Three years ago at this time, Kris Bryant was humbling the pitchers of Arizona.
We were talking earlier about how well Ian Happ has performed in Spring Training the last two years, but even his homer binging doesn’t stack up to the 9(!) homers Bryant hit in just 40 Spring Training at bats and 14 games that year. (Oh, nothing, just a 100+ homer pace.) Bryant put up a 1.652 OPS in that Spring Training, which came after he obliterated the minor leagues in his first full professional season. It was quite clear to everyone that he was a Major-League-ready ballplayer.
But it was equally clear that he wasn’t going to break camp with the big league team. Able to fall back on some generalities about players spending a certain amount of time at certain levels of the minor leagues, and about working on defense, the Cubs could credibly send Bryant to AAA to begin the season, where he would stay long enough that he could not accrue a full service year in 2015, thus ensuring that the Cubs would get an extra year of team control over a future superstar.
Nobody really blamed the Cubs for this approach, though the story kicked up all kinds of dust among the Cubs, the league, the Players Association, and Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, that spring.
That probably would have been it – at least the loudest of it – but for the fact that Bryant wound up promoted to the big league team on the very day the Cubs secured that extra year of team control. That was a look sufficiently ugly that it generated a service time grievance, the results of which have not (yet?) been publicly disclosed.
I do want to offer an important caveat here that is always lost when this story is told. Although it’s true with 100% certainty that the Cubs were not going to promote Bryant until sometime after they’d secured another year of control, it is also true with 95% certainty that the Cubs were not intending to promote Bryant on that particular day (which happened to be a home game, and the Cubs had already demonstrated a preference for debuting their youngsters on the road).
Mike Olt – still a considerable young talent at the time – opened the season as the nominal starter for the Cubs, and Tommy La Stella – also a young talent – was expected to see time there as well. But La Stella was injured in the opening series against the Cardinals, and Olt took a fastball off the wrist shortly thereafter. Initially, the Cubs did not believe Olt had suffered a serious injury, and he even made a subsequent game appearance. It was only after Olt experienced further discomfort that he was sent for more testing, which revealed a fracture. The Cubs’ next game after that revelation? A home game against the Padres, which happened to be the day the Cubs secured the extra year of team control. Thus, Bryant was called up on that day because there was then an actual need for a third baseman.
So: Bryant not breaking camp with the big league team for service time reasons? Yeah, that’s an accepted part of the history. The Cubs being so transparently daffy as to call him up on that very day? Eh, it did happen, but that wasn’t the plan.
With Bryant now an established star in the big leagues, and the Cubs’ representative for the Players Association, his unique story – and the Collective Bargaining Agreement-related implications – has enduring importance, even these three years later.
He certainly hasn’t forgotten.
“(My type of service time situation is) something that probably should be brought up in the next CBA negotiations so that doesn’t happen again,” Bryant told the Tribune. “I’m sure it will happen a couple more times up until that point. I’ve been through it and it wasn’t a fun thing, knowing that I earned (a roster spot and didn‘t get it). The team found a way to get around it, and (it) did. There are no hard feelings now, (but) I’ve learned from it.”
No hard feelings, perhaps, but Bryant isn’t going to stay quiet about the experience now that he is in more of a position to effectuate change.
Service time games are nothing new, and will always be an uncomfortable part of Spring Training so long as free agency is tied to some kind of service time cut-off. Teams want to maximize how long they have players under control. Players want to reach free agency as young as possible. That tension will necessarily create conflict, and until the sides figure out a way to incorporate a fix into the CBA, the fights will go on.
I wonder if something like this could help: instead of six full years of service time for free agency, it’s 5.5 years, but you can only reach free agency in the offseason (no sudden July free agents walking away from their teams). Then, the decision for teams to hold a guy down to gain extra control gets more difficult, since you’d have to hold him down much longer. And for most prospects who debut in the second half, teams would have the same control as they do now.
Of course, maybe this change would just make for even more gamesmanship. It’s hard to know for sure, and that’s also why this problem persists. You have to set the cutoff somewhere.
And until there’s a fundamental change in the structure of team control, there will be more stories like Bryant’s.
In the meantime, the Cubs have control over Bryant for three more seasons after this one … unless we suddenly find out that something changed with that service time grievance. I’d love to leave you here with something more concrete, but unfortunately, sometimes those are not resolved until closer to the time when they become of consequence (or if they are resolved privately, we don’t always hear about it right away).