 2013 season, made it all the way to AAA by June of last season, and wound up being named the minor league player of the year by both USA Today and Baseball America–and capped it by dominating in Spring Training this year (nine home runs and a .425 average in 40 at bats–if he could keep that pace up through a full season, he’d have well over a hundred home runs and the highest average since 1894, the fourth-highest average in history).
Sounds like he should be the Cubs’ starting third baseman this year, doesn’t it? Well, yeah. He almost certainly will be–three weeks from now. See, there’s this little rule, part of the basic agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association, that says a player becomes a free agent after six years of Major League service. Further, according to that same agreement between the league and the player’s union, a Player accrues a year of service for each 172 days he spends on the Major League Club’s Active List*. There’s some fine print about how to count interruptions in service due to suspensions, military duty, short assignments to the minors, and so forth, of course. There’s also a rule that a Play cannot accrue more than 172 days service in a single season, no matter how long the season actually runs and no matter whether the Club makes the playoffs.
* Yes, the Basic Agreement really does capitalize it that way.
The bottom line is that if Bryant starts the season with the Cubs, he’ll almost certainly accrue 172 days of service this year, and thus–assuming he doesn’t literally fall apart–be eligible for free agency in the 2021 season. By keeping Bryant in AAA until April 16, the Cubs ensure that he can’t get that magical 172nd day of service until next year.
Assuming he lives up to his potential–and there’s always a risk that a player will flame out–Bryant will be a very expensive free agent, so it’s to the Cubs’ advantage to delay his transition, and under the Basic Agreement, they’re permitted to do exactly that. And so they did, assigning him to the minors.
So where’s the controversy?
The MLBPA issued a statement condemning Bryant’s minor league assignment, calling it a “bad day for baseball” and warning the Club and MLB that the decision “will be addressed in litigation, bargaining or both.”* Excuse me? The current Basic Agreement has been in effect since 2012, and teams have been gaming the service accrual clause all along. Why is it suddenly an issue for Kris Bryant? Just because he’s the Number One prospect in all of baseball? That’s an insult to every other player who’s had a late call-up.
* There’s a joke here about the MLBPA prejudicing their case by their failure to use the Oxford comma in their press statement, but I’ll leave it to you to calculate the chances that the judge who eventually hears the case will be an Oxford grad.
Litigation? Good luck with that. Not only is the Cubs’ action legal under the agreement the MLBPA negotiated, but MLB’s anti-trust exemption has historically been the next best thing to a free pass in the courts.
Bargaining? Sure. The Basic Agreement runs through next season. I’m sure the next agreement is already in negotiation. But if the MLBPA wants to change the rules on free agency and service accrual, they’ll have to give something else up–and that’s likely to be something that will affect all players, not just the few expected to be superstars.
You know what’s the worst thing about this contretemps? It shouldn’t even have been an issue. If Bryant doesn’t perform, whether through lack of ability to adjust to the majors, injury, or anything else, his service time is going to be irrelevant. If he does become the star everyone thinks he’ll be, the Cubs are going to offer him a huge deal well before his six years are up. (See, for example, Kyle Seager, who just got a seven year, $100 million contract with the Mariners. He’s only accrued a smidge over three years of service, and his actual numbers aren’t even close to what the Cubs and the MLBPA expect from Bryant.)
There’s a saying that you catch more fly balls with a glove than with honey. By stashing Bryant in AAA for a couple of weeks, the Cubs have effectively handed him a bear-shaped squeeze bottle. How much are they going to have to jack up their eventual contract offer to counteract Bryant’s current disappointment? Let it be noted that his agent is Scott Boras, who’s never been known to undervalue the players he represents.
The Cubs made a perfectly logical decision. It may come back to bite them in their collective ass, but that’s the risk of any business decision.
Would everybody stop posing and go play some baseball?