If you’re in a position to center your offseason on trading an extremely valuable player for a huge return while also cutting significant salary, it’s not great when the value of that player is held up in a fundamental way by a decision that is mostly out of your control.
But, if The 2020 Plan for the Chicago Cubs involves seriously exploring trades for a guy like Kris Bryant, then nothing can happen – indeed, nothing ever could have happened – until Bryant’s longstanding service time grievance was resolved.
I’m not sure I ever thought the Kris Bryant service time grievance would be a story for as many years as it has been, even if we all understood back in 2015 that it was a different situation than the other service time disputes we’d heard about to that point in time.
As an uber prospect who had destroyed Spring Training and was clearly a lock to be a major contributor on the 2015 Cubs, Bryant represented the ideal case for the Players’ Association to press the league on how teams routinely held down capable prospects in order to gain an extra year of team control or delay salary arbitration. We all know teams do it, but the players wanted an opportunity to push back against it in a formal way, and Bryant’s case was as good as they were going to get.
Though, at the time – and this is a big part of why I thought the story would fizzle long before now with some kind of settlement or extension – we could also see that Bryant’s case was imperfect, and the arguments against it would be easily offered.
For one thing, a Theo-Epstein-led club had never had a top prospect open the season on the big league roster. For another thing, Bryant had limited pro experience in the minor leagues, so it would not be atypical for a player like that to debut at some point into the season. For another thing, the Cubs suffered two injuries at third base – Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt – in the first couple weeks of the season, and it was only after an X-ray revealed a fracture in Olt’s wrist that the Cubs called up Bryant, on the precise day they gained an extra year of team control. At the time, Epstein said it was always in the plan to debut Bryant later on, and on the road. The fact that Bryant was coming up so quickly at home lent some credence to the idea that the plan was never to have him come up on that particular day, but the injuries forced it. For still another thing, the Cubs could always argue that they wanted Bryant to get more time at third base in the minor leagues before coming up, and it was only because of two injuries that they had to make the baseball decision to “rush” him.
Buy it? Don’t buy it? For the purposes of the grievance, it almost doesn’t matter, as what’s likely being argued by the Players’ Association is that teams can always come up with excuses – in bad faith – for holding down top prospects, and they are supposed to deal fairly with each other under the CBA. The counter, of course, is that the Cubs followed the explicit rules of the CBA, and who exactly is out there to judge when a player is “ready” or not? Shouldn’t that be up to the organization that knows him best?
Anyway, that’s the fight that’s been ongoing, in the background, since 2015, and only just came to a head this offseason, as the Cubs and Bryant want to know whether they are wed by team control for two more years, as expected, or just one more year.
And the grievance to decide that question? Well, the waiting game – a terrible game, truly – continues for a while:
Briefs from both sides in the Kris Bryant service-time grievance were due today. A decision will come in the new year. Unclear if it will be as soon as January — hundreds of pages need to be sorted through by arbitrator Mark Irvings.
— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) December 21, 2019
What. The hell.
The thing about arbitration, as opposed to a traditional court case, is that it can be much simpler, more streamlined, faster, and more flexible than going to court. It’s why virtually all collectively-bargained agreements, including the CBA between MLB and the Players’ Association, specifically have disputes resolved by way of arbitration.
This case, however, is not exactly moving swiftly. It’s a case that started more than four years ago, and on which the sides apparently finally started moving things along back in October, and only just had additional *BRIEFS* due the Friday before Christmas?
I will not claim to know anything particular about this arbitration, or about the schedule the sides are comfortable with. But I’ve read the CBA as it relates to grievance procedures and the arbitration process, and I will say that it’s really weird to see an arbitration hearing back in October, and then post-hearing briefing take two months after that. Hey, what do I know, but when I was lawyering, arbitrations usually looked like this: preliminary meetings to establish issues, a couple rounds of briefing, and then you have your arbitration hearing. Then maybe the arbitrator would seek supplemental briefs on some issues that came out of the hearing. To be sure, it’s possible that’s what happened here, and it’s just a boatload of follow-up issues. Or it’s possible that external reports confused what the original October “hearing” was. But that baby went on for multiple weeks and it included testimony from Theo Epstein and Scott Boras, among others. That was the arbitration hearing. It had to be.
So then, after the hearing – which, again, started in October – you’re doing multiple rounds of additional briefing through December? That’s the kind of long track you’d expect to see in a case where neither side really wants to move things along quickly. (Or you’ve got a slow-as-balls arbitrator, but I don’t have nearly enough information to make any kind of claims like that. Most of the time, the parties dictate the pace, not the arbitrator.)
