Even in professional sports, it’s difficult to violate the rules by following the rules.
Spring training is just around the corner — pitchers and catchers report Feb. 12 and the rest of the players are scheduled to arrive a week later.
Among those showing up at the Chicago Cubs’ camp in Arizona — if he’s not traded first — will be third baseman Kris Bryant.
A talented player who will earn $18 million-plus this year, Bryant is nursing a wound he recently received when he lost a grievance challenging his contractual relationship with the team.
As a consequence, Bryant won’t be eligible to become a free agent until after the 2021 season. Had he won the grievance, Bryant would have been eligible for free agency after this coming season.
Some fans may not recall, but Bryant’s status with the Cubs became a controversy in 2015 when the team sent him down to Class AAApt before the start of the season.
Then 23, Bryant did not make the team even after hitting .425 with nine home runs and 15 RBI in 14 spring-training games.
It was obvious why the Cubs did it. Among other things, they wanted to extend the time they controlled Bryant’s services by another year — to the end of the 2021 season, not 2020.
That required them sending Bryant down to the minors even though he was a budding star at the major league level.
The issue involves “service time.”
The rules require a player have at least six full years of service in order to become a free agent and test the market. To qualify for a service year, a player must have at least 172 days of time in a single season.
So the Cubs sent Bryant down just long enough to ensure that he wouldn’t have 172 days and that they would, as a consequence, extend his free-agency deadline for another year.
Bryant charged that the Cubs had “manipulated” the rules and he should be given credit for the year he was denied. The Cubs denied it. Somewhat implausibly, they contended that the move was made strictly on the merits, not service time.
Whatever the arbitrator really thought of the Cubs’ claims, Bryant lost.
Unfair in a general sense? Perhaps.
But his argument about manipulating the rules is inherently flawed because another way of characterizing the Cubs’ action is to point out that they followed the rules. It was to their benefit, to be sure. But teams are not required to be stupid or oblivious to circumstances when they make personnel decisions that have significant long-term consequences.
Baseball is big business, and Bryant’s dispute with the Cubs has potentially huge financial consequences for him and the team. Bryant’s resentment over his handling is understandable, but Cubs fans can take solace in a big team win before the season even starts.