Kris Bryant and the Service Time Debate

The first week of the major league season came and went with spectacular moments and lingering memories. Play of the highest quality with its images etched in our minds. An ecstasy of joy, agony, and pandemonium are the remnants of the marathon which is the 162 game season. Hope lost on each pitch with the premature demise of every franchise touted and examined. Baseball may be alive and well at ballparks across America but it’s spirit slightly altered and perhaps missing as service time and future arbitration rights restrained Chicago Cubs prospect Kris Bryant from making his major league début.

The awe of prospects captivates the imaginations of baseball fans. Their potential seems endless and their value held higher than established stars, paired with optimism of discovering a future standout. Often times, these pursuits are idealistic and the process develops into a colossal gamble. The majority fails to realize their expectations and the gap between the surefire selection and a bust widens with each passing day. In recent years the successful developments of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper reinvigorated awareness of top prospects and experts believe Kris Bryant is the latest off the minor league assembly line to eventually make a sizable impact at the game’s highest level. The second overall pick in the 2013 draft out of San Diego, Bryant has taken the minor leagues by storm, exceeding projections and raising awareness of an emerging Cubs farm system. Following a .336/.390/.688 début across four different levels in 2013, Bryant produced a prolific followup season, clubbing 43 home runs, diving in 110 runs, and improving his on base percentage by nearly fifty points against greater competition in AA and AAA. Bryant’s advanced approach, coupled with a .425 average in Spring Training, prompted many to surmise that a spot on the 25 man roster would be forthcoming. The Chicago Cubs, citing their standing and service time decided against rushing the phenom and sent him instead to Iowa for the start of the season.

As Bryant’s on field credentials countered the decision made by management, the Major League Baseball Player’s Association expressed great concern about the standard protocol, believing the Cubs made the call strictly based on finances and sought to correct the imbalance in the Basic Agreement during the next bargaining negotiation. Since the advent of free agency after the Peter Seitz decision on Andy Messersmith four decades ago, players who spent six full seasons in the major leagues would be eligible to take their services elsewhere. Negotiations in the early 1980s and 90s integrated arbitration with service time through a process known as “Super Two”. The distinction would afford the opportunity for a player who began his career during the first month of any season to be eligible for salary arbitration after his second season rather than his third and be granted free agency immediately after completing his sixth full season. Clerical discrepancies can be the difference between collecting salaries in the range of five million dollars or the big league minimum of around five hundred thousand. An earlier service time window also affords each player a chance to sell their services to the highest bidder immediately after reaching free agency, forcing the hand of his previous employer and likely choosing endless riches in the uncharted waters of a new opportunity.

Recent changes in the 2012 Basic Agreement modified the conditions for being eligible for an earlier arbitration window. The middle of June, once the customary benchmark for big league call-ups and deferred service time is around April 17th in the case of Kris Bryant. Eligibility for early arbitration and “Super Two” according to major league rules is roughly after two years and around 175 games played. Players must also fall within the top 22% in his class of player and incur at least 86 days of service time during his rookie season. These edicts ultimately decide advancement for the clubs themselves and work both economically and strategically, especially in smaller markets. Given the use of widespread information and a propensity to merge statistical analysis with finances, a vast majority of teams are following the trends and hesitating to place their young prospects on the Opening Day roster. Teams have become adept at the practice and will commonly open with a veteran who likely is not in the club’s future plans assuming the roster spot of a top rookie until the arbitration deadline passes. The strategy became so widespread in 2014 that Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox became the lone position player to both be in the starting lineup and on the opening day roster. Abreu’s case masked the movement, in large part due his six-year, $68 million dollar tender as a free agent out of Cuba. The only other exceptions in many cases are when injuries occur and teams desperately seek reinforcements, as in the case with the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper replacing the ailing Ryan Zimmerman on the active roster in 2012.

A common solution to the “Super Two” quandary is the method of purchasing a player’s arbitration years in a long-term contract well before he establishes himself in the major leagues. Current Atlanta Braves general manager John Hart popularized the procedure during his days with the Cleveland Indians in the early 1990s. Hart gambled and succeed with signing youngsters such as Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Sandy Alomar to pacts which latest through the end of the decade. The Indians quickly began to improve, opening up funds for free agents to compliment their budding core, ultimately leading to two World Series appearances. The Tampa Bay Rays followed the blueprint of the tribe a decade later, buoyed by former Wall Street executives Stuart Sternberg, Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman, inked top prospect Evan Longoria to a “team friendly”, six-year, $17 million agreement just five days into his big league career. By 2012 the Rays extended the contract for another eleven seasons in excess of $144.6 million. In other cases, players are swayed to sign a below market deal, in exchange for an earlier big league début. Last season, Houston Astros prospect Jon Singleton fell for the bait, agreeing to a five-year, $10 million accord, much to the chagrin of the player’s union. Absent of financial considerations, long-term deals pose considerable risks for most clubs, including injury and performance based and most players realize the benefit of patience and pursue more lucurative offers in salary aribitration and delayed free agency. 

Despite the outcry of support in his favor, Kris Bryant returned to the familiar confines of Triple-A Iowa, hitting two home runs in his first four games, while continuing to hone his skills on both sides of the diamond. At the major league level, the Cubs are relying on a platoon of Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella to man the hot corner until Bryant is granted a call-up and the fearful premonitions of “Super Two” become a distant memory. Other clubs such as the Minnesota Twins are suppressing the temptation to bring up their young prospects despite glaring needs, due to the game’s current economic system. Twenty five-year old Alex Meyer, the fifteenth ranked prospect according to Baseball America coming into the season has been bypassed in starting rotation despite the losses of Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco. The Twins opted for more established products Mike Pelfrey and Trevor May despite a lack of success on the mound in recent years. For teams in contention, the inability to play with the most efficient roster possible curtails a potential playoff run and could prove to be the difference between a chance at October and waiting for next season.

Teams such as the Cubs and Twins have the luxury of waiting until a youngster fully develops because they are in the midst of comprehensive rebuilding processes and postseason aspirations are a long-range goal and not an immediate one. Other teams such as the Mets and Yankees can follow the more traditional path of waiting for heralded prospects such as Noah Syndergaard and Rob Refsnyder to fully learn their craft in the minor leagues before taking their talents to the show once a need arises or the clubs prepare for a potential date in October. Given the fierce debate over Kris Bryant’s credentials for a big league roster spot and the sociological changes within baseball, make it likely to see the arbitration requirements revisited in the next round of labor negotiations after the 2016 season. Under the current system, players such as Bryant will see playing time in the major leagues once the obligatory service time period lapses and their exploits on the diamond will transform the conversation, making the initial debate an afterthought.

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