For those who anxiously await baseball season, opening day is a greeted as a pseudo holiday.  However, for players and teams opening day can be a stressful occasion when it comes to who makes and who does not make the major league roster, with prospects and veterans alike often getting sent down to the minors.  This year was no different, with several big name prospects being demoted despite appearing major league ready during spring training.  One of those big names was Kris Bryant, the twenty-three-year-old third basemen who torched through spring training, batting over .400 and belting nine home runs.

Bryant’s demotion has been met among fans and writers with a mix of disbelief and cynicism.  How exactly could a prospect of Bryant’s stature, who has seemingly nothing left to accomplish in the minor leagues not be worthy of a major league roster spot?  The answer to that depends on who you ask.  The Cubs have gone on record insisting that the demotion is about developing Bryant’s skill set, particularly his fielding.  However, an astute observer, keen to Major League Baseball free agency rules, might offer a more cynical assessment: that the Cubs are intentionally holding Bryant back to delay his entry into the free agency pool, and in the process maintaining player control, which is exactly the claim levied by the player’s union.

The free agency rules for baseball players are complicated.  Put simply, however, a player is not eligible for free agency until he has garnered a certain amount of service time in the majors.  As such, it behooves a major league club to hold their blue chip prospects back in the minors, even when they are clearly ready for the big leagues, to delay their inevitable opportunity to reach the free market; interestingly the Cubs need only hold Bryant in the minors for twelve days to postpone his eventual free agency by a year.

However, while the labor agreement between Major League Baseball and the player’s union is silent on holding back players to prevent the service clock from running, past arbitral decisions have held baseball teams accountable for acting in “good faith” in deciding whether a player should go to the minors or not.  Yet it has become one of the worst secrets in sports that teams do just that.  In cases such as Bryant, and numerous others throughout the years, there seems to be little argument that Bryant would not instantly improve the Cubs, thus holding him back would appear to be solely a service time consideration.  Accordingly, the silence in the labor agreement, coupled with service time demotions being almost generally accepted practice, would probably make for an uphill battle in any dispute raised by the union or Bryant.

Further muddying the waters here is that the Bryant has never, nor is a member of the Cubs forty man roster.  As such, he is not technically a union member protected by the labor agreement, but rather is a party to the less player favorable minor league agreement.  This would make any potential dispute raised by the union or Bryant difficult to win.  However, there is always the possibility that the parties raise a dispute for the purpose of keeping the Cubs and other teams on their toes, with the hope of preventing them from making such demotions in the future.  It also could be used as a negotiation point as the two sides negotiate a new labor agreement in 2016.  Either way, this seems like an issue which will continue to raise the ire of the union, players, and fans in the future and it will be interesting to see what, if any, legal challenges are on the horizon.

Kevin Cavino

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2 Responses to MLBPA Contemplates Legal Action Against the Cubs

  1. William Roberts says:

    The funny thing about this is that rookie players usually will be so happy to be called up when it happens, they likely tend to forget that they lost a year of control. The MLBPA needs to renegotiate this rule to push the control time limit back to a longer period. This would in turn make it harder for teams to leave their flowering players in minors when they could have a positive impact on the team.

  2. fjames says:

    The rule should be amended but until then I think Cubs are making +EV business decision. Call Bryant up 12 days later and gain an extra year of control before free agency—that seems like a no brainer. If Bryant misses first 10 games or so of season, its probably not going to dictate whether Cubs make playoffs.