Five of the top 25 prospects in all of baseball took the field with their respective teams on Major League Baseball Opening Day. However, several years before Julio Rodriguez, Spencer Torkelson, Bobby Witt Jr.., Hunter Greene and other members of a stellar 2022 class of rookies to graduate from their camps as Major League Baseball players, we had the case of Chris Bryant.
Bryant, who just played against his old team on April 17, coinciding with the seventh anniversary of his major league debut with the Chicago Cubs, has been the poster child for service-time manipulation, a phenomenon that has long been he has kept top-tier prospects in the minors, instead of allowing them to start the season with their major league teams.
During recent CBA negotiations between players and team owners, the Union held up Bryant’s case as an example of a broken system. One of the top priorities for the Players Association this year was to implement changes that would benefit the young stars of tomorrow.
Bryant was taken by the Cubs with the second overall draft pick in 2013, out of the University of San Diego, and wasted no time in picking up Minor League Player of the Year honors the following season. In the spring of 2015, Bryant broke into the Cactus League hitting .425. Later, he led the majors with nine home runs in spring training. However, instead of going to the big team in Chicago, he was dispatched to Triple-A Iowa as a 23-year-old prospect, with the intention of “getting into a good rhythm defensively,” according to the then president of the Cubs organization. Theo Epstein.
Bryant was promoted less than two weeks later, accumulating 171 days of service by the end of the year. As a result, he was one day short of the time needed to count a full season of service, delaying his free agency for an entire season.
The third baseman won the National League Rookie of the Year award, earning the prorated minimum salary of $570,500. The following season, Bryant lifted the National League MVP and World Series title with the Cubs. He earned $652,000.
Following his rookie season, Bryant and his representatives filed a grievance with the league, claiming that Bryant’s nearly complete (and incredibly productive) 2015 season should be included in his tally of six years under the organization’s control. After losing that case in a January 2020 arbitration ruling, Bryant became a free agent in the just-concluded offseason to sign a seven-year, $182 million contract with the Colorado Rockies.
Bryant’s defeat in the grievance procedure helped many players find common ground during the recent lockout.
“When we went to the hearing, I told Kris there was no way an umpire would legislate new rules,” says Scott Boras, Bryant’s agent. “This step would lay the foundations to overcome the thesis of the Commissioner’s Office that indicates that, if there is a true manipulation of the service time, a complaint resource would serve to resolve any improper conduct.”
“The ‘Bryant Rule’ was created on the basis of the fact that no referee would, in fact, legislate new rules as evidenced by the clear and factual premise that it clearly illustrated the existence of service time manipulation. It was used boldly , affirming that there was no rule that prevented it and this was stated in the testimony given at the hearing”.
So, during contract negotiations last winter, the Union lobbied hard against the manipulation of service time. The League and the Union have agreed to implement several changes with a view to the future:
Regardless of when a player is promoted from the Minor Leagues, he will be awarded a full year of service if he finishes first or second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
The newly implemented system will reward teams with extra draft picks if they promote their top prospects on Opening Day. A player who receives a full year of service time and finishes in the top three of the voting for Rookie of the Year or the top five for the Cy Young or Most Valuable Player will earn his team an additional selection spot in the draft, after the first round.
A new pre-arbitration bonus pool will allow the best players in a class of prospects to significantly improve their pay based on their performance on the field, despite being in the early years of their contract to go to arbitration. The top 100 players according to a WAR-based formula and end-of-season prize winners will share $50 million each year.
Although all of the above comes too late to help Kris Bryant, the next Kris Bryant stands to benefit greatly from these deals.
“It’s good to see some changes in that aspect,” Bryant told ESPN this spring. “It feels good that guys are being paid better for what they do on the ground. If I paved the way, that’s great.”
There is perhaps no other rookie in the class of 2022 whose track record more closely resembles Bryant’s than that of Detroit Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson. A No. 1 draft pick by the Tigers organization in 2020 after a college career that rewrote the record books with Arizona State, Torkelson dominated the Minor League last season, using his power swing to hit 30 home runs and driving in 91 runs in 121 games.
Like Bryant with the Cubs in 2015, Torkelson is the face of a wave of young players stirring excitement within the Tigers organization at the thought of several years as a contender on the horizon. Unlike Bryant, Torkelson made his major league debut for Detroit on Opening Day earlier this month, instead of spending more time in the minor leagues to gain more experience.
