There was a time when, as a young player establishing himself in the landscape of the game and into his new clubhouse, Kris Bryant was impressively diplomatic when talking about the delayed debut in 2015 that cost him a year of free agency. To be sure, there was still a grievance filed by the MLB Players Association on his behalf (still pending, at last check!), but Bryant always seemed to speak gently about being called up on the very day the Cubs secured an extra year of team control.
Like so many top prospects before him, Bryant was, in some ways, undone by his own supreme talent … and a Collective Bargaining Agreement that simply makes it far, far too desirable for teams to not to trade a few weeks of big league action for an entire extra year of control.
Now that he’s an established star in the game, however, a couple years into arbitration, and at a time of increasing unrest, Bryant is more willing to speak his mind – not only about what happened in his debut, but also with the coming stars of the game:
It happened to him, and Kris Bryant knows top prospects will continue to have their service time manipulated. Seeing MLB Twitter accounts hype these kids doesn't help. "That infuriated me. Stop promoting the guy if you know exactly what's going to happen." https://t.co/7ONsH9RIZ2
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) February 25, 2019
In his interview with Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic, Bryant talks about how he intentionally trained in the offseason before 2015 so that he could have a killer Spring Training, partly aiming to expose the unfairness of the system when he was ultimately sent down (as he and every single one of us knew he would be when he did not get called up and added to the 40-man roster the year before). Bryant, of course, did have an absurd Spring, and, of course, was sent down for a couple weeks. The Cubs suffered injuries to Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt, forcing them to debut Bryant earlier than they’d preferred … but he was still down juuust long enough to get them an extra year of control. To the day. What good fortune for the team, eh?
Bryant laughs now – with some frustration, I’m sure – at the suggestion that he was sent down to work on his defense, telling Sharma, “It was so obvious. I think they’re going to do it to (Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.). ‘Oh, he’s gotta work on his defense.’ Stuff like that. But now I can look back on it and just laugh about it because I was told to work on my defense too and I think I got three groundballs in those games that I played. So it’s like, ‘Oh, now he’s ready.’”
Bryant is unquestionably right that the Blue Jays will plan to send Guerrero, Jr. down to start the season and get that extra year of control. It’s just too valuable to the club, and the system is designed without any meaningful incentives in place for the Blue Jays to proceed any other way. There will be a grievance, and likely nothing will happen.
Ultimately, this is going to have to be addressed in the next CBA (after 2021), and the league and the players will have to be very creative to figure out how to not just draw another line that teams can simply work around. If the goal is to have the very best players in MLB when they’re ready to contribute, then you’ve gotta start there and work backwards – somehow you’ve got to incentivize teams, even rebuilding teams, to field their best talent right out of the gate if you want to put a meaningful dent in service time games. Then, teams and the league can spotlight and hype their best young players without feeling like it’s kind of a dick move to pimp these guys as world-beaters … and then see them sent to the minors for a few BS weeks.
That said, as I mulled Bryant’s comments about how young, soon-to-be-stars are marketed by the game before they’re called up, I can’t help but point out that the ability to tease the promotion for a while, and then blow it out when the kid is finally called up, is probably an attractive selling point to MLB, not a detractor. If Guerrero, Jr. and Eloy Jimenez and Fernando Tatis, Jr., for a few examples, were all up on Opening Day, well, then it’s just Opening Day. But if each comes up on a different day a few weeks or months into the year, well, then you’ve got lots of individual opportunities to celebrate and highlight the game. There’s no question that’s not good for the players, but I’m just saying, I’m not sure MLB’s interest here is going to be in making this particular part of the system change. Just something to keep in mind.
In any case, there’s gotta be a better way going forward, and I hope the owners are as interested as the players in protecting the quality of the product WHILE ALSO protecting the talented young players that drive so much excitement in the game.
I like that Bryant is getting involved in this area, by the way. Some fans might see it as bitterness directed toward the Cubs, or hostility going forward, or whatever. But that all kind of misses the point, which is that the sport is better when its best and brightest stars are out there caring about improving and sustaining the game. I know that role is not for everyone, but the reality is that superstars carry a little more weight, and the game can be helped by guys like Bryant being out there and thoughtfully speaking their mind.