When we discuss the future for top Chicago Cubs prospect – er, make that, top baseball prospect – Kris Bryant, we come at it from so many angles. How good will he be? What position will he play? When will he be promoted? Could he have been a September call-up? Would that have been valuable? Would the 40-man roster be a problem? Will he sign an extension?
In those discussions, you start to perceive a handful of likely truths: (1) Bryant is probably going to be pretty good in the big leagues, and probably sooner rather than later; (2) Bryant will probably start out his big league career at third base, but an eventual move to the outfield is possible or even probable; (3) Bryant wasn’t going to be a September call-up, in part, because he didn’t have to be added to the 40-man roster yet, and it’s going to be mighty crowded this offseason; (4) a team-friendly, pre-arb extension isn’t necessarily likely; and (5) Bryant probably won’t make his big league debut on Opening Day.
That latter one, which in some ways ties into all of the others, is the one I want to discuss here. And it’s likely to be the one that gets a disproportionate amount of the Bryant-related interest in the coming months, and especially in Spring Training.
If Bryant is going to be so good, and if the Cubs’ goal is to win the 2015 NL Central, how can they possibly justify sending him to the minor leagues to start the season?
The question, for most of you, is now rhetorical. Thoughtful organizations constantly have to balance seemingly incongruous goals, and make the best decision possible. In Bryant’s case, the value he could add in early 2015 is weighed against the value of having control over Bryant for an entire additional season, in 2021. It’s a long way down the road, to be sure, but it’s a potentially enormously valuable thing. We understand and accept this, even if projecting the precise value there is an exercise in the most irresponsible kind of speculation.
But, an underdiscussed question: how much value are the Cubs giving up on the other end, in 2015?
Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that Bryant unequivocally needs no more development in the minor leagues. I think that’s likely true, but it’s probably still up for some measure of debate, given how little pro experience he has, and rational minds can accept that, in reality, if Bryant starts 2015 in the minors, it will probably be for a variety of reasons. For our discussion here, however, we are assuming the only value sending him to the minors has is securing that extra year of control in 2021. Let’s also assume that sending Bryant down will unequivocally cause him no developmental harm. Were it not so, I can’t imagine the Cubs even entertaining the idea. So, for our discussion here, the only demerit sending him down in 2015 is lost hypothetical value to the big league team.
To quantify how much value the Cubs could be giving up by sending Bryant to the minors to start the 2015 season, we must first understand the purpose in sending him there. And, for this discussion, we’re assuming the only reason to do it is related to service time.
So, then, how does service time play into this equation?
A player needs six full years of big league experience – that is, time on the 25-man roster or on the 60-day disabled list – to qualify for free agency. If you’re called up halfway through a season and stay in the bigs thereafter, that means you’re not going to be a free agent until after your seventh year in the big leagues.
(Separately, players with at least three season of big league experience qualify for salary arbitration. That means that, although they won’t be making free agent dollars, they’ll be making a salary determined by an arbitrator (or settled by the player and the team), which is typically much more than the “renewal” price a team pays during the first three years of a player’s control. Although this leads to a three renewal years and then three arbitration years setup for most players, some players qualify for four years of arbitration (“Super Two”). I won’t go too far down that wormhole here, but, suffice it to say: players who are called up in the first half of the year have a good shot at qualifying as Super Two players, and will make quite a bit more money during arbitration than their three-year counterparts. I don’t believe the Cubs will leave Bryant in the minors past the Super Two cut-off, so this is all academic.)
Here’s the catch: a “full year” for purposes of service time is 172 days. Typically, a baseball season lasts 183 days. That means if a player is called up, say, in the first week of a season, he can still reach six “full years” of service time by the end of his sixth season, even though he missed some time at the very beginning.
That’s why you hear folks talking about “holding down” a top young player at the start of a season. That’s a colloquial way of saying “keep the player in the minors long enough that he cannot accumulate a ‘full year’ of service time that season, thus delaying his free agency by a year at the back end.”
And that’s why it’s become such a significant discussion with respect to Kris Bryant.
