Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco have filed grievances against their teams alleging they were kept in the minor leagues unnecessarily and had their service time manipulated to delay future free agency, multiple major league sources told Yahoo Sports.
Potential service-time manipulation looms as a significant issue with Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association ramping up discussions on a new collective bargaining agreement after the current one expires Dec. 1, 2016. While neither case has yet to reach an arbitration panel, according to sources, the grievances indicate that players believe teams have not abided by the intention of service-time rules and operated in bad faith.
Bryant, the National League Rookie of the Year last season, debuted April 17 and finished the year with 171 days of service time. A full year of service comprises 172 days. The Cubs sent Bryant to Triple-A to start the season, and by calling him up when they did, they positioned themselves to stave off his free agency until 2021. Had Bryant played in their previous games and stayed on the major league roster for the next five seasons, he would hit free agency following the 2020 season.
Franco debuted in September 2014 and started the 2015 season at Triple-A. On May 12, the Phillies optioned their everyday third baseman, Cody Asche, to the minor leagues but didn’t recall Franco. He arrived May 15 and finished the season with 170 days of service.
The cases of Bryant and Franco, both 23, highlight the blurry line between teams operating within collectively bargained rules and using trumped-up rationale to retain players for an extra season beyond the six full years that precede free agency. The question of service-time manipulation long predates Bryant and Franco and is an inherent product of a system that bases free agency – as well as the extra year of arbitration known as Super 2 status – on days in the major leagues.
After Bryant led the major leagues with nine home runs in spring training, the Cubs sent him to Triple-A, arguing he needed to work on his fielding. The MLBPA sent out a press release that began: “Today is a bad day for baseball.” When Cubs opening day third baseman Mike Olt hit the disabled list with a right wrist fracture, Bryant came up to take his spot. Bryant played in 151 of the Cubs’ final 154 games, hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and helped lead Chicago to its first playoff appearance since 2008.
He filed his grievance in April, according to sources, while Franco – who spent most of the season batting third for the Phillies and finished with a .280/.343/.497 line and 14 home runs in 304 at-bats – submitted his later.
Either grievance ever reaching an arbitration panel is in question. Bargaining often includes discussions of open grievances and can include resolutions. Service time is a divisive enough issue that multiple sources on both sides continue to struggle with how to fix a system that the parties agree has been successful by and large but can penalize the best players.
“Sports is a business, and both sides are going to make the decisions they think suit their business aspirations and what they’re trying to accomplish,” said Ryan Royster, Franco’s agent. “We want to see things geared toward winning, and this isn’t just the Phillies. It’s all teams. The fans deserve to see the best product on the field, and the players deserve the best team surrounding them so they can win.”
Neither Cubs president Theo Epstein, Phillies nor Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, replied to requests for comment from Yahoo Sports. Phillies general manager Matt Klentak declined to comment.
The ultimate question for arbitrator Fredric Horowitz would concern whether teams acted in good faith, a thorny threshold that could prove difficult to demonstrate. The Bryant and Franco cases certainly aren’t outliers. Multiple other players considered filing grievances, sources told Yahoo Sports, including Houston Astros outfielder George Springer and Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco.
Springer and Polanco both were offered long-term contracts before their major league debuts. After Springer rejected a reported seven-year deal in September 2013, the Astros sent Springer to the minor leagues to start the 2014 season before calling him up April 16. He finished the 2015 season with one year, 166 days of service. Polanco didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh until June – more than a month after he turned down a seven-year deal.
Neither pursued a grievance, leaving Bryant and Franco as the test cases. Whether they ever reach the point of resolution – or how they could be resolved while placating the sides of both player and team – remains an open question and one with significant implications. If Bryant or Franco continues on a star track, an extra year in their prime would be worth tens of millions of dollars.