Third baseman Kris Bryant quickly made his way through the Cubs’ minor league system after being drafted second overall in 2013, but it wasn’t quick enough. In the latter half of 2013, he ascended from rookie ball to High-A, then ran roughshod over both Double-A and Triple-A pitching in 2014 while being rated one of baseball’s best prospects. In 2014, he hit a combined .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs and 110 RBI in the minors. Surely good enough to merit a spot on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster in 2015, right?
Even though Bryant had a ridiculous spring, batting .425 with nine home runs and 15 RBI in just 40 at-bats, the Cubs sent him to Triple-A to start the 2015 season. He was promoted on April 17, just in time for the Cubs to have secured an extra year of control, effectively manipulating his service time. The Cubs claimed he needed work on his defense. Bryant went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Bryant and Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco filed grievances against their respective teams during the offseason, but players almost never win these grievances because definitively proving malfeasance is difficult.
Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic caught up with Bryant to talk about baseball’s service time manipulation problem. Bryant said, “It’s awful. So awful. It’s going to happen this year and it happens every year. I could understand it if you go out and have a rough spring training where you don’t look ready. But there’s certain people who put the time and the effort into the offseason so that they do show up to spring training and they prove that they’re ready to go. I feel like you should be rewarded for that.” Bryant added that teams are “finding a loophole in the system.” He laughed about the whole thing, saying, “It’s funny how obvious it can be.”
Sharma points out that the Cubs were even grimier than they appeared. On April 14, 2015, Mike Olt — handling third base in Bryant’s stead — left a game with a thumb injury. Bryant was called up on the 17th, which was when it was also revealed that Olt suffered a broken hand. Doctors don’t need two days to look at X-rays. In the one game the Cubs played between Olt’s injury and Bryant’s promotion, Arismendy Alcantara handled third base, a position he never played regularly in the minors. Bryant was in New Orleans at the time, which is about a two-hour plane ride away from Chicago, as the Cubs were in the midst of a homestand. It wasn’t even logistically difficult to get Bryant to Chicago.
Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Fernando Tatis, Jr., and Eloy Jiménez are three of baseball’s elite prospects. They are, by all accounts, ready for the majors, but they are expected to begin the year in the minors until their teams officially gain that extra year of control over them, delaying their foray into free agency by one year. Bryant said, “I think they’re going to do it to [Guerrero, Jr.]. ‘Oh, he’s gotta work on his defense.’ Stuff like that. But now I can look back on it and just laugh about it because I was told to work on my defense too and I think I got three groundballs in those games that I played. So it’s like, ‘Oh, now he’s ready.’”
Bryant said, “When the new CBA came out, I wasn’t really paying attention to much of this. But now that the situation has changed and you see how free agency has gone, it’s impossible to not put your attention into that. It would be nice if we could hammer some of these things out before we get to 2021.” Service time manipulation won’t be addressed until MLB owners and the union agree on a new collective bargaining agreement following the 2021 season. Bryant is part of a growing contingent of players to have publicly expressed displeasure with the way teams are going about roster construction lately, potentially foreshadowing a contentious next two years.