Jeff Passan of ESPN reports that Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant has lost his service time grievance. As a result, he will remain under Cubs’ control for two more seasons and will not be a free agent until the 2021-22 offseason.
Bryant, then the Cubs’ top prospect, entered the 2015 season in seemingly great shape to make the Cubs’ big league roster. He had absolutely destroyed Double-A and Triple-A pitching in 2014, boasting a combined line of .325/.448/.661 with 43 homers and 110 RBI and 15 stolen bases in 138 games. He was the talk of baseball during 2015 spring training, hitting moonshots all over the Cactus League. What’s more, the Cubs had no one blocking him at third base on the big club. At the top of the third base depth chart at the major league level was journeyman Mike Olt, who had hit .160/.248/.356 in 89 games in 2014.
Despite this, the Cubs placed Bryant in the minors for 19 days to start the 2015 season and handed Olt the starting third base job. The stated reason was that the team felt that Bryant needed to work on his defense a little bit. The very obvious real reason: if he was on the big league roster in 18 days or fewer after the season began, he would’ve gotten a full year of service time in 2015 and thus would’ve become eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. If his major league service time did not start until 19 days into the season, however, he would not become a free agent until the 2021-22 offseason.
In the event, Bryant was up on day 19 — April 17, 2015 — having gotten, by his estimate, only a couple of balls hit to him at third base for the Iowa Cubs. So much for working on his defense. He’d go on to post an .858 OPS (135 OPS+) in 2015, winning the Rookie of the Year Award. He’d be the NL MVP the following season. Mike Olt did not play beyond 2015.
After the 2015 season Bryant filed a grievance, claiming that the Cubs acted in bad faith in keeping him in the minors, manipulating his service time. The hearing did not occur until this past October for some reasons, with the decision coming down today. The outcome, despite the ridiculousness of the underlying facts, should probably never have been in doubt. Major league clubs have complete and total power over when players can be called up. As such, even if it’s quite clear that the Cubs manipulated his service time for financial as opposed to baseball reasons and even if they blatantly lied about their reasons for keeping Bryant down on the farm, it was never particularly likely that the arbitrators would’ve ruled in Bryant’s favor. They were always likely to focus on the letter, rather than the spirit of the rules.
The practical effect of this: Bryant is a Cub through 2021, at least if the Cubs want to keep him. If, has been rumored, the Cubs want to trade him to cut payroll, they can likely get more in return for him given that he’s under club control for two, rather than just one more year.