Much has been made of the Chicago Cubs' pending decision whether to carry Kris Bryant on their 25-man roster to open the Major League Baseball season. On one hand, the franchise has a stated goal of making the playoffs this year. Bryant, a 23-year-old phenom who hit 43 minor league home runs in 2014 while being named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year, represents the team's best option at third base. On the other hand, if Chicago waits just 12 days before calling up Bryant, the team will secure an entire extra year of contractual control over him, thanks to something called "service time."
It's not a difficult decision, really.
Despite inking pitcher Jon Lester to a massive contract and acquiring outfielder Dexter Fowler and backstop Miguel Montero as part of an offseason push toward contention, retaining Bryant's services for an additional season is well worth the 10 or so games he'll miss should Chicago choose to manipulate the service time rules. And that, in turn, prompts some questions: namely, what is service time, and why would a professional sports league adopt anything that potentially keeps its top talents off the field?
Unsurprisingly, the short answer involves team owners making more money.
According to MLB rules, players become eligible for free agency—that is, free to field competitive bids for their services, sign with any team that wants them and (presumably) cash in on their true market value—after six full years of major league play. Those years are measured in "service time," with one year being equal to 172 days out of the approximately 183 days on the MLB season calendar.
Because the gap between total days on the MLB calendar and a full year of service time is between 10 and 15 days, teams that hold down a prospect for the first 10 to 15 games of the big league season generally gain another year of control over that player, who will end their sixth season in the majors with something like five years and 160 days of service time. For the Cubs, sacrificing a few weeks of Bryant now will allow the franchise to own his rights through the 2021 season instead of 2020, which could give the team an additional season of superstar production at third base.
This sort of strategy isn't unique to Chicago. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros held back outfielders Gregory Polanco and George Springer last year, both top-25 prospects heading into the season who tore up Triple-A in the first two months. The Pirates took the system manipulation even further, holding Polanco down until mid-June in an effort to avoid granting him what's called "super-two" status. This distinction is applied to players with more than two years of service time, but less than three, who are also within the top 22 percent of service time when ranked among all players with two-plus years. Teams avoid this situation because it costs them a year of unilateral control over the player's cost, by granting the player an extra year of arbitration.
And yes, all of that is a bit confusing, but it basically boils down to teams trying to avoid paying players market salaries via free agency for as long as possible.
The MLB Players Association has repeatedly agreed to the current service time rules (six seasons, and then free agency) in Collective Bargaining Agreements. And until now, the MLBPA has conspicuously chosen not to address the way teams manipulate those service time rules for incoming rookies members. Recently, MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark made some noise about Bryant, who will join the Association by mid-April. Yet Clark's organization has remained relatively mute concerning the rights of amateurs—a group whose rights they've willingly, routinely sacrificed over the past two CBA negotiations, much to the delight of league owners.
To wit: the 2005 CBA led to smaller-scale stripping of rights, such as the institution of an August 15th deadline for non-college seniors to sign with the club that picked them, "taking away the leverage of any threats to remain in school" noted ESPN's Buster Olney, at the time. Meanwhile, the 2011 labor deal placed caps on draft spending and international bonuses, implementing strict penalties for any team that exceeds its bonus allotments by anything more than five percent, including the potential loss of multiple first-round picks.
MLB's rationale for this is the same as it is for the draft: competitive balance. The argument is that with the worse teams at the top of the draft receiving the biggest bonus allotments, they'll be able to spend more on premium talent. There's logic there, certainly, but the reality is that it limits overall spending on players.
These bonus allotments have also had the unintended consequence of hurting small market teams who are unwilling to pay high bonus taxes (sometimes even 100 percent, such as in the case of the Red Sox, who recently paid more than $30 million in taxes to sign Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada). In the draft, smaller market teams had found a vein of elite talent to mine on the cheap (relative to free agency), but the owners and the MLBPA conspired to limit their ability to do even that. Despite an increase in spending in the international market, it's clear that spending on the draft has decreased drastically overall compared to the spending under the previous CBA.
The implementation of a rule that prevents teams from handing out major league deals to draft picks was yet another concession granted to owners. The big benefit of MLB deals for draft picks was being placed immediately on the 40-man roster, which often expedited their trip to the majors leagues, kickstarting their clock towards free agency. Once again, future members of the MLBPA saw their ability to reach free agency, and thus a major payday, delayed on account of an agreement between two groups, neither of which represent them.
The latest CBA even moved the draft's signing deadline from August 15th to July 15th, which, if Olney is to be believed, further removes leverage from draft picks.
In return for these owner-friendly rules, the Players Association received an increase in the number of players who earn super-two status—from 17 percent before to the aforementioned 22 percent—along with an increase in minimum salary for first-year players and the elimination of Type A/B free agents (though this was replaced with the controversial qualifying offer system). The MLBPA also received a small benefit for veterans who have already reached free agency, best explained by FoxSports.com's CJ Nitkowski:
Players with six years of major-league service time that sign minor-league deals now have what is called Article XX-B protection. Teams either have to put these players on the major-league roster or release them five days prior to the start of the MLB season. If they do neither, they must pay that player a $100,000 retention bonus. This is essentially a built-in out clause for veteran players. If you are an Article XX-B free agent, you also receive an automatic June 1 out clause if you're paid the $100,000.
Not all bad! Of course, as Nitkowski goes on to explain, even the failsafes have loopholes for teams to exploit:
Most teams get around this retention bonus by releasing a player and then resigning him sometime before the five days prior to Opening Day.
All of this might seem like contract esoterica, but it illustrates a larger issue, the same one that may keep Bryant off the field: ultimately, front offices are always going to bend and manipulate at the fringes to become more efficient. And by become more efficient, I mean spend less money. That's their job, and we can't fault them for doing it. The CBA gives them the opportunity to exploit loopholes.
It's the Association's responsibility to close those loopholes, and unlike in years past, it looks like they might actually do something about them. Beyond Clark's passive statement about "watching [Bryant's] situation," Craig Breslow, a member of the MLBPA Executive Board, has been vocal about eliminating restrictions to signing and ensuring that players are more readily able to realize their market value. He was speaking about the prospect of an international draft, which Clark has also refused to endorse.
That may seem like a small step, but prior administrations within the Association have agreed in principle to an international draft. (Logistical challenges have prevented it from actually materializing.) Of course, the Players Association has been fighting an uphill battle since it's inception in 1953. That they've managed to attain the power they have is to their credit (and to the credit of Marvin Miller). Here's hoping they apply that power towards protecting their future members rather than throwing them under the bus in the forthcoming negotiation.
Nor is the onus solely on the players to address the service time issue. A rule exists that behooves teams to prevent themselves from starting their best players isn't simply counter-intuitive; it's harmful. Fans tune in and go to games to see the best players play. And the best players ought to be the most profitable ones. Owners should want to fix a rule that prevents them from selling their most valuable products in the most efficient way possible, and actually compels them to mistreat their future franchise players early on. Scott Boras, Bryant's agent, said it best in an interview with CBS Sports' Jon Heyman:
"The opiate of player control cannot supersede the greater importance of MLB's integrity and brand, which says that this is where the best players play. You can't have that . . . Clearly, there's an obligation to put the best players in the big leagues."
It's important to note that when people talk about control, what they're really talking about is money. The Cubs have the opportunity to retain Bryant for a seventh year without keeping him in the minors—it's simply a more expensive option. So keep in mind that when your favorite team doesn't promote a top prospect, it's because somewhere along the line, someone decided that saving money was the priority. Also keep in mind that the way the system is set up, the team is almost certainly making the smart decision. And that's the whole damn problem.