Remember in 2015 when Kris Bryant, a top prospect in baseball, tore up Spring Training and was sent down to the minor leagues at the onset of the season? That sparked some confusion around the Cubs fanbase, but the decision was a logical long term strategy — keep Bryant down in the minors long enough so his service time will extend one year, resulting in him being a free agent in 2021. If the Cubs allowed Bryant to start the 2015 season in the majors, he would be a free agent after 2020, a year sooner. While this is an easy decision for a baseball executive, it did not go over well with Kris Bryant or the MLB Players Association, who both publicly stated how ridiculous the Cubs’ decision was to keep him down because he was far and away the best third baseman on the roster. Seeing as Bryant won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015, nobody can deny that he was. Bryant felt taken advantage of and is very unhappy with the situation, and rightfully so.
What makes Bryant’s case in this dispute even more compelling is the fact the Cubs promoted him the day after he was in the minor leagues for 12 days, which was the magic number that allowed his service time to extend to 2021 as opposed to 2020. On the flip side, Theo Epstein could defend this move because third basemen Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella both sustained injuries in those 12 days. He could contend that he wanted to keep Bryant down in the minor leagues longer than those 12 days for development purposes but had to promote him when there were no healthy third basemen on the roster. While this may be true, there is still no question that Bryant was a good enough ballplayer to be in the majors at the start of the 2015 season. This is a really messy situation, and having your team president and star player disputing over something like this is not a position the Cubs want to be in.
While I adamantly side with Bryant on this situation, and I’m sure most fans will, he is likely to lose this grievance. At best, he could receive a settlement that gives him more money the next two years but still keeps him out of free agency until after 2021. However, on the small chance he does win this grievance, Theo and co.’s entire two-year plan this offseason can effectively be thrown out the window. It would change how they engage trade discussions, whom they target in free agency, and how they even view the Cubs’ remaining competitive window. This decision has so many ramifications for the Cubs, it’s hard to fathom. Not only that, it would affect all of MLB with how organizations handle call-ups for top prospects.
Although Bryant has a compelling case, the Cubs will likely win the grievance because MLB does not want to force how organizations handle prospect development in the minors. That’s a slippery slope. In this specific instance, Theo and Jed Hoyer did just enough to be able to rationalize why they kept him down for 12 days and called him up when they did. After they win the dispute, they can tell themselves they successfully extended Bryant’s service time by one year with the decision they made in 2015. However, if Kris Bryant refuses to extend with the Cubs due to being taken advantage of by the heads of the organization, was it really worth it? The answer is no.
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