Coming into the 2015 season, Kris Bryant was the first, second, and fifth-best prospect by Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus, respectively. The universal thought going into that season was that he would be called up, sure, but unless he exploded in spring training, the Cubs would delay his call-up until after the dreaded Super Two (update: eligible to become Super Two) deadline, thus delaying his free agency another year.
He did in fact explode, though, hitting .425/.477/1.175 with nine home runs in 14 spring training games. He has to make the big league roster, people assumed. And, he didn’t. “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.”
This was, of course, in bad faith. There were only 12 days separating Opening Day and the Super Two deadline, and the Cubs eventually called him up after playing just seven games in Iowa. I highly doubt they improved his defense over seven games, and even if it was that bad, his bat would have papered over any defensive concerns while in the big leagues.
Scott Boras agreed with this, and pushed Bryant to file a grievance with the union, one that is still pending.
What remains is a fundamental flaw in the CBA, one of the Players Union’s own doing by allowing such vague wording. It means that the only way one could prove service time manipulation is through the spirit of the CBA, and not the letter, according to Sheryl Ring of FanGraphs:
“It seems to me that a viable argument can be made that it is unfair to postpone a player’s entry into the union solely for a team’s pecuniary gain. Article II of the CBA states that ‘[t]he Clubs recognize the [MLBPA] as the sole and exclusive collective bargaining agent for all Major League Players, and individuals who may become Major League Players during the term of this Agreement, with regard to all terms and conditions of employment’ (emphasis mine). I think the MLBPA could argue, based on Article II, that its justified expectations are that MLB won’t attempt to circumvent players’ pecuniary gain by keeping them out of the union, because future major leaguers were an anticipated part of the CBA.”
One possible solution to all of this was proposed by Boras himself, that, “[f]or example, I would say that the union or somebody may come in and say that they’ve made a claim that this player is major-league ready...and that to place him in the minor leagues would not be appropriate from a skills standpoint. And then all of a sudden, it’s subject to review by a panel of former managers or baseball experts.”
If we assume that prospective members of the union would thus retain some semblance of CBA rights, it could open the door for MiLB unionization, or at the bare minimum would expand the rights of players such that teams would have to prove that they don’t deserve to be on a big league roster, not the other way around.
This brings us to the logical conclusion of all of this, the possible service time manipulation of Vlad Guerrero Jr. Guerrero was himself a top-five prospect heading into this season, and has predictably ripped the cover off the ball, hitting a whopping .404/.459/.682 across all levels over 75 games. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 31:30. I’m not a scout, but this looks like a major league ready hitter:
️ Drink it in, #Bisons and #BlueJays fans!#VladJr @MiLB pic.twitter.com/r9WLK3IvWM— Buffalo Bisons (@BuffaloBisons) August 9, 2018
If we were to look at Major League Equavalencies, as well, he is already projected as one of the best true talent hitters in baseball:
You don’t need to understand rocket science, or even sabermetrics, to know why the Blue Jays are doing what they’re doing. They want to delay Guerrero’s promotion until roster expansion to delay his service time clock, and even if he mashes, they will conjure some excuse as to why he needs to wait until the Super Two deadline in 2019. It doesn’t help that they aren’t contending, further incentivizing holding him back for better times.
Both this, and the Bryant grievance, reveal two fundamental, unsettling truths about baseball today. We like to think that baseball rewards the best talent and they feature the best players in the world, for one, but they clearly do not if they are merely at the whim of legalese rules that could keep them behind closed doors.
The second unsettling truth is that there is no bottom to this display, that if Bryant’s 2015 spring training performance isn’t good enough, then the next step was a whole season of a top-five prospect hitting over .400 being acceptable, too. We haven’t reached the point where a player would easily win a grievance, and it’s hard to say where that point is.
What’s next? A stud pitching prospect throwing no-hitters with a sub-1.00 ERA being held down because the team just wants to “iron out his mechanics”? A minor league hitter hitting 60 home runs in a season without being called up? I honestly couldn’t tell you where the threshold is, but I can confidently say that Guerrero is at or near the point where the MLBPA should not accept it.
Free agency has already had holes poked through it with luxury tax rules, early extensions, and collective head-nodding on the lack of value of ‘tweener (between good and great) veteran free agents, and service time is just yet another front to burn the candle at both ends. Eventually you have to hold firm and refuse to accept it, because while Bryant was eyebrow-raising, and Guerrero was infuriating, the next case will force you to suspend disbelief.