Kris Bryant’s performance in spring training 2015 was certainly good enough to make the team. He hit .425/.477/1.175 (1.652 OPS, 17-for-40) with nine home runs (and a 10th homer in a “B” game).
There was little justification for sending him to Triple-A Iowa, but the Cubs did it anyway, saying Bryant needed to work on his defense.
Bryant played seven games at Iowa before Mike Olt (remember him?), the Opening Day third baseman, suffered what was termed a “hairline fracture of his right wrist.”
After that, Olt did not start a game and only appeared twice as a sub. Bryant was recalled — conveniently, exactly on the first day that would give the Cubs an extra year of team control. Olt never played for the Cubs again, while Bryant would go on to be named National League Rookie of the Year, hitting .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI, the latter two figures franchise records.
The MLB Players Association was not happy with the Cubs manipulating service time in this way — even though it was legal per the MLB/MLBPA Collective Bargaining Agreement — and they filed a grievance for Bryant and also Maikel Franco of the Phillies, who they felt had also had his service time manipulated.
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said the club has been aware of the Major League Baseball Players Association action since May.
“Nothing’s really changed since then,” Hoyer said while meeting with the Chicago media inside an Opryland suite. “The fact that the news came out today doesn’t really change anything about where we are. Obviously, we feel like we were in the right, but I’m not going to comment on the case or open this back up.”
It’s taken four years, but apparently we are going to get a decision on this grievance soon:
Here's another Cubs scoop. Cubs/MLB will be dealing with Kris Bryant's grievance this week from 2015 over service time + Cubs decision to delay his MLB debut until he fell 1 day short of being a free agent after the 2020 season. Could have MLB altering implications if he wins.— David Kaplan (@thekapman) October 23, 2019
It’s clear that MLB teams are using this service time loophole of sorts in the CBA to their benefit, and it hurts players by delaying their free agency for a year.
But the players agreed to this service-time clause in the CBA. The CBA has since been renewed, and the same clause still exists. It seemed as if that delayed the Blue Jays’ recall of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. earlier this year. Vlad Jr. played four games for Dunedin in the Florida State League and nine for Triple-A Buffalo before being called up to Toronto April 26. The Braves put Ronald Acuna Jr. through a similar routine in 2018.
The clause in the CBA merely tells club management that they must make minor-league assignments like these “in good faith.” Here’s a good review of those sorts of claims from Matt Provenzano of Beyond the Boxscore, which includes this quote from Theo Epstein:
“As I told Kris last September and again at the start of spring training,” Theo Epstein said, “we view him as nearly big league ready. The remaining area for improvement is his defense — something Kris agrees with... This spring training we wanted him to work on his footwork, his first step, his throwing and other fundamentals with as many game repetitions as possible. More than anything, we want him to get in a good rhythm defensively before he makes his major-league debut.”
I’m pretty sure you can see that seven games at Iowa wasn’t for “a good rhythm defensively,” no matter what Theo said.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is that an arbitrator can’t likely rule in favor of players because how are you going to define “good faith”? It’s not a measurable concept. Plus, players agreed to this system in the CBA. Is it a good system for players? Clearly, it isn’t. But most likely, this is going to have to be changed by negotiations when the CBA comes up for renewal after the 2021 season. It could be, as David Kaplan noted in his tweet, “MLB altering” if the arbitrator rules in favor of Bryant. If that happens, Bryant (and others whose service time has been manipulated) could wind up getting to free agency a year earlier than is currently possible.
As always, we await developments.