A pair of outstanding rookie third basemen, Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Maikel Franco of the Phillis, have filed grievances claiming that their service time was manipulated in an effort to delay their future entry onto the free agent market, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reports.
No shortage of attention will be paid to these cases. Bryant, of course, won the National League’s Rookie of the Year award, while Franco might have staked his own claim to that title had he not been injured late in the year. In that regard, then, the stakes are high for the players and teams; if a panel were to award additional service time, both would stand to qualify one year earlier for free agency.
Most important of all, however is the heightened relevance of the matter with collective bargaining talks set to begin in earnest. The matter of whether, when, and why top young players are brought up to the majors — and thus begin accruing credit for time spent on an active MLB roster — has long seemed an area ripe for consideration (if not acrimony) between the league and the player’s association.
For those unfamiliar with how things work, teams have a powerful incentive to hold back talented young players — even those they believe to be ready for the majors — to slow their march towards free agency. A less powerful, but also relevant incentive exists to keep a player down long enough to prevent them from qualifying for “Super Two” arbitration status.
A player only accrues a full season of MLB service when he reaches 172 days on the active roster (that includes off days), and it takes six full seasons of service time to reach free agency. As a practical matter, then, teams can milk nearly seven years of control over players if they just keep them in the minors for a few weeks at the start of the year.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened with Bryant and Franco, who accrued 171 and 170 days of service last year, respectively. While there were surely legitimate baseball reasons that also supported the decisions to start those players in the minors, it’s not hard to see what line of argument their agents will pursue.
Of course, many such matters are resolved before they get to a hearing, though in these cases it would seem a creative arrangement would be necessary. It will be most interesting to see how things proceed between the larger entities with stakes in the pair of disputes: MLB and the MLBPA. The sides have about a year to negotiate a new CBA, and the service-time issue presents not only a point of possible contention, but also rather a tricky problem to solve in practice even if agreement on a general direction can be found. While bargaining could certainly override any precedent struck in a hypothetical grievance, a victory in front of an arbitration panel would transfer leverage to one side or the other.