Torkelson, 22, is well aware of the Bryant situation, as well as the Union’s struggle during the offseason.
“The younger players appreciate the work the veterans have done, not only on their behalf, but also fighting for the younger generation,” Torkelson says. “They were us at one point, and they wanted us to have a fair shot, too.”
Executives from the various Major League teams have spent several years caught in the middle of that struggle, weighing the immediate advantage on the field of having their best players play 162 games against the long-term benefits of a system that rewarded late players. debuts.
“As an industry, we shouldn’t be stopping these kids from becoming stars,” says Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. “It does not escape me, with this new Collective Agreement, that we saw more cases [de prospectos cotizados ascendiendo a sus equipos grandes] this year. It could just be that we’re managing an extraordinary group of players, or it could be because these two planets aligned.”
Dipoto insists that Julio Rodriguez, the first prospect in the Mariners organization who also started the season on Seattle’s roster, made the team big because of his level of play, and that he also got promoted because Seattle included him on its roster. 40. This happened last season, in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. The veteran executive insisted on this difference when comparing Rodriguez’s situation with Bryant’s.
“The biggest hype we hear is service time, service time, service time,” says Dipoto. “The problem is the options. Julio is a 40-year-old roster player. The day he goes to the Minor Leagues, you are burning an option. Once he is part of [del roster de] 40, there is no real decision to make.”
Teams only have three seasons in which they can choose to send a player to the Minor Leagues, and another novelty in the Collective Agreement is the inclusion of a rule that limits teams to five player options per season.
This philosophy regarding Rodriguez’s position on the roster represents a change from the way the Mariners organization treated their outfield prospect. Jarred Kelenic, protagonist of the debate on manipulation of service time last year. After Kelenic started the 2021 minor league season, comments made publicly by then-president Kevin Mather made it clear that his sole intention was to extend the team’s control over Kelenic after he rejected a contract extension offer. Kelenic, who was in no danger of making the Rule 5 draft, was not included on the 40-man roster until last May, when he made his major league debut.
While it is true that the changes implemented so far appear to be fulfilling their objectives, it remains to be seen whether these novelties in the Collective Agreement will produce any unforeseen consequences. The biggest tentative sequel would be if teams end up keeping players longer, in order to make sure they don’t have enough time in the big leagues to rank high in Rookie of the Year voting. A team could have a highly productive midseason while still being able to retain him for that extra year, despite the loss of draft picks.7
“I’m interested to see how this all plays out,” says Bryant. “Hopefully it doesn’t lead to worse behavior, in which they hide a player four times to deny him [la oportunidad]. But all that remains to be seen.”
Even with six of this year’s top prospects making their Opening Day debuts, there was one notable exception: Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz, ranked 13th on Kiley McDaniel’s preseason Top 100. The 6-foot-7 infielder made headlines with his long-distance home runs during spring training. Despite this, Cruz began the season playing in Triple-A, leaving a crowd waiting to see his brightest young star in the Major Leagues.
Despite this, the advances made by the Union in terms of money earned daily by the best players already playing in the Majors are undeniable.
Bryant mentions pitcher case Corbin Burnes2001 National League Cy Young winner as the perfect example. “Burnes was worth five times what the Brewers paid him last season,” says Bryant.
In his fourth year with the Milwaukee organization, Burnes went 11-5 with a 2.43 ERA and led all pitchers with 7.5 WAR according to the FanGraphs formula. However, due to the fact that he is still in the pre-arbitration phase, the right-hander only earned a salary of $608,000. After the changes made to Collective Bargaining, if the Brewers ace wins the award again in 2022, he would get a bonus, which Bryant didn’t get after his award-winning 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Bryant knew he had little chance of winning his grievance, even at the time he filed it. However, the change needed a visible face and his case brought an important issue for young players to the fore.
“Going through all of it, I knew it wasn’t necessarily going in my favor,” Bryant said. “It was very unlikely that all this would end up favoring me. I assumed it thinking: ‘I must do it for those who will come after me'”.
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The end of service time manipulation in MLB? How Kris Bryant paved the way for the next Kris Bryant