Kris Bryant’s MVP Award is a reminder of the Cubs’ savvy but troubling service time manipulation
Kris Bryant just won the MVP Award a year after winning the Rookie of the Year Award. You didn’t need to know that in order to know that he’s a superior talent and one of the biggest stars in baseball, but those honors are certainly the cherries on top of the sundae. In Bryant, the Cubs have one of the best players in the game.
And, as you may recall, they’ll have control over him for a full season longer than they would’ve had if they actually treated him like the talent he clearly was at the outset of the 2015 season. That was when, despite being the 2014 Minor League Player of the Year and hitting moonshot homer after moonshot homer in spring training, the Cubs assigned him to Triple-A Iowa and gave the third base job to the clearly inferior Mike Olt.
At the time Cubs executives paid lip service to the flaws in Bryant’s game -- Maybe he needed some defensive seasoning? Maybe his contact rate was worrisome? -- but it that was clearly baloney. The Cubs were just keeping him in the minors for a couple of extra weeks in order to buy an extra year of control over Bryant before he’d become eligible for free agency. If you doubt that, you have to believe that he mastered those allegedly lacking skills in the most convenient time possible for the Cubs: Bryant finished his rookie season with 171 days of service time while a full season of service time is 172 days. How fortuitous!
Because of those 12 extra days in Iowa -- really, just because of that 12th day -- Bryant will now not be eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season, representing almost seven full seasons of team control instead of the six that normally gives a player his professional freedom. This is obviously not great for Bryant. And he knows it. The MLBPA filed a grievance against the Chicago on his behalf alleging bad faith service time manipulation which is still pending. But it’s fantastic for the Cubs.
Bryant made $625,000 this year and his contract can be renewed at whatever salary the Cubs want for 2017. Unless the rules change in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement he’ll be arbitration-eligible four times, before the 2018-2021 seasons. Assuming Bryant continues to be a superstar, that last arbitration year, 2021, may prove to be the most lucrative arbitration year in history, but it will still fall short of what Bryant could’ve earned on the open market as a free agent. Of course the Cubs and Bryant could very well reach a deal for a long-term contract extension well before then, but even if they do, the Cubs will have a year’s worth of leverage on Bryant in the negotiations that they would otherwise not have had. That year of team control matters no matter what happens.
No one should cry for Kris Bryant. Given his talent, he’s going to be astonishingly wealthy one way or another. But, because the Cubs were allowed, under the system, to trade 12 days in April 2015 for a full year of Kris Bryant’s prime, he’ll have to wait a bit longer and risk a bit more while he waits for that payday. And the Cubs will likely save some money and bank some time before having to pony up the big bucks to lock up their young superstar.