Kris Bryant and the Service Time Showdown

It was no surprise in 2013 when the Chicago Cubs took 3B Kris Bryant of the University of San Diego second overall in the First-Year Player Draft. It was no surprise that, earlier this offseason, Baseball America ranked Bryant the #1 overall prospect for the upcoming 2015 season — not to mention the #2 overall ranking he received from MLB.com. It is no surprise that the slugger has been absolutely tearing it up thus far in Spring Training. It will be a surprise to most fans and onlookers that Bryant likely won’t be with the team to start this season.

The reasoning is not that the highly touted prospect isn’t ready to break into the big leagues — he led Minor League Baseball in 2014 with 43 homers, .661 SLG, and 1.098 OPS during his first full professional season — but instead because the Cubs hope to delay his entry into free agency. It’s due to what is known as “Major League service time.”

The way MLB service time works is, at its heart, a simple process made murky because of a moving part involved that becomes resolved after the season. Let’s lay out the simple stuff first.

The moment a player is called up to a Major League team’s 25-man roster, he begins accruing service time. Even if a player on a team’s 25-man roster is put on the 15- or 60-day disabled list, he continues to gain service time — the most notable and consequential instance of this happening is probably when a pitcher undergoes Tommy John surgery and is put on a team’s 60-day DL.

Each player must accrue six years of service time before he can reach free agency, meaning that the team essentially has control over any prospects/rookies they call up for at least six years. One year of MLB service time is worth 172 days. With service time a player can also reach salary arbitration, which occurs when a player has at least three years of service time but no more than six. (There’s also something called a Super Two, which can pertain to this individual case. However, we’ll touch on that subject later, or the impatient among you can read how FanGraphs describes a Super Two.)

Now, here comes the moving part.

According to FanGraphs:

“A year of service time is equal to 172 days, and there are normally around 183 total days in the major league calendar. This means that if a team wants to keep a prospect from accruing a full year of service time, they simply need to leave that player in the minors for around 15-20 days out of the entire season”

This has turned into a time-honored tradition by MLB front offices, with many notable players who have been held down to affect their service time. Players such as Evan Longoria, Buster Posey, David Price, George Springer, and Gregory Polanco all were held down to affect their service time in favor of the team.

Since the maximum is 172 days, all the team has to do is essentially hold the player down 12 days. This will leave a player at 171 days which, while it might seem cruelly close, would still not give the player a full year of service time. (FanGraphs probably says 15-20 days just in case there are more than 183 days in a given MLB season.)

Essentially, by holding down Bryant 20 days, the Cubs will ensure that he is under the 172 threshold, giving them an extra season of control over Bryant. As CJ Nitkowski pointed out in a brilliant article on Fox Sports’ “Just A Bit Outside,” “The Cubs are smart and my money is on Bryant making his major-league debut April 17th at Wrigley Field versus the Padres.”

If the Cubs successfully hold Bryant under the 172 mark this season, that means Bryant will be a free agent following the 2021 season, instead of before the 2021 season. This means that Bryant, 23, would be controlled by the club for his age 29 season—one that is likely in the heart of his prime. That extra season is also crucial to a Cubs front office that realizes any extension would likely not come cheap — if at all — as Bryant is represented by agent Scott Boras, whose clients tend to test the free agent market when the time comes.

Speaking of Boras, he and the Executive Director of the MLB Players Association Tony Clark have been and will be keeping a close eye on the Bryant situation. In late February Clark discussed his opinion on the topic with Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago.com. As Mooney writes, Clark spoke in a measured manner, saying:

“We always pay attention. We always pay attention during the course of the year as guys come up, go down, different considerations that may be a part of those decisions.

“We have always (believed) – and will continue to believe – that it’s in everyone’s best interests to have the best players playing at any particular time,” Clark said. “Any rules that are in place that some may be using against the spirit of how they may have been designed, we don’t believe (that’s) in anyone’s best interest – the fans, or anyone that loves our games, the players, or even the clubs for that matter.

“We will continue – as we always have – to monitor those types of scenarios and situations in the hopes that everybody does what’s best for the game.”

While Clark — other than this address to the media — has been relatively quiet and selective in what he has to say when discussing this matter, Boras has not.

On Tuesday, the outspoken agent again went to the media to call out Cubs management — specifically Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts. In an article from Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, Boras described how he felt:

“Cubs ownership has a choice. Are they going to present to their market that they are trying to win? Tom Ricketts said they were all about winning.

“When someone says it’s the system, no, it’s a choice — the choice of winning.”

Boras then went on to cite cases where players started with their teams from Opening Day and helped their respective teams greatly:

“This is no different than [Jason] HeywardElvis Andrus, [Troy] TulowitzkiAustin Jackson, [Jose] Fernandez with the Marlins. Their owners had the same choice [Ricketts] has. They were about winning and they went for it. And those clubs got the result and effect of players performing and winning, in some cases going to the World Series.”

That was Tuesday. By Wednesday, Boras had voiced his opinion to Bob Nightengale so loudly that the USA Today writer was convinced “Mount Boras erupted.” You can read all of Boras’ take to Nightengale here, but what Boras essentially did was verbally confront Cubs’ ownership more aggressively than he had previously. Boras sounded off, saying to the Cubs:

“You 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 player ready 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.

“This isn’t a system choice. This isn’t a mandate. This is a flat ownership decision. Do they really want to win here?”

