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What’s next for MLB players after the Kris Bryant service-time decision?

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This is going to be a key point of contention in the next labor agreement.

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Last week, word got out that Kris Bryant had lost his service-time grievance. This wasn’t really a surprise; it had been pretty much a given that he wouldn’t win it.

What will be most interesting is the actual wording of the decision from arbitrator Mark Irvings, which is expected sometime this week (although given how long it took for a decision to be reached, maybe that’s optimistic).

At The Athletic, Evan Drellich breaks down some of the ways this decision could be rendered:

A major victory for the clubs would be a ruling that makes it difficult for players to believe they can win such a grievance in the future. If the arbitrator finds the number of days a player has spent in the majors is all that matters — not why or why not he was afforded that number of days — then it encourages teams to do whatever they please when promoting players, and even, perhaps, when making other roster moves.

A better outcome for the MLBPA would be wording that emphasizes a necessary component of good faith in roster decisions. Irvings can make clear he believed that, in the case of Bryant, the Cubs operated with requisite good faith, while emphasizing teams do in fact have to demonstrate intent.

Those are the ways the ruling could come down based on the current collective-bargaining agreement, which has two more baseball seasons to go. The actual expiration date is December 1, 2021, so the parties could be negotiating after the 2021 season actually ends.

It seems clear that the players are going to want some sort of service-time system that doesn’t allow manipulation in this way. This quote from Drellich’s article hammers home that point:

“This was a necessary step to really allow for a substantial movement in this area in bargaining. Because the excuse (that a grievance can solve the matter) is gone,” one player agent said of the Bryant case. “It was actually a very important case.”

That statement would have been true no matter what the arbitrator ruled. Even if the ruling had been in favor of Bryant, that would have made the owners want changes in the system. Here are some ways the system might be changed, per Drellich:

A major overhaul might determine free agency eligibility by age, rather than days of service. Or the players could offer to mix in a component of age into the current system: Once a player reaches X age or Y service, he is a free agent.

Another option would be to count service time across the minors as well as the majors. Service time today includes only days spent in the major leagues.

A potentially smaller change would be a drop in the number of days required to achieve a full year of service. Were it halved to 86 days in the majors, for example, teams might have more incentive to promote a worthy player sooner, so as long as the team intended to be competitive.

One creative solution could incorporate performance. A negotiated set of standards could allow players who perform to a prescribed level to be rewarded with a full year of service time when they may not have been otherwise. Alternatively, a panel of to-be-agreed-upon experts could weigh tricky cases like Bryant’s, with an outline of standards.

The first of those ideas would seem to me to have the most traction. For example, the agreement could call for a player to become a free agent nine years after being drafted out of high school or six years after college, so at age 27 or 28. This would solve the issue of players going to free agency at age 30 or 31 and teams not wanting to pay a premium price for players perceived to be beginning the downside of their career. A system like that would also probably have to result in changes to the arbitration system so that young players could be paid.

Or, perhaps a system of restricted free agency, similar to the NBA’s, could be created so that a player could get an offer but would stay with his original team if they matched it.

I’m not sure a performance-based system as described above would work. Who would be the “agreed-upon experts”? Such a system would likely be similar what we have in arbitration now, with the added possibility that no one would be happy with the results.

All of this leads me to one conclusion: We could very likely be headed to a strike or lockout for the 2022 season. I hope I’m wrong about that, and there hasn’t been a lot of saber-rattling by either players or owners. Yet.

Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.