Kris Bryant is not going to be in the Cubs’ Opening Day lineup. That’s technically speculation, but I say it with confidence. Why? Because if Chicago waits until April 17 to call up Bryant, the rookie slugger will not be able to accumulate a full year of service time and would thus have his free agency delayed a season. So in exchange for nine games this April, the Cubs could have Bryant’s entire age-29 season, a trade they would be crazy not to make. Team president Theo Epstein isn’t crazy, nor is he stupid. Bryant will not be in the Cubs’ Opening Day lineup because there’s no good reason he should be. But Bryant’s agent, the always outspoken Scott Boras, disagrees.
Boras and Epstein got into a war of words over Bryant breaking camp with the major league team earlier this week, but neither side was willing to admit that what they were arguing over was the timing of Bryant’s free agency. Boras came out firing on Tuesday, aiming over Epstein’s head at Cubs owner Tom Ricketts and suggesting that Chicago sending Bryant to the minors would imply the the team was not “trying to win.” Boras then went an extra step and wondered why Bryant—the second pick of the 2013 draft whose first full professional season was last year—wasn't called up to the majors last September.
Boras’s comments were little more than schoolyard taunts. Epstein, in turn, stood up for his owner, saying that all baseball decisions came from him and his staff. But he then similarly dodged the real issue by suggesting that Bryant might need more work on his fielding at third base or more time in Triple A in general, having played just 70 games there last year. There may be some validity to Epstein’s comments, but if Bryant really does need more seasoning, the Cubs should give him at least another month or two at Triple A, not what could be as little as seven games should he be called up on April 17.
The real issue here, then, is not the decision the Cubs have to make about Bryant. The issue is service-time rules in general, how they impact a player’s gradual emergence from the reserve system, and the perception of whether or not playing by the rules is actually playing by the rules.
The accounting of service time has been a part of MLB since the institution of the first player’s pension plan in 1946, and, best I can tell, the rules governing what constitutes a full year of credited service time date back nearly as far. In order to qualify for a full year of service time, a player has to spend 172 days in a single season on the major league roster (that includes days on the disabled list and, in an apparent remnant of the time in which the rule was created, up to two years of active military duty or 30 days of emergency National Guard duty).
That rule exists because it would be plainly unfair to consider a player who spent all but a single day in the majors to have not spent a full year in the majors. However, that line has to be drawn somewhere, and it was drawn, a long time ago, in the middle of the season’s second week. That rule took on increased importance with the advent of salary arbitration in 1973 and free agency three years later, but it took the perpetual escalation of player salaries for the manipulation of that service time to become a relevant strategy for rebuilding teams, such as the Cubs.
There is no question that trading Bryant’s first nine games in the majors for his entire age-29 season is a deal the Cubs should make. In fact, given what’s at stake, it’s more shocking when a team doesn’t make that exchange with an elite prospect. Consider some of the examples Boras used to try to shame Ricketts. By including Jose Fernandez on their Opening Day roster in 2013, the Marlins placed his entire age-27 season on the other side of his free-agency eligibility. Fernandez made one start prior to Miami's 11th game of that season, giving up one run in five innings in a loss, and had to be shut down in mid-September due to an innings limit. The Marlins finished with the worst record in the National League that year despite maximizing Fernandez’s contribution.
Going further back, had the Braves waited 11 days to call up Jason Heyward in April 2010, he wouldn’t have been entering his walk year until next year and might still have been with Atlanta this season. Similarly, the Rangers opening the '09 season with Elvis Andrus at shortstop gave Boras extra leverage for the eight-year, $120 million extension he negotiated for his client at the start of the '13 season, which was then Texas’ penultimate year of team control rather than their antepenultimate year.
Andrus's deal gets to why Boras piped up on this matter. It’s not about those nine games or the Cubs’ still-long chances of a playoff berth this season. In reality, Bryant is likely to turn at most one loss into a win in that span, and could just as easily turn a win into a loss, particularly given the difficulty top prospects have had in making the leap to the major leagues in recent season. Everyone forgets Mike Trout’s .220/.281/.390 line from 2011, and the last prospects to be embroiled in service time controversies, Gregory Polanco and Jonathan Singleton, ultimately turned in similar levels of performance last year. This, in reality, is about Bryant’s earning potential. Free agency is the only leverage players in their team-controlled years have, and the closer their free agency is, the greater their leverage.
Don’t cry for Bryant, however. The Cubs may be able to steal an extra year of team control by delaying his debut by nine games, but they’ll still have to pay him Super Two prices in arbitration if they call him up before early-June, and the only reason to wait that long would be if Epstein’s concerns about Bryant's defense and seasoning are legitimate. Each winter, all players with three or more years of service time who are not signed to multi-year contracts are eligible for salary arbitration. Super Two players, however, are eligible before accumulating a full three years of service time. Players who qualify as Super Twos are thus eligible for arbitration four times prior to free agency, rather than three.
When star players reach that fourth year of eligibility, they often receive something close to a free-agency–quality salary in that fourth year. For example, David Price settled for $19.75 million in his fourth year of arbitration this January. Jordan Zimmermann signed a two-year deal with a 2015 salary of $16.5 million when he came up for arbitration for the third time in '14. Hunter Pence settled for $13.8 million in his fourth year of arbitration in '13, and Cole Hamels settled for $15 million in '12.
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Super Two eligibility, which was added to salary arbitration in 1990, is a powerful weapon for players, and one the union was able to strengthen in the last collective bargaining agreement. Mindful of the other service-time game being played by teams, in which prospects were held in the minors until the approximate Super Two cutoff passed in late May, the Players Association negotiated the expanding of the Super Two group in the last collective bargaining agreement, increasing it from the upper 17 percent of players who met the criteria to the upper 22 percent of such players. Even the simple fact that it is a percentage works against service-time shenanigans: the more players held in the minors until the Super Two deadline is perceived to have passed, the later the Super Two deadline will actually be. That collective bargaining agreement, it should be noted, made no alteration to the 172-day rule governing the cutoff for a full year of service time.
But here's the real question posed by the Boras-Epstein tiff: If those are the rules, is it wrong for the Cubs and other teams to play by them? Yes, teams have to weigh the value of that extra year of team control acquired by delaying a player’s debut against the value that player could contribute if called up earlier. Any decision to call up a player hinges on his potential value at the major league level. But this is not a situation in which a team is burying a deserving player, as the Indians did with Minnie Miñoso and Al Rosen in the late 1940s or the Mariners with Edgar Martinez in the late ‘80s. This is a team delaying the arrival of a prospect by a couple of weeks because there are rules in place which benefit them greatly if they do.
There’s no objective measure by which we can say with absolute certainly that a prospect is ready for the majors. They get called up when the benefit of doing so to the major league club is perceived to be greater than the negative impact of doing so. Negative impacts can include the necessary removal of another player from the roster, potential poor performance, lack of playing time or the belief that the young player’s development will be adversely affected. Just as significant as any of those, however, is the potential loss of an entire year of team control from the player’s prime, and that calculation changes greatly because of a collectively-bargained rule. If you don’t like it, change the rule. But let’s stop making teams pretend that service time issues aren’t a factor in the promotion of their top prospects.