I think it’s possible, at this point, that the involved parties (the league, the Cubs, and the Players’ Association) are going all-out on this thing because of what’s at stake for the upcoming CBA, and neither side is pushing super hard to get something done quickly. Although the CBA lays out timelines for this process, it is designed to be very flexible depending on what the involved parties want to do. Maybe no one wanted to rush?
How is that possible, you ask. How is it that the Cubs would not want a decision TODAY if possible? Well, I presume they do! But I also expect that MLB, not just the Cubs, is deeply involved in this case. In fact, it’s possible that the Commissioner’s Office, not the Cubs, has taken the lead on this case.
The grievance procedure contemplated by the CBA has several steps before it even gets to an arbitration, and all that stuff must have played out in the background at some point over the past few years. The final preliminary step before the arbitration is a decision by MLB’s Labor Relations Department on the complaint. Once the LRD denies the complaint – a foregone conclusion in this case, since the league isn’t going to want the entire system of team control of players to be thrown into upheaval – the process heads to arbitration. At that point, obviously the league is now more deeply invested in the outcome of the case, and is on the same side as the individual club (which, of course, is part of the league). So it’s possible, then, that the Cubs organization isn’t really doing the heavy lifting on their side of this case, or making decisions on the timing – it might just flat out be the Commissioner’s Office. And if that’s the case, they aren’t exactly going to be sprinting to get a decision out so that the Cubs can more quickly work the trade market. Sorry, Cubs. The league’s priority is going to be winning the case at all costs, even if it takes extra time and extra briefing to feel confident.
There is another consideration on the pace of this thing: the goal of any arbitration process is a settlement.
From thing one, the arbitrator will be seeing where the parties can get closer on the issues, and maybe come to a resolution on their own. That’s just an inherent part of arbitration, and I have no doubt that’s a factor here. The challenge? The sides aren’t going to “come together” on the issues here, as there is no middle ground on Kris Bryant is a free agent after this year, or after next year. Instead, the only realistic settlement here is a two-year contract for Bryant, and it’s possible (1) the league doesn’t want that, because they want to establish precedent, or (2) the Players’ Association doesn’t want that, because they want to establish precedent, or (3) the Cubs are content to roll the dice rather than lock in two years on Bryant’s contract, and/or (4) Bryant doesn’t want to sign a two-year deal at the level the Cubs are willing to pay.
That is all to say, I have no doubt the arbitrator would like to see the parties settle here, but I’m not so sure it would be a simple settlement for the many involved and interested parties.
So, then, the case proceeds at a very deliberate pace. My gut says the only party to all of this that is actually bothered by the pace is the Cubs, who unquestionably want to know whether they have team control on Bryant for one or two more years, allowing them to more seriously explore trade talks (and extension talks, if you’re a hopeful dreamer).
Yes, Bryant assuredly wants to know what his situation is going to be, too, but if his default is presuming that he’s probably under control for two more years, any decision that comes down the other way is a huge financial bonus. He’s going to have to come to an agreement on his salary for 2020 anyway in a few weeks (or head to salary arbitration with the Cubs – another arbitration!). Very little changes for him in terms of “what to do now” when the decision comes down, regardless of whether it was last month or next month or whenever. (Caveat: if he’s thinking he might be traded, the wait is probably extra tense, though.)
Then you have the much bigger, much more “important” parties at the table – the league and the Players’ Association. With apologies to Bryant and the Cubs, I really don’t think either the league or the Association cares a lick about their individual situations all that much. Instead, they are looking squarely ahead to an upcoming CBA negotiation in which team control, service time, free agency, etc. are all going to be critical issues. And if an arbitration decision on Bryant threatens to completely blow up what teams are and are not permitted to do with respect to service time? They want that decision on record before the negotiations heat up, even if it takes longer to get it “right.”
So the Cubs wait. Possible trade partners wait. Bryant waits. And the fans wait.
Remember, it is still possible that the Cubs have been working out conditional trades so that they can pull the trigger as soon as a decision comes down. But even if that were true, lots of free agents are passing them by as they wait – since, you know, they can’t sign any guaranteed contracts until money is first moved out. The longer the decision here takes, the worse position the Cubs are going to be in after a Bryant trade, if it happens. Increasingly, it seems like they will still have a good market to work with, but the ability to pick up cheap, useful pieces thereafter to take a chance on competing in 2020? The preferred options might be long gone.
The Cubs could just decide that they aren’t going to trade Bryant, of course, but as we’ve explored this week, I’m guessing that not seriously exploring trades for Bryant runs counter to The 2020 Plan. That doesn’t mean a trade will ultimately happen, but I just don’t see it being realistic that the Cubs would flat-out cut off that possibility solely because the grievance process is going to slowly.
So, against that reality, I say: let’s just get this dang thing decided ASAP so that the next steps can proceed ASAP.