The MLB arbitration panel has finally issued a ruling on the grievance brought by Cubs star Kris Bryant against the organization, per Jeff Passan of ESPN.com (via Twitter). Bryant will not be granted an additional year of service time, the panel ruled. He will remain under team control via arbitration through the 2021 season.
Bryant (as represented by the MLBPA) had claimed the Chicago organization manipulated the timing of his initial promotion in order to delay his qualification for free agency. It was an argument with some obvious real-world merit, but one that faced major legal hurdles to success.
The expectation around the game all along was that the case would fail, but that couldn’t be known until the decision was formally reached. Now, the Cubs and Bryant have settled expectations … as do other teams with potential interest in trading for the 28-year-old third baseman/outfielder.
It remains difficult to fathom the big-market Cubs parting with a classy, homegrown star who remains a high-quality performer. But there has been persistent chatter surrounding the possibility as the organization looks for creative means of improving. The Cubs reputedly have minimal financial wiggle room owing to a self-imposed pincer of payroll limitations and prior payroll commitments (some underperforming). Bryant agreed to a $18.6MM salary this year and will enter arbitration a final time next winter. He’s earning a huge salary regardless, but there’s little question he’d benefit greatly from the ability to reach free agency one seasons sooner.
We’ll have to see whether talks gain traction over the next two weeks. No doubt teams with interest have already done quite a bit of groundwork with the Cubs, but it was largely hypothetical until this process was completed. There’s still some unmet demand at third base, leaving a potential window to a pre-spring strike.
This ruling also has clear implications for the broader issue of service-time manipulation. While there’s always going to be a big grey area as to a player’s readiness for the majors, it’s an open secret around the game that teams slow the promotions of top prospects to delay their eventual free agency.
MLB rules require at least six full years of service to hit the open market. A player is deemed to have accumulated a service year with 172 days of time spent on the active roster. It’s simple math from there: If a team carries a player on the active roster out of Spring Training, that player (presuming no future demotions) can play six full seasons before reaching free agency. If a team instead waits a couple weeks and promotes the player once there’s less than 172 days left on the MLB calendar, that player can not only suit up for the vast majority of that initial campaign, but would remain under control for six full seasons thereafter.
That’s precisely what happened in Bryant’s case, which presented just about the most compelling possible factual scenario to challenge a team’s decision. As the 2015 season approached, Bryant was widely heralded as a top young talent and had dominated the competition in the upper minors. There was a clear roster opening. He had a monster showing in Cactus League action. The Cubs kept him down to open the year and promoted him on the exact day he could first be called up without reaching a full year of service. As of today, Bryant has 4.171 years of MLB service and will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season.
The Cubs did have a smidgen of evidence to call upon to raise some plausible deniability. They had spoken of Bryant’s need to improve his glovework, though that was rather a thin reed. President of baseball ops Theo Epstein noted he had never introduced a player to the majors at the start of a season, though it was never really clear whether and why he actually held an honest philosophical belief of that sort. (You could also flip that argument on its head to an extent.) The best cover came from the fact that infielders Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella both happened to suffer injuries early in the season, which gave the team a good explanation for the suspicious timing of the promotion.
So, was this simply a case of maximizing the utility of a player within the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement? Or was it improper manipulation of those rules? That depends upon how one interprets the CBA and applies it to the facts at hand. It is not accurate to say that the agreement specifically permits manipulation of this kind; neither does it expressly prohibit the consideration of service time in making promotion decisions or provide a clear standard in this realm. As covered in depth at Fangraphs by Sheryl Ring, every contract has an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. There was an argument here that the Cubs ran afoul of that legal doctrine even if they did not clearly break an express provision of the written contract. Of course, there’s also a wide degree of interpretation and a multitude of factors that go into any decision, so even here there was arguably room for some doubt.
The fair dealing doctrine obviously sets a rather malleable standard — one that relies heavily upon precedent and prior industry dealings, and thereby bleeds into the factual realm. As a practical matter, finding a violation is likely to require a compelling factual situation. Bryant had that from a circumstantial perspective, but perhaps he lacked a smoking gun such as a statement from a top team official acknowledging that service-time manipulation drove the decision. (No such statement is known publicly. Neither is it known what level of discovery of documents or witnesses was permitted, if any.)
Now that the Bryant decision is in place, any future such grievances have a clear reference point. It’s difficult to imagine circumstances that would more clearly point to service-time manipulation. Winning a grievance action, then, will presumably require more — some kind of direct evidence of intent from the organization, perhaps — unless a future player can convince a panel to revisit the underlying legal reasoning.
This decision certainly makes it easier for teams to continue weighing service time heavily in deciding upon promotional timelines. The alternative might even have opened the floodgates to examination of decisions, with a possible need for numerous grievance actions to settle the interpretive landscape. Neither option was altogether appealing.
There’s wide agreement, generally, that the best players ought to be in the majors. But teams are also quite understandably interested in maximizing the value of their players. It’s clear that a rule change of some kind ought to be considered. Trouble is, it’s a situation that lacks an obvious solution. Shifting the number of days that count for a full season of service, for instance, would likely just shift the impact to players on a different developmental timeline. Numerous potential unintended consequences accompany any proposals that have been raised thus far.