The Cubs announced today that wunderkind Kris Bryant has been assigned to Minor League camp, indicating that he will not make the team’s Opening Day roster out of Spring Training. Second baseman Javier Baez was also optioned to Triple-A today.
The Bryant decision was widely expected, as the Cubs’ long-term benefit by optioning Bryant is almost impossible to ignore. Keeping Bryant in the Minors for even 12 days will leave him with 171 days of Major League service time this season, or one day shy of a full year. In other words, rather than controlling Bryant from 2015-20, the Cubs would gain an extra year of control and have the rights to Bryant through the 2021 season.
Oftentimes, teams will be willing to bring a player north to open the season because they plan on trying to negotiate a long-term deal eventually anyhow. The Cubs may well have interest in extending Bryant — why wouldn’t they? — but Bryant is also a client of agent Scott Boras, who traditionally encourages his players to go year-to-year through arbitration and test the free agent market as early as possible. While there are exceptions — Carlos Gomez, Jered Weaver and Carlos Gonzalez each come to mind — the Cubs have to know that their odds of buying out any of Bryant’s free agent years in advance are considerably thinner than they would be if Bryant had different representation.
Boras has been very vocal on the matter, which has been one of the most oft-discussed storylines this Spring Training. Boras told Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports that the Cubs had to make a choice regarding Bryant: “Are they going to present to their market that they are trying to win? [Cubs owner] Tom Ricketts said they were all about winning.” Boras would go on to argue that Bryant should have been promoted last September when the rosters expanded.
While it’s not surprising to see an agent advocating for the promotion of his player, it’s also hard to dismiss Boras’ comments as those of a biased party. Bryant batted a ridiculous .325/.438/.661 with 43 homers between Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he crushed nine homers in just 44 spring plate appearances while slashing .425/.477/1.175. Ranked by several outlets as the game’s top prospect, Bryant has certainly made a case that he belongs at the Major League level, and it’s difficult to compose an argument that he is not ready for the Majors, from a baseball standpoint.
The Cubs, of course, will not indicate that service time plays an issue in the decision. (Doing so would open the door for a grievance.) However, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein pointed out to reporters that he has never once taken a prospect north to open the season if it meant making his Major League debut, as he feels that Opening Day is a difficult time for a young player to debut. He also cited a belief that it’s good for players to be in a rhythm when called up to the Majors for the first time.
Needless to say, the service time rules that frequently cause teams to stash prospects in the Minors to delay their free agency or to avoid Super Two status figure to be a major talking point in the next collective bargaining agreement. Last year, there was plenty of controversy around the promotion timelines for prospects Gregory Polanco, Jon Singleton and George Springer, among others. MLBPA executive director has called the tactic “unfortunate,” though certain playerss, including Andrew Miller, have voiced an understanding that it’s part of the game.
In the case of Baez, it’s perhaps not surprising to see him begin the year in the Minors. He hit just 169/.227/.324 last season and struck out in more than 40 percent of his plate appearances, and this spring he batted .173/.218/.231 with 20 punchouts in 55 PA. Baez racked up 55 days of service time last year, and he’ll need 117 additional days in 2015 to reach one full year of big league service time.