In late January, we learned that Kris Bryant had lost his service-time grievance against the Cubs and thus would not be a free agent until after the 2021 season.
Now, the Associated Press has acquired a copy of arbitrator Mark Irvings’ 42-page decision in Bryant’s case and we now know more about what this ruling means — and what it doesn’t. Regarding the MLB Players’ Association’s position:
“The association could not satisfy its burden of proving that the Cubs’ assignments of Bryant were done in bad faith to mask service time manipulation,” Irvings wrote. “Given this finding, there is no need to resolve, and this decision does not address, the global issue of whether clubs have the right to manage service time to delay a player’s achievement of the service benchmarks for salary arbitration and free agent eligibility.”
The article notes that injuries to Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella were what brought Bryant to the major leagues at the exact time he was recalled and, further:
“The association was not able to produce memos, emails or texts from Epstein to show he had a nefarious motive at variance with his public comments,” Irvings wrote, adding that “unforeseen events had forced Epstein’s hand.”
I give Irvings great credit for using the word “nefarious” in this ruling. That’s a great word that we just don’t hear enough in modern usage.
He went on to say that he accepted Theo’s position that Bryant needed to go to Triple-A Iowa to work on his defense, stating:
“He made a decision based on what he concluded were the acute needs of the major league team, even though it posed a risk to the development of his top prospect,” Irvings added. “The debatable wisdom of that decision cannot be the grounds for finding that Epstein lacked a basis in fact or reason for keeping Bryant with Iowa until April 17.”
What is probably most important from Irvings’ ruling is this statement, which appears to indicate that the ruling is narrowly tailored to Bryant’s specific situation and is not intended to establish a precedent for similar cases:
Irvings ruled that “while this award will not reach the broader issue of whether a club can base a roster decision solely on the desire to delay free agency, the concept of good faith and fair dealing is relevant for purposes of this narrower analysis.”
What this all means is that the MLBPA, if they want to avoid situations like this in the future, will have to negotiate changes in the next collective-bargaining agreement. This is not likely to be easy, as owners have learned to manipulate the service-time provisions to their advantage and aren’t likely to give ground easily.
That’s going to be only one of several points on which the CBA negotiations are likely to be contentious. Enjoy the next two seasons, because it’s still possible we’re going to lose part or all of 2022.