Bryant not the first to feel impact of free agency rules

By Shane Nicholson
Managing Editor

Baseball has plenty of complicated rules when it comes to its labor contract. One is pretty simple, though: a player earns a year of service time after spending 172 days on the major league roster.

Chicago_cubs_logoThe wording is in black and white; the areas around it are many shades of grey, and Cubs super-prospect Kris Bryant has fallen into the mire as the behind the scenes battle on when to call him up to the big club has waged on.

Agent Scott Boras, who represents Bryant among many other top players in the sport, fired the first volley on The Dan Patrick Show yesterday, saying, “I think the integrity of the game requires that we do not let advantages to individual clubs get in the way of the overall scope of what Major League Baseball stands for.

“And it’s that principle: The best players play in the big leagues. And when there is a known and obvious player that is clearly a major league talent, and a talent who is a rare power hitter, and when fans go to watch the Cubs play … they’re going to know the Chicago Cubs team is not whole because one of their best talents is not on the team for reasons of business practices.

“I don’t think that’s good for Major League Baseball.”

Boras, who makes his money doing things that many would consider not “good for Major League Baseball,” was obviously just doing his job. If Bryant breaks camp with the Cubs his service time starts, almost certainly moving up his first foray into free agency a full calendar year. Boras gets paid when his clients get paid, and the more opportunities he can give them to get paid the better it is for business.

Cubs owner Tom Ricketts returned shots with the most I don’t care; this is our business plan and it’s what we’re going to do response imaginable. President Theo Epstein took it a step further on Comcast Sports Net yesterday.

“I have a lot of respect for Scott, and he by and large does a great job for his clients,” Epstein said.

“The only part about it that bothers me is that he certainly could have picked up the phone before going to the national media about this. He never once called me and asked me if Kris would make the team or anything about his situation. So just from a personal level and professional respect, that would have been something that I would have done if I was in his shoes.”

The personal spat out of the way, Epstein continued: “I’ve never put a young prospect in a position to make his major league debut on Opening Day. Opening Day, when it is cold out and there is a lot of attention and even veteran players don’t feel like themselves, they’re not quite into the flow of the season yet.

“I’ve never done it, and it’s always been for baseball reasons. This is not a different situation than we’ve faced in the past, so let’s make the best decision for the Chicago Cubs and for Kris Bryant’s development.”

Much like it’s in the best interests of Boras (and arguably Bryant) to see his client make the Opening Day roster, it is in the best interests of the Cubs organization to see Bryant’s first round of free agency – one which will, if he fulfills his promise, be quite expensive for whoever acquires his services – pushed back as far as possible so long as it doesn’t hold them back on the field.

Boras has spent time trying to paint this as a wholly unique affair. How dare an organization on the verge of competing hold down a once-in-a-generation talent like Bryant? How can they possibly plan to draw fans out to the park? How can they expect to even compete?!

The truth is this exact scenario played out just five short years ago.

Buster Posey, not yet a National League MVP and 3-time World Series winner (and not a Boras client), was caught between a rock and a hard place when the Giants started the 2010 season. He’d spent 33 days on the major league roster at the end of 2009 and beginning 2010 in San Francisco would be all but a guarantee that his service clock would roll over to free agency in 2014, not 2015.

The Giants started the year with Bengie Molina as their No. 1 option behind the plate. He was bad. Not historically bad – he actually played worse for Texas after being traded July 1 – but bad enough that his performance, especially weighted against what Posey provided after his May 29 call up, would have almost certainly seen the Giants miss out on the playoffs and their first World Series title since moving to the West Coast in 1958.

In the end, the Giants won the NL West by 2 games over the Padres. Posey finished the season with some Rookie of the Year hardware. Molina finished the season in Arlington, Texas. The Giants were world champions.

For all their posturing the Giants came out ahead. Barely.

Delaying Posey’s arrival any further could easily have cost them another game or two in the standings. It was a fine line to walk but history doesn’t remember that; it remembers the Giants winning their first title in their recent run–one orchestrated by Brian Sabean and his front office team; one built around making hard decisions like whether to open the season with a sure fire All-Star behind the plate or to see out the long term business plan; to ensure the Giants’ core would have the chance to stick together just that little bit longer; and to give the team every chance to compete year after year.

The same choice is on the line now in Chicago, and despite Boras’s objections the Cubs led by Epstein are going to execute the model they’ve spent the last few years laying out. It’s not about winning this year; it’s about giving the Cubs the most chances to win over many years. And retaining the rights to core players such as Bryant for as long as possible is a key part of that.

Boras can get behind all the mics he wants, but until the next labor negotiations are undertaken this rule isn’t going to change. The only thing Cubs fans can hope for in the meantime is that a suddenly rejuvenated squad on the North Side doesn’t miss out on a playoff appearance like the 2010 Giants nearly did.

Losing one of those coveted chances to secure a ring would be antithesis to everything Epstein has said since arriving in Chicago. If it is the case that the Cubs fall painfully short of a playoff birth, and a void at third base while waiting for Bryant’s debut is the reason, then and only then can questioning the judgement of Theo become the issue.

Until then, it’s nothing but a rule that Boras didn’t care about until recently because it didn’t affect one of his high-profile clients.

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