No one player dominated Spring Training 2015 quite like Kris Bryant. Whether it was his bat on the field, or his agent's comments in front of the cameras, Bryant-mania captivated water coolers everywhere. The young third baseman hit nine home runs in 40 at-bats amassing an unbelievable 1.652 OPS before being told that he wouldn't officially make the big club out of camp.
It's difficult to imagine one person -- a player who has yet to play in the big leagues at that -- shaping the rhetoric of the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. Yet, it looks more and more like the Kris Bryant saga will become at least a footnote of the impending labor confrontation as his demotion has highlighted one of the most controversial aspects of MLB's service time rules.
In honor of Bryant getting the call, we've asked two writers to spin the recent conflict in favor of both parties and consider how this issue will shape the coming CBA negotiations. Michael Bradburn has a Scott Boras poster on his bedroom wall and Matt Goldman was always more of a Theo Epstein kind of fellow.
Before we dive in, understanding the complexities of service time in the MLB is no small feat. As a quick matter of summary, a team owns a players' rights for six years of service time. A year of service time is measured as 172 days on the major league roster (including DL time), but an actual calendar season is 183 days or so. This means if you don't call a player up for about two weeks to start the season, they won't be able to earn 172 days in their first year and at the end of their sixth season, they won't quite have six years of service. As a result of that, the team retains control for another full year. If you would like to know more, FanGraphs has a great primer article on service time as well as arbitration and becoming a Super 2 here.
Why Theo Epstein is wrong
I chose the title for my section carefully. I could have gone with 'Why Scott Boras is right' but that might be a bit magnanimous. Instead, it will make more sense, and be less controversial, to pick on Theo Epstein's decision-making. In fact, it's easy.
Suppose for a moment that your team's general manager invited a free agent to Spring Training. Just your typical non-roster invitee that is playing for a contract. Then imagine that this player hit a home run in just under one quarter of his at-bats and that he got on-base nearly 50% of the time. Also, the only other player you had that played that position was Mike Olt. Let your imagination continue that not only does that player not get signed by your team, but he signs elsewhere, has a .300 OBP and .750 SLG through the first four games. How would that general manager not be ridiculed by everybody in the business?
Of course, you can stop indulging me now as I'm sure you're already well aware that I'm speaking of Kris Bryant. The statistics at the end, it should be noted, are the ones he registered with the Iowa Cubs during the first few days of waiting for his call-up.
I am aware that baseball is a business. But, if you were trying to win baseball games -- and you are -- why wouldn't a baseball player of Kris Bryant's talents make the club? Not that keeping a rookie down represents some sickening world for fans where profit is held in higher respect than winning, but it's clear that a business decision was made instead of a baseball decision in this case. The Cubs are focusing on how much money they can save in the future compared to how many games they could win now.
It should be noted now that I am biased. I actually like Scott Boras. I like him so much that it never occurred to me that I actually might be the only one until I read Tyler Drenon's piece at The Hardball Times on the same topic. In his article Drenon points out that Boras' entire enterprise is worth $100 million which Drenon goes on to explain that "[e]ven the lowly Rays are worth more than six times that amount."
In economics there are jobs and there are job creators, and splitting up the revenue in a was that seems 'equal' is always the tricky part. But when you go to a Cubs game, do you plan on being entertained by Theo Epstein or by Kris Bryant et al? This is why I've never truly understood why fans care what a certain player makes. Sure it's fun to discuss dollar per WAR scenarios. It might just be that it's easy to put a face to a dollar amount (as opposed to having no real idea what most general managers make and I might not even recognize most). I think people would be better-served to not view players as greedy, and this really shouldn't be difficult. When you purchase your ticket to the game, don't you expect the majority of that to go to the people that will entertain you? After all, in Kris Bryant's case, his rights are owned for ostensibly seven years now. I truly hope people don't see him as greedy in year eight.
While the incentive structure in place led the Cubs to make this choice, the right choice was to reward Kris Bryant for his readiness rather than pretend he needed more time in the minors in order to reduce the cost of retaining him in 2021.
Why Theo Epstein is right
Baseball is a business, and as tough as that may be to accept, it’s an essential fact that we as baseball fans must understand. We all want what’s best for our favorite teams, and while general management does their best to put together a great product, there are unfortunate times when that principle does not coexist with putting the best team together; case in point, Kris Bryant.
In 2014, Bryant was crowned (and rightfully so) the 2014 minor league player of the year. His stat line from AA and AAA read like a video game that unfairly lets the player give their created persona all the attributes he or she wants.
Those numbers, combined with his spring training statistics (.425 AVG, .477 OBP, 1.175 SLG, and 9 home runs) do not point to needing anymore seasoning in the minor leagues; and in Bryant’s case, he does not. Having said that (and holding the opinion that Bryant is undoubtedly worthy of a promotion), the Chicago Cubs and its management team are doing exactly what’s needed for their franchise.
However his agent, Scott Boras, did not share the same sentiment. Upon hearing that his über client was sent to Des Moines, instead of Chicago, he went on a tirade.
"[The Cubs] are damaging the ethics and brand of Major League Baseball. Kris Bryant has extraordinary skills. Kris Bryant is a superstar. He has distinguished himself from all players at every level he's played. Everybody in baseball is saying he's a major-league ready player for the big leagues. I have players call me. Executives call me. The Cubs' people want him there. Everyone says, 'They cannot send this guy down.' It's too obvious...So stop saying this is the system."
While certain elements of that paragraph are true, Kris Bryant is the superstar prospect and he has distinguished himself at every level, the crux of Boras’ argument falls flat. The worst part is that he knows the Cubs are right, and if the roles were reversed, would make the identical decision. He knows Bryant’s demotion is in fact the exact result of the system, rather than some black magic conjured up by Epstein and company. They’re simply playing by the rules, and you cannot fault them for that.
The argument, while some framed as "Is Kris Bryant good enough to make the opening day roster?" can be boiled down to one question: Would the Cubs rather have six or seven years of Bryant? If he becomes the next Brandon Wood, then this debate will be forgotten. But if his potential is real, and becomes the next great third baseman, allowing him to reach free agency in 2020 instead of 2021 would be irresponsible.
The true argument, and the one that Boras should be making, is for an amendment to the CBA once the current one has expired (after 2016). He has legitimate power in baseball circles, and could make this issue extremely prominent, using his client as the face. This situation has unfortunately placed Bryant in the middle of an incredibly awkward media battle and clouded his debut.
There's no question that he's ready for the big leagues, and in a perfect world, would have started on opening day. He would have been announced as the third baseman on Sunday Night Baseball, faced Adam Wainwright in his first MLB at bat, and crushed a walk-off home run that sailed over the scoreboard in left. Unfortunately, we don't live in that world, and Cubs fans should be thrilled that the people running the front office understood what needed to be done. We don't have to celebrate the fact that Bryant is in the minors, but we can applaud the Cubs for their decision because that decision is going to positively impact the franchise for years to come.
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