Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs had a stellar spring training. He led the majors with 9 home runs, hit .425, drove in 15 runs, and had an OPS of 1.625. In 2014, he slugged 43 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A en route to winning the minor league player of the year award from Baseball America and USA Today. With numbers and accolades like that, Bryant should be a shoe-in for the Cubs’ major league 25-man roster come opening day, right?
If you’ve been paying attention to any major sports news outlet, you know that’s not the case. This past Monday, March 30, the Cubs reassigned Bryant to their minor league camp, meaning that the number two prospect in all of baseball will start the season in the minor leagues. Theo Epstein, general manager for the Cubs, said that sending a player who hasn’t played in the majors is “always the presumptive move for us,” suggesting that the decision was purely related to Bryant’s development. But here’s the real reason why Bryant is starting the year with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs…
Confusing CBA stuff explained
Under the current MLB collective bargaining agreement (CBA), a player with three or more years of major league service time is eligible for salary arbitration,[i] and a player with six or more years can become a free agent.[ii] A player is credited with a full service year when he accrues 172 days of major league service. A service day accrues for each day a player is on a major league team’s 25-man active roster. There are normally 183 potential service days in a major-league season (162 regular season games and 21 off days), but a player cannot accrue more than 172 service days in a season.[iii] If a player accrues less than a full 172 days of major league service in a calendar year, it does not count as a full year of major league service time.
A player does not qualify for free agency until the offseason after he completes 6 years of service time. For example, if a player has 5 years and 171 days of service at the end of a season, he is not eligible to become a free agent the following offseason. Thus, the Cubs’ decision to keep Bryant in the minors to start the year is meant to ensure that Bryant will be under the Cubs’ control for the next seven years, rather than just the next six, since he would not accrue a full service year in 2015.
How it all applies to Kris Bryant
Maybe a chart would better illustrate Epstein’s strategy here. Let’s say the Cubs keep Bryant in the minors until their April 17th series opener against the Padres in Chicago. The Cubs’ regular season ends on October 4, 2015, so the maximum number of service days Bryant could accrue in 2015 is 171,[iv] or one less than a full service year. Assuming Bryant is on the Cubs’ 25-man roster at the beginning of 2016 and beyond, here’s how Bryant’s service time would play out in the coming years:
|Year||Service Days Accrued||Total Service Accrued||Comments|
|2015||171||0 years, 171 days|
|2016||172||1 year, 171 days|
|2017||172||2 years, 171 days||Potentially arbitration eligible after the 2017 season as a “Super Two” player[v]|
|2018||172||3 years, 171 days||Arbitration eligible after 2018 season|
|2019||172||4 years, 171 days|
|2020||172||5 years, 171 days|
|2021||172||6 years, 171 days||Eligible for free agency after 2021 season|
Under this scenario, Bryant would not be eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season. If Bryant were to accrue 172 service days in 2015 (i.e. by starting and remaining with the Cubs for the duration of the 2015 season), and then spend the next 5 seasons on the 25-man active roster,[vi] he could become eligible for free agency in 2020. The manipulation of Bryant’s service time therefore allows the Cubs to maintain control over Bryant for seven years, rather than the six contemplated under the CBA.
Regarding arbitration eligibility, the Cubs could choose to bring Bryant up later in 2015 to keep him from becoming arbitration eligible until after 2018, rather than 2017. Under this scenario, the Cubs would be able to pay Bryant close to the minimum major league salary from 2015-2018, since arbitration is the first opportunity a player has to significantly increase his salary. However, if the Cubs do call Bryant up on April 17, he would likely be arbitration eligible as a a “Super Two” player[vii] after the 2017 season.
There is precedent for the Cubs’ strategy of demoting a player to keep him in their control for an extra year. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays kept Evan Longoria in the minors for the first two weeks of the regular season. In so doing, the Rays ensured that Longoria would be under club control through 2014, rather than through just 2013. The Rays ended up signing Longoria to a long term contract soon after he was called up to the big leagues in April 2008, thereby negating the Rays’ service time manipulation. If Longoria hadn’t signed though, he wouldn’t have been eligible for free agency until this past offseason.
Reactions and Implications
The Cubs demotion of Bryant to keep him around longer seems to conflict with the intended purpose of the CBA. Bryant will have 5 years and 99.4% of a sixth year of service time by the end of 2020 if he is brought up on April 17. In bargaining with the owners and agreeing to terms on the current CBA, I’m certain the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) intended for players like Bryant to be eligible for free agency after what essentially amounts to six calendar years in the big leagues.
That being said, the strategy does not appear to violate the letter of the CBA. As long as general managers claim that demotions of players like Kris Bryant and Evan Longoria are baseball-related decisions, rather than service time-related, no one will likely be able to stop teams from doing this. Essentially, general managers and team officials have done what smart people with fancy degrees often do…find a legal loophole, and exploit it.
But that has not stopped the MLBPA from condemning Bryant’s demotion:
Today is a bad day for baseball. I think we all know that even if Kris Bryant were a combination of the greatest Players to play our game, and perhaps he will be before it’s all said and done, the Cubs still would have made the decision they made today. This decision, and other similar decisions made by clubs will be addressed in litigation, bargaining or both.”
The general consensus is that the MLBPA’s threat of litigation is hollow, since Bryant is not yet a member of the MLBPA.[viii] Even if the MLBPA could prove the Cubs engaged in prohibited service time manipulation, the union likely would not have standing to file a grievance since Bryant is not yet an MLBPA member. A more likely scenario is that this will be a point of conflict between owners and players when the current CBA expires on December 1, 2016.
Some believe this decision will hurt the Cubs playoff chances. That remains to be seen. As for Kris Bryant, I genuinely believe that whether he becomes eligible for free agency in 2020 or 2021 is only on his mind to the extent that his super-agent Scott Boras tells him it should be on his mind. At this point, I think he’s focused on his dream of competing and excelling at the highest level. But that dream, and our opportunity to watch him, will likely be on hold until at least April 17.
[i] Article VI(E), Major League Baseball CBA. Salary arbitration is a proceeding in which a player and the club submit salary proposals to an arbitrator, who after a hearing, determines which proposal will be accepted and paid to the player in the following year.
[v] A player with at least two but less than three years of service time is salary arbitration eligible if he has accumulated at least 86 service days during the preceding season, and he ranks in the top 22% in total service of players who have more than two but less than three service years.
[vi] Bryant could also spend time on the disabled list, as service time continues to accrue for a player on the disable list, or be sent to the minors and recalled within 20 days. See Article XXI(A)-(B), Major League Baseball CBA.
[vii] A “Super Two” player is one with at least two but less than three years of service time, who becomes salary arbitration eligible if he has accumulated at least 86 service days during the preceding season, and ranks in the top 22% in total service of players who have more than two but less than three service years.
[viii] Representation by the MLBPA starts when a player is added to the 40-man roster.