On March 30th, the Chicago Cubs assigned wunderkind slugger Kris Bryant to its minor league affiliate in Iowa, rather than bringing him north from spring training for MLB’s opening day. Bryant – the consensus number one prospect in professional baseball – completely annihilated Cactus League pitching this spring, with a league-leading 9 homers in 40 at-bats and a slash line of .425/.477/1.175. Bryant’s assignment to Iowa was met with strong reaction from the Major League Baseball Players Association which issued the following statements via Twitter:
The implication from the players association and others is that the Cubs had an ulterior motive for sending Bryant to the minor leagues, i.e. due to a longstanding wrinkle in the collective bargaining agreement, delaying Bryant’s promotion to the major leagues for the Cubs’ first 8 games of the season – indeed, the Cubs called up Bryant to the majors on April 17th (and he has continued crushing the ball to the tune of a .409/.552/.591 slash line) – allows the Cubs to keep Bryant’s contractual rights for an additional season. Instead of being able to declare free agency after the 2020 season, Bryant will become free-agent eligible no sooner than after the 2021 season. Essentially, by delaying Bryant’s promotion, the Cubs traded eight games of Bryant in 2015 for an entire season of Bryant in 2021.
Both the Cubs and certain pundits have defended Bryant’s non-promotion as justifiable for the purpose of Bryant’s development, such as to improve his defensive skills. However, it is unclear precisely what defensive skills (or other parts of his game) Bryant was made to “work on” between opening day and April 17.
Bryant is not the first young prospect to be held in the minors by his club for the alleged purpose of delaying the player’s service time. Teams have been accused of doing this in order to either delay a player’s free agency or arbitration eligibility, and occasionally players have filed grievances against their clubs that have done so. While transcripts of these grievances are not made public, one can assume that players have accused MLB clubs – who are given a great deal of deference for promotion/demotion decisions in both the CBA and standard player contracts – of violating the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in the standard player contract. But while allegations of “service-time games” against clubs are not novel, it is difficult to recall a minor league player who was held back after so convincingly dominating every level of minor league competition and then statistically outperforming – arguably – every other participant in major league spring training.
I will not speculate here on the likelihood of success if the MLBPA or Bryant’s agent (Scott Boras) files a grievance on behalf of Bryant. Other authors have so speculated. The question I pose is whether there is a viable alternative system for determining free agency that can prevent conflicts like this from reoccurring, without causing unintended negative consequences.
Regardless of whether one sympathizes with the Cubs (and MLB) or Bryant (and the MLBPA) on this issue, it is easy to find fault with the current linkage between service time and free agency. Regardless of whether you believe the Cubs in this instance, this linkage clearly provides clubs with iniquitous incentives. Clubs are incentivized to potentially hold back even the most “ready” of their best young players – something not seen in the other major professional U.S. team sports. And thus, aspiring major league players, MLB fans, and potentially the clubs (e.g. if they lose games they could have won with the rookie player) suffer.
So I’d like to propose a solution for MLB and the MLBPA to kick around before the next round of negotiations: end (or substantially limit) the linkage between service time and free agency. Right now, players are eligible for free agency after amassing 6 years of service time. This is the case regardless of whether they are 25 or 35 or 45 years old. Why not instead allow all players – regardless of service time – to file for free agency upon reaching a certain age?
This plan is inherently neither management-friendly nor union-friendly. Who is favored under such a rule would depend on the “free agent age” that the sides negotiate. For example, it would likely be quite league-friendly to say that all players become eligible for free agency at age 35, and it would likely be quite player-friendly for the CBA to provide that all players become eligible for free agency at 25. Somewhere in the middle, however, there is a “fair” age for free agency that both sides can live with. [n.b. however, there may be some not-so-obvious advantages for MLB clubs if the “free agent age” were not too high, particularly for clubs who have the financial wherewithal to frequently dip into the free agent market. While some MLB clubs would be primarily concerned with losing team control over players at too young an age, others would prefer if most of the available high-end free agents were not on the “wrong side of 30.” The thinking here is that if the entire supply of free agents consists of players in their decline years, teams would artificially drive up the market by signing “bad contracts” to older players, expecting them to repeat their peak years]
Clearly, details would need to be hashed out. For example, this system would probably have to be phased in over time (e.g. becoming effective as to all players who sign their first-year player contract in or after 2015). Moreover, either side might object on the grounds that this would flood the market with free agents. Perhaps, if an excess of free agents were a concern, there could be some nominal service time quota to prevent “late bloomers” who have one great season from immediately hitting free agency before their clubs lose contractual control.
Regardless, even if the parties to collective bargaining hate my idea, I am hopeful that the interested parties will immediately begin brainstorming for creative alternatives to the current, system for determining free agency eligibility. While on the macro-level, the game is flourishing financially and player salaries are at an all-time high, I would argue that has happened in spite of – not because of – the current system of free agency. Now that we are well into a 20+ year period of relative baseball labor peace, there is no need to maintain vestiges of former CBAs that needlessly put clubs at odds with their players and fans, as I believe this system does.