The entire arbitrator’s decision in the Kris Bryant service time grievance has now been reported by the Associated Press, which means we finally get the full scope of why he and the Players Association did not prevail.
Essentially, it is for precisely the reasons we expected: the Cubs proceeded as Theo Epstein-led front offices always had with respect to player development, and it was only because of simultaneous injuries to Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt that Bryant was called up when he was.
That was always the most obvious outcome to everyone who’d reviewed these things, and it remains frustrating how long it took to actually get there. But now it’s out there for all to see, and for teams and players to use in posterity when service time fights come up.
Among the quotes from the arbitrator, Mark Irvings, who notably did NOT decide whether service time manipulation was ever legal under the CBA (he concluded only that it couldn’t be proved that the Cubs did it):
“The association was not able to produce memos, emails or texts from Epstein to show he had a nefarious motive at variance with his public comments …. unforeseen events had forced Epstein’s hand …. He made a decision based on what he concluded were the acute needs of the major league team, even though it posed a risk to the development of his top prospect.” In other words, as expected, a player would have to PROVE what the team did was SOLELY for the purposes of service time manipulation, which is an extremely high bar. Probably insurmountable shy of some executive being a total idiot in a text. The players will need to confront this issue in the upcoming CBA negotiations.
“Epstein’s explanations cannot be discounted as pretextual or dishonest. While other baseball people could certainly have decided that Bryant should have been put on the opening day roster, Epstein had bases in both fact and reason for reaching a different conclusion …. He had a philosophy of player development that he had followed at that point for 14 years as the person in ultimate control of baseball operations at two big-market baseball clubs.” Epstein had never put a true rookie like Bryant on an Opening Day roster before.
“Epstein stated that a player’s development and the acute needs of the major league club, not the impact on a player’s service time accrual, dictated the timing of the initial call-up. He said there is too much uncertainty about future service time accrual to make decisions based on arbitration and free agent eligibility. Epstein testified that Bryant had not made the necessary defensive improvements during spring training that might have caused Epstein to go against his presumption that Bryant, like all other top prospect rookies in his 13 years as a general manager, would start the season in AAA.”
Interestingly, the arbitrator essentially made an argument in favor of service time manipulation, without actually calling it that – instead, it is about that extra time down at the start of a season being important for player development: “Ensuring Bryant’s multiyear success was of much greater competitive benefit to the club than perhaps enhancing the chances of the team winning a few extra games at the beginning of the season. The fact that the team won five of their first eight games before Bryant was called up was a further indication that Epstein’s calculation was a reasonable, and even in retrospect a successful, balancing of short and long term competitive goals.” Your mileage may vary on that particular distinction.