Now then, in order to get that extra year of control in 2021, how long must the Cubs keep Bryant in the minors? Well, you can do a little math and subtract 172 from 183, and you see that 11 days is the maximum number of days a player can spend off of the big league roster and still accumulate a full year. Put another way, if a player stays off the big league roster for 12 days, and then is called up, he cannot earn a full year of service time in that season, even as he spends the vast majority of the year in the big leagues.* Them’s the CBA breaks.
*(Note that this calculation is slightly different for players already on the 40-man roster. If a player is optioned to the minors for 20 days or fewer in a given season, he gets credited with big league service for those days. So, players already on the 40-man roster must spend at least 21 days in the minor leagues for their teams to retain an extra year of control. Again, it’s worth pointing out that the Cubs did not place Bryant on the 40-man roster last year.)
So, if the Cubs want that 2021 year of control over Bryant, he must miss 12 big league games next year, right?
Tut, tut. The operative word is “days,” not games. Presently, every team is scheduled to open the 2015 season on April 6, though there will be a game on April 5 (the Sunday Night Opening Game Or Whatever You Call It), and that will mark the official start of the big league season.
If the season starts on April 5, and Bryant need be kept down only 12 days, we’d be looking at April 17 as the first day he could come up – and stay up the rest of the season – with the Cubs securing an extra year of control. Based on those calculations, thanks to two off-days in the early going, Bryant would miss just 9 games at the start of the year before being called up.
Nine games – 5.6% of the season – in exchange for 100% of a season six years down the road. We can hate on these service time games all we want, but it’s hard to argue with that math.
How much value would be lost to the Cubs in those 9 games?
Well, it’s hard to say for certain, obviously, but if we went by the first set of projections for Bryant in 2015, we can get a little bit of an idea. Steamer projects Bryant at 4.0 WAR over 550 plate appearances in 2015. In a full season, Bryant would actually receive closer to 650 plate appearances, so we’ll very generously credit him with 4.7 WAR.
Now, we can’t just multiply that 5.6% by 4.7 WAR, because Bryant wouldn’t be replacing a replacement-level player. Instead, he’d be replacing someone like Luis Valbuena or Chris Coghlan, one of whom would be relegated to a bench role (and would arguably improve the bench, but the time period is so small and the relative improvement so specious that we can’t realistically assign much value to that shift). Last year, Valbuena provided the Cubs 2.7 WAR, and Coghlan provided 2.2 WAR (in a partial season). Steamer projects 2.4 for Valbuena next year, and 0.5 for Coghlan. Let’s split the baby, and call it a 1.4 WAR player whom Bryant would be replacing.
The value Bryant would provide to the Cubs in those 9 games, then, is 5.6% of the difference between 4.7 and 1.4. So, .056 times 3.3 is 0.185.
In other words, based on the best available projections we have, by keeping Kris Bryant in the minor leagues long enough next year to gain an extra season of control in 2021, the Cubs risk losing about 0.2 WAR.
That’s not nothing, but it’s also, well, almost nothing. Within the context of this discussion – that is to say, a world where we are considering ONLY service time issues – the Cubs would be utterly foolish not to leave Bryant in the minors for those 9 games to start 2015.
Obviously we don’t live in that world, and there are other considerations here. For one thing, it’s possible the Cubs won’t want to be quite so on-the-nose about this, and may wait to call Bryant up until a road series. Perhaps April 20 against the Pirates in Pittsburgh? That would cost the Cubs three more Bryant games, but might set him up for a better, more comfortable debut. For another thing, as discussed in the opening, there may actually be legitimate developmental issues to work out in the opening month of the minors that could dictate the timeline of his promotion (defensive things, for example).
For still another thing, these are real people. Bryant is a real person. Bryant’s family is real. His agent is real. “The Cubs” are not a monolithic entity, but are a collection of real people. Relationships matter, and they inform the way we treat others. Yes, the service time considerations here are a big deal. But they aren’t the only thing that goes into making these kinds of decisions. So, don’t assume anything is going to happen in a particular way just because I read some rules and projections, and busted out a calculator.
But that said, now you can feel some measure of confidence that, if the Cubs do start the 2015 season with Kris Bryant in the minors, the service time considerations that might be animating that decision will not cost the Cubs a ton of production in 2015. And when the howling starts next year – and it will – you can point to this piece for why the Cubs may be doing what they’re doing, and why it not only is smart, but it’s also not a big deal.