Kris Bryant, Ethics, and Unwritten Rules

Opening Day is upon us, and the last pre-season controversy (well, competing with the Josh Hamilton story and, wouldn’t you know it, Pete Rose again) has been over the treatment of Kris Bryant, a rookie third baseman for the Chicago Cubs widely thought to be the best prospect in baseball. Bryant seems likely to be better than any of the third basemen currently on the Cubs, especially since they traded their regular third baseman in what could only have been a deck-clearing move to make way for Bryant.

Yet Bryant will not be starting the season with the Cubs; he’ll be starting it in Des Moines, Iowa, with the Cubs’ minor league affiliate. As weird as that may seem, even weirder is that we know with reasonable certainty when he’ll be called up to the big-league club: on or about April 18, against the Padres, the Cubs’ tenth game of the season. It’s got to be ten, because of service time—the collective bargaining agreement’s determination of when a player hits free agency. Players start their major-league careers under team control, unable to sign with other teams (but able to increase their earnings through arbitration hearings or contract extensions). They become free agents after six years of service time. And because of how that six years is defined—in terms of days, with 172 days constituting a “year” of service—it’s in the team’s advantage to keep minor leaguers out of the major league roster long enough so that they don’t get to 172 days in a given year but have to wait until the next year. That extra few days in the minors means a whole ‘nother year until the team has to compete with others for the player’s services. Hence, Kris Bryant goes to Iowa.

Let’s start from the premise that this is dumb; I think everyone agrees with that. We would all prefer to see this exciting prospect on our TVs sooner rather than later, and whether this happens now or in two weeks should not make a year’s difference in when he hits free agency. So clearly the system needs to change. But a question a lot of people are asking is, given that the rules are what they are, is what the Cubs are doing with Bryant wrong? Or is it (regrettably, perhaps) acceptable, since the rules say that they can do it?

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