Weird, Kris Bryant’s Not the Only One Concerned About Service Time Manipulation

Even before digital interconnectedness allowed words and images to be shared instantaneously across the globe, it was never a good idea to say the quiet part out loud. It’s an even worse idea when you’re at the head of a multi-billion organization that is part of an even bigger conglomerate and that just happens to be preparing for a major negotiation with its labor force later in the year.

Kevin Mather quickly vacated his position as Seattle Mariners president and CEO after the content of a Zoom call with the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club on Febrary 5 went public. His speech included inflammatory comments about foreign players featured a very transparent admission about how the organization planned to manipulate top prospect Jarred Kelenic. The consensus top player in the M’s system and a top-10 prospect in all of baseball, the 21-year-old had been projected by most to make the Opening Day roster this season.

“On the minor league side, Jarred Kelenic, we’ve been talking about him for a year and a half now,” Mather said. “He will be in left field in April. He’s a 21-year-old player who is quite confident. We offered him a long-term deal, six-year deal for substantial money with options to go farther. And after pondering it for several days and talking to the union, he has turned us down, and in his words, he’s going to bet on himself.

“He thinks after six years, he’s going to be such a star player that the seventh-, eighth-, ninth-year options will be undervalued. He might be right. He might be right. We offered and he turned us down.”

Mather not only admitted that the team was going to keep an impact player down in the minors at the start of the season, but that it would happen specifically because Kelenic turned down their offer. Gee, that sounds an awful lot like the kind of service-time manipulation the Cubs used with Kris Bryant, who spent a little time at the beginning of the 2015 season in Triple-A so he could “work on his defense.”

In what can only be described as a shocking coincidence, his glove was magically ready the day after enough time had passed so that he could not accrue a year of MLB service. One can only imagine how Bryant would have been another Nick Castellanos at the hot corner had it not been for those seven games in Iowa. In case you’re not familiar with the former Cub’s exploits at third base in Detroit, suffice to say there’s a reason they saw fit to make him a below-average corner outfielder.

There’s also a reason a grievance was filed on Bryant’s behalf in 2015 regarding his service time, a process that took almost five years to play out. And no, it’s not that Bryant hates the Cubs and wanted to expedite his departure from Chicago. In addition to being a matter of personal principle, Bryant wanted to fight on behalf of other players to end the “total money grab” of service-time manipulation in general.

“It was so obvious,” Bryant told Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic in 2019. “I think they’re going to do it to (Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.). ‘Oh, he’s gotta work on his defense.’ Stuff like that. But now I can look back on it and just laugh about it because I was told to work on my defense too and I think I got three groundballs in those games that I played. So it’s like, ‘Oh, now he’s ready.’”

Bryant’s far from the only player who’s been impacted by this particular brand of manipulation, which wipes its ass with the spirit of the rule even if it does technically abide by the letter. You see, an MLB regular season consists of 187 days (typically 183 prior to 2018), and each day a player spends on the active roster or injured list equals one day of service time. A player must accrue 172 days — either in one season or across multiple — in order to have reached one year of service time.

That’s important when you consider that a player becomes eligible for free agency upon reaching six years of service time. So the Mariners could keep Kelenic in the minors for 16 days and then call him up to Seattle, thereby reaping the benefits of his contributions for almost the whole season while gaining an extra year of contractual control. The Cubs only had to keep Bryant down for 12 days in 2015 due to the slightly shorter league year at that time.

Gerrit Cole is another player who was at odds with his original club when it came to his treatment under the terms of his rookie deal. Though it wasn’t quite the same, the Pirates threatened to lower his pay for 2016 if he didn’t agree to a flat salary even after he made the All-Star team and finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting the previous season. He’s done quite well for himself since, but he also realizes it’s not just about him.

“Every player should wake up and read the news,” Cole said Wednesday from Yankees camp. “That guy in the Mariners organization. Those conversations are being had in a lot of clubs, unfortunately, and that’s the kind of way a lot of clubs are acting,”

Ian Happ, who took over for Bryant as the Cubs’ union rep last season, shared similar sentiments earlier this week in Mesa, adding that it’s good for fans to hear these things. Even if they don’t know they’re carrying water for owners, too many fans are either blind to what goes on behind the scenes or view players as greedy when they speak out against certain labor practices.

“I think this is something that players have known for a long time has been happening in different places, at different times,” Happ said Tuesday. “Not just with the service time manipulation, but with the way free agency is viewed, and with just a number of the issues that were talked about.

“It’s not something that players are unaware of. And I’m glad that fans and more people are able to hear that and process it because as a fan of the game, you don’t want to think of your favorite players being viewed that way.”

Scott Boras, who represents Bryant and Cole along with Jake Arrieta and a large cache of high-profile players, may have actually put it best when it comes to why these shenanigans are bad for the game. Even if you subscribe to the notion that this stuff is technically legal and that it means keeping good players with a team for an extra year, it’s impossible to deny one very simple truth about leaving a potential star in the minors.

“All fans now know the best players of the organization are not on the field,” Boras said. “This is a manipulation of the game. They have to be protective of the integrity of it all.”

Bryant was the 2015 Rookie of the Year and helped carry the Cubs to an eventual NLCS berth, but what if he’d been on the field right from Opening Day? Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference in their 5-3 start or 97-65 final record. Or maybe he’d have outperformed Mike Olt‘s .521 OPS and 38 wRC+ while better carrying over the momentum from a hot spring training.

While such hypotheticals are obviously worthless, it’s a matter of wanting to see a team doing its best to compete right now rather than planning for six years down the road with a player who might not be there any longer. Hell, Bryant’s been involved in trade rumors for years because the Cubs haven’t really put in much of an effort to extend him and now find themselves left with uncertainty as to both his future and his value.

Many might see that as a simple matter of being unable to trade the third baseman, but Jed Hoyer has remained hopeful that he can work out extensions with Bryant and other Cubs who are rapidly approaching the conclusions of their respective deals. What’s more, the players themselves may be more hopeful about that possibility than at any point in the past. To repeat what I’ve shared here and elsewhere, there is absolutely zero truth to the idea that Bryant is unwilling to sign an extension.

There is, however, a great deal of truth to the idea that MLB teams are constantly trying to game the system in order to exploit as much financial value from their young players as possible. That’s within the rights granted them by the collective bargaining agreement, but it’s also the hammer driving a wedge between the league and players as the expiration of that CBA looms at the end of the current season.

Though it was obviously not his intent, Mather’s ill-advised comments may have actually provided the players union with a huge boost as it builds its case for upcoming negotiations.

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