What Boras is trying to do here is force the Cubs’ hand by rallying their own fan-base against them, which positively helps his own client as the Cubs might not want to upset a fan-base they so recently showed that they are ready to win. However, Boras’ comments would not go unanswered by the Cubs’ brass. In the same USA Today article, Cubs President Theo Epstein had a rebuttal:

“Ownership doesn’t have anything to do with it. We’re making an organizational decision. And I’ll be the one, as president of baseball operations, making the decision.

“You never have a second chance to promote somebody the first time. You want to make sure they’re in the right place. In Kris’ case, we know he’s ready offensively, we just want to get him in a good rhythm defensively.

“We do a better job at player development than we do strategizing on how to save a few dollars here and there. That’s what we want to be all about. We don’t think we screwed him up, and we don’t think we’re going to.”

The obvious scrap that is developing between the team and agent of Bryant will surely not stop here, as it appears the mud-slinging has only just begun. However, what Boras and the MLBPA might be forgetting is that they have a system in place that will help out a player should the team attempt to play the service time game. The system they have in place is known as a Super-Two.

Earlier in the article — what feels like days ago now — I teased that we would get to discussing what a Super-Two is/does later on. If you already have prior knowledge of what it is or were impatient and read FanGraphs’ description of it, you know that “Super-Two” is a term used for players who are eligible for salary arbitration before the normal three years. The way it works is that if a player has less than three years of service time but more than two AND is within the top 22% of all players with two years of service time, he is eligible for a fourth year of arbitration.

Being a Super-Two helps a player’s ability to be better compensated for a large amount of time they spent on the roster without it being a full year. In general, it helps guys like Bryant who will be called up just short of a full year of service time in favor of more team control. Obviously, Super-Two players have a greater chance to make more money than the typical player who only goes through the arbitration process the normal three times. It’s a protective measure that prevents a player from receiving three seasons of pre-arbitration salary — typically right around the league minimum — as opposed to the two. This means that the final year Bryant has before he reaches free agency will be a year in which he is paid very close to market value.

Just look at this last offseason. Two of the highest paid players — albeit they were both pitchers — through arbitration were former Super-Two recipients. Detroit Tigers pitcher David Price will make $19.75 million this season, while Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello wil earn $12.5 million, each in their final trips through the arbitration process.

So while Bryant might be missing a few weeks in April, he is likely to make very close to market value in 2021 regardless.

So let’s say that the MLB Player’s Association does find that — like the whole baseball world already knows — the Cubs will/did in fact hold down Bryant to stifle his service time and give them one more year of team control. What can they then do? Would they file a grievance with Major League Baseball to reimburse Bryant with the service time he did not receive for starting the season in the minor leagues? Would they just petition MLB to issue a fine to the organization? Would they ask that MLB take a draft pick from the Cubs? Would they try a combination of all three? And, probably the greatest question of all, could they even manage to do any of the things listed above?

It’s obvious the Cubs are not the first team — nor will they be the last — to play the service time game. In fact, a team getting the most they can out of a player they control is just a smart business tactic. If you were to punish the Cubs it would be as if you punished the University of Virginia basketball team for using the whole shot clock to slow the game down. You can’t — and shouldn’t — punish one certain team that is effectively using a rule to its advantage. Especially when it’s something that isn’t enforced across all of Major League Baseball.

There’s not much the players can do anyway, because the current system is what they agreed to with the Collective Bargaining Agreement talks a few seasons ago. The forcedly tabooed subject of keeping a guy down for the first month of a season in order to gain another year of said player isn’t a concept any team is foreign to, either. Teams have done this for as long as general managers and owners have realized this is a way to get the most bang for your buck, and it will certainly only change as the result of a rule change in the CBA.

But does it really need to be changed?

Mike Petriello of FanGraphs suggested — in a very well-argued piece earlier this week — that yes, the system is broken. He argued that we should lower the number of days a player needs for a full season of service time from 172 days to 100 days flat. According to Petriello, “That would be roughly three months and a week-plus, so let’s say a rough deadline of June 20 to get a player up. For a player like Bryant, that would remove all incentive for the Cubs to hold him down, because whether he’s up on April 6 or April 18 or May 15, he’s getting those 100 days.”

What Petriello is suggesting makes sense, as it would lessen the incentive a team has to hold a player down, like they typically do. However, the problem would be that the teams and their ownership likely would not want to lose this advantage. And why would they? When you have the chance to keep premier talent under your control for longer you don’t pass it up. However, what this suggestion would do is provide a way for players, teams, and owners to see the best product on the field as early as possible.

If the Cubs were thinking of holding Bryant down until late June or early July — where the projected super two cutoff will likely lie — that would be a completely different story. That’s because the Cubs are a large-market team, and ownership has the monetary ability to pay Bryant a fourth year of arbitration in return for a 7th year of team control. It would be greedy and unnecessary for them to look to control Bryant for seven years and pay his salary as if they controlled him for six.

The reason the system doesn’t need fixing is that typically the teams assisted by the extra year they get by holding a player down are small to mid-market teams that could not afford to sign the player through free agency. Teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, Miami Marlins, Cleveland Indians, and other like-market teams use this rule to their advantage in order to keep some of their top prospects within their organization just a little bit longer. They need this system to remain the same because it helps them stay competitive through smarter business decisions because they don’t have the budget that large-market teams do.

While the Bryant situation is likely bringing to the forefront a system that has been active and used on countless numbers of occasions, it seems like Boras and the MLBPA could have little influence on the actual decision. Therefore the Cubs will — and should — make the smart business decision by holding him down until the April 17 home series against the San Diego Padres. What it comes down to for the Cubs is this:

Are the Cubs willing to trade 10 to 12 games of Mike Olt and/or Tommy La Stella for an extra year of prime Kris Bryant?

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