David Kaplan is busting out the big scoops today. First the news of David Ross being selected as the Cubs’ next manager, and now something we’ve been waiting on for literal years.
Remember that Kris Bryant service time grievance? The one where he destroyed Spring Training in 2015 after becoming one of the obvious top prospects in baseball, but the Cubs didn’t open the season with him on the roster? And then he wound up being called up on precisely the day his free agency clock was bumped back a season? Remember how his agent, Scott Boras, and the Players Association were really pissed, and then there was a whole big argument about what kinds of decisions teams are allowed to make about when to promote their players? And then it just kind went away for a while?
Well, it went away from public view for a while not because it totally went away – it just went away because there was no need to fight about it right then, depending on what might happen down the road with the two sides.
Maybe Bryant would get demoted at some point, and the whole thing becomes moot. Or maybe Bryant and the Cubs would agree to an extension that put the whole thing to bed. Or maybe the Sun would burst, plunging the whole of humanity into a life-altering darkness where only the Morlocks of the underworld continued to exist, and they had such a profound preference for contact skills that Bryant couldn’t even find a job.
Anyway, none of that stuff happened, and now the fight has arrived on our doorstep:
Here's another Cubs scoop. Cubs/MLB will be dealing with Kris Bryant's grievance this week from 2015 over service time + Cubs decision to delay his MLB debut until he fell 1 day short of being a free agent after the 2020 season. Could have MLB altering implications if he wins.
— David Kaplan (@thekapman) October 23, 2019
Kaplan is not exaggerating when he says the decision could have “MLB altering implications.” For one thing, a Bryant win means he’s suddenly a free agent after next season, rather than after 2021. That not only deeply impacts Bryant and the Cubs, but also lots and lots and lots of strategic planning all around baseball.
And beyond Bryant, having a decision like this come down – for reasons to be discussed below – could change everything about how teams make these promotion decisions. Bryant’s wound up being a perfect test case.
So many things to say, I guess I’ll bullet them …
- No case like this, of the few that have been pushed by the Players Association have succeeded, and that’s because it’s extremely hard to overcome the presumption of the “baseball decision.” The league doesn’t want teams to have to proceed in any particular way when it comes to how they run their club, and a ruling in Bryant’s favor here is saying there was absolutely positively no other possible reason for the Cubs not to open the season with Bryant on the roster *OTHER* than service time games. The problem when you think of something like that as precedent? Unfortunately, it’s almost always just one factor among many when it comes to promotion decisions.
- Consider that, in Bryant’s case, not only was he promoted only after there were two consecutive injuries ahead of him on the big league roster (Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt), but also, every other prospect the Cubs promoted during their competitive window was promoted during the season because playing time became available. The Cubs would assuredly contend that’s just how they like to operate for player development/optimization purposes. It’s a really tough argument to overcome, and a thorny precedent to set if you rule for Bryant.
- All that said, of course I have sympathy for Bryant and other tip top minor leaguers who are held down, at least in some part, because their team wants extra control and/or to avoid Super Two status. My wish has long been that the Players Association could get a shortened length of team control put into the CBA, given how much teams have moved toward a preference for younger players. Then, you kill two birds with one stone: you lessen the impact of service time games, while also getting more of the money to the players who deserve it most.
- The fact that this grievance is being heard, after several years, the week before the offseason begins is absolutely not a coincidence. I don’t know who pushed for it at this particular time, but obviously both sides have an interest in knowing whether Bryant is going to be a free agent in one year or two years. It would profoundly impact trade talks, extension talks, and simple arbitration negotiations.
- Speaking of which, I tend to think the most likely outcome here would be a settlement where either the Cubs and Bryant agree to a two-year deal (his final two years of team control, just putting this thing to bed), or agree to avoid arbitration for 2020 on a much larger contract than Bryant might otherwise get, on the condition he agrees he’s still under team control through 2021. That way, he gets a little more money both this and next year thanks to arbitration raises.
- Of course, it’s also possible – though less likely – that the hearing just proceeds, Bryant loses, and that’s that. Status quo returns.
- And further down on the list of likelihoods, it’s possible the hearing just proceeds, Bryant wins, and suddenly he’s heading into his walk year, throwing almost everything about the Cubs’ two-years plans up into the air. Man, that sure would be insane.