As you are probably aware, the Chicago Cubs have a player named Kris Bryant. He's very good at baseball. He hit seven home runs in ten games this spring, including one off Felix Hernandez, the consensus pick for the second-best pitcher in baseball. Veteran baseball reporter Buster Olney described them as "like they were dropped out of a plane." Fellow baseball reporter Michael Baumann says that he "represents the next step in human evolution" and is "one of the four or five most handsome men I’ve ever seen." Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, says he has "stupid pop." A friend describes him as “Roy Hobbs, basically."
So of course he's going to start 2015 in Iowa. This is not unusual; teams do this to their best rookies basically every year. What's different about Bryant is that, this time around, people are actually upset about it.
The reason behind sending Bryant to the minors is pretty simple. Teams get to control rookies for their first six years, three paid at around the major-league minimum. If they keep a player off the roster long enough, they basically get an additional year of team control—because the first partial year doesn't count.
So the next time you’re on Cot’s Baseball Contracts trying to figure out how much service time a player has, take a look at the section below their contract information that says "Service Time: 2.130". In this example, it means the player in question has accrued 2 years and 130 days of service time (as calculated during the most recent off season, I believe). While before that may have been indecipherable gibberish, now you should know enough to say, “Oh, that player is under team control for another four seasons.” Player’s don’t become free agents until the winter after they roll over to 6.000, so if you end the year at 5.171 [one year of service time equals 172 days], your rights belong to your team for another full season.
At least we got a good joke out of all this:
Love the Kris Bryant debate as it reminds me of the joy I felt as a child reading my favorite Matt Christopher book: pic.twitter.com/nIMg6qdG3e
— FuzzBeed Eli (@EliGieryna) March 16, 2015
None of this is remotely new. It probably won't hurt the Cubs very much, either; this reasonable calculation suggests that holding Bryant out, even if he's going to have a great season, would cost them 0.185 wins. Meanwhile, holding him out, by another reasonable calculation, could save the Cubs $15 million. But this time around, it has baseball fans heated up in a way I don't remember ever seeing before.
Like Michael Baumann:
Purposefully delaying Bryant’s free agency amounts to transferring wealth from Bryant to his employer. Until Bryant reaches free agency, he won’t be able to earn full market value or be paid in a manner that reflects the true worth of his labor…. If the Cubs keep Bryant in the minors, it’ll be the result of a multibillion-dollar industry with a legal monopoly enriching its owners at the expense of its young, undercompensated labor force.
Or Mike Petrillo at the baseball-savant site Fangraphs, who calls the service-time system "broken”:
That’s really the main issue here, that the union has spent years bargaining away the rights of amateurs they don’t even represent, both domestically and globally. But let’s say, for the moment, that they do have an interest in resolving this situation, that beyond the PR aspect of it, the sooner they can get a top prospect like Bryant to the bigs, the sooner he can get to free agency and make some real money.
Or Sam Miller, at the similarly prominent baseball-nerd site Baseball Prospectus, arguing that we should "shame" the Cubs:
If we quit talking about how smart the Cubs are for this decision and instead complained about how unhappy it makes us, if we shamed them for observing the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the game, this conversation might quit happening. And we’d get what we want.
(For what it's worth, this seems like a hard argument to make. Not seeing Kris Bryant on Sunday night, after he had the best spring of anyone in baseball on the heels of a preposterous season at the highest level of the minors, doesn't make anyone happy. But six years from now, perhaps seeing a much better 29-year-old Bryant alongside $15 million worth of teammate, that could be enjoyable—something the Cubs know, and know they'd be burned by fans and the media for in 2021 if they forgot.)
Or Fox Sports's famously bowtied Ken Rosenthal:
When the best players are not in the majors, it's bad for baseball. When service-time shenanigans become an annual topic of discussion, it's bad for baseball. When teams cannot be transparent with young players — and when those players come to spring training knowing they can be Babe Ruth and not make the Opening Day roster — it's bad for baseball.
On ESPN's Outside the Lines today, Bob Ley convened an all-star panel—Curt Schilling, Doug Glanville, Christina Kahrl, and Jeff Passan—to ask whether it's "good for the game." It seems hard to argue that it's good for the game in any way, but we're talking about it a lot, which is novel. We're also talking about it not too long before the collective bargaining agreement expires, at the end of next season, so don't be surprised if Bryant's absence from the beginning of this season is an issue.
What no one can figure out is who to blame. The Cubs? They're a popular target, but provided they don't keep all the savings from Bryant's service time, they could afford another good player. The union? They don't represent Bryant, or players like him, since they're not in the majors yet. And as a result, they represent guys whose piece of the pie gets smaller if the young guys get paid sooner. (Rob Neyer goes so far as to argue that that the Major League Baseball Players Association's rhetorical support of Bryant is just to make him feel warm and fuzzy about the union for when he becomes an established star. And it's an interesting question for the MLBPA: do they represent the best interests of current major league baseball players, or future ones as well?)
But there's a year and a half to figure it out before the rules can be renegotiated. There's time to take all the feelings and suggestions—Petrillo and Rosenthal have ideas for fixes—and turn them into bargaining chips and goals. If that happens, Kris Bryant will have changed the majors—by not yet being a part of them.