As the start of the season quickly approaches, many Cubs fans are debating whether or not phenom prospect Kris Bryant is better served to start with the team on Opening Day or continue his development in the minors.
There’s no doubt that Bryant is one of the most exciting prospects that fans have seen in decades and the lineup would look much more imposing with him in it. With any player, there are warts to Bryant’s game and a little time in the minors to start the year may eliminate some of them. However, the choice to keep Bryant on the roster to start the year has nothing to do with this season or his development going forward, but rather how long do the Cubs get to keep him before free agency. If Bryant turns out to be as good as expected, let’s take a look at how long he may stay in a Cubs uniform.
When a player is added to a team’s 40-man roster and brought up to the majors, their service clock starts. An entry level baseball contract is six years generally, with the first three years, the team decides the player’s salary and in the final three years the player enters the arbitration process. In arbitration, the player is measured against his peers in the same time frame and receives a salary based on their value. A player can actually enter arbitration a season early if they qualify as a Super Two player.
A Super Two player is defined as one with more than two years of Major League service time, but less than three, has at least 86 days of service in the immediately preceding season and ranks among the top 22 percent of players in his service group. Obviously, if the player is an all-star, he can become very expensive through the arbitration process which is why you see many extensions like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro signed that buy out the arbitration years at a more affordable rate for the team. The Super Two determination date varies from season to season, but generally falls between June and July and is why you see many teams delaying the start of highly rated prospects service clocks to around those months.
However, with a player of Bryant’s caliber, the Cubs can’t really afford to keep him down in the minors long enough to avoid making him a Super Two player which is likely a certainty at this point. So why then is the front office likely delaying Bryant’s debut to April 17 or later?
A Major League season is on average 183 days, 162 games and 21 off days. If a player accrues 172 days in a season that is considered a full year. Anything less the team gains an additional year of control and the player goes through arbitration again. April 17 would be 171 days accrued for Bryant if he stayed in the majors the whole year.
A great recent example of this in action is Rick Porcello. He made the Detroit Tigers Opening Day roster in 2009 and thanks to an impressive rookie season, spent a full year with the team. In his sophomore season the following year, things did not go as well and Porcello spent 26 days at Triple-A in June, delaying his service clock. That 26 days made all the difference for Porcello, who did not meet the 172-day threshold that season and instead of gaining free agency last off-season will not hit the free agent market until after this season.
The issue of delaying a player’s service clock to gain an extra year of control has been a problem boiling over in baseball for a few years now. A lot of high profile players have taken their turn in the drama and Bryant is the latest. MLBPA leader Tony Clark was recently quoted saying that “at the end of the day, fans in the stands, everybody who has come here today, is excited about seeing the best players in the game. If, at the end of camp, Kris or any other young player suggests that he is prepared or equipped to make a contribution, we would love to see those guys on the field.” Clark also suggested that the Players Association is likely to address the topic in 2016 when the current collective bargaining agreement expires.
Clark’s frustration was reflected in Bryant’s agent Scott Boras comments who was quoted, “Everybody in baseball is saying he’s a Major League player ready for the big leagues. I have players call me. Executives call me. The Cubs’ people want him there. Everyone says, ‘They cannot send this guy down.’ It’s too obvious. This isn’t a system choice. This isn’t a mandate. This is a flat ownership decision. Do they really want to win here?”
It’s clear to see why players go with Boras as his agent. As seen in his quotes, he goes to bat for his players and takes the heat off of them in their quest to get top dollar in free agency. He’s a magician in that arena and has gotten crazy money for a variety of players, sometimes pulling money out of thin air from teams you didn’t even know were involved. Because of his wizardry, Boras usually has many of the top players in baseball in his stable and it’s easy to see why. To make money, he wants to get his players to free agency to maximize his investment in them and extensions have been few and far between for Boras.
Over the past few years, the only players that have signed extensions with the teams they debuted with are Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gonzalez, Jason Varitek and Jered Weaver.
Elvis Andrus is the most recent example and really shows what Scott Boras can do as he has signed two extensions in his time with the Rangers. The first extension came in 2012, for three years and $14.4 million. It was right before Andrus’ first arbitration season and ended buying out his arbitration years. The following season, Andrus signed an eight-year, $120 million extension to start this year that paid him a $2 million signing bonus and will pay him $15 million for the first six seasons and $14 million the final two. Also included in the deal is a vesting option for a ninth year that stipulates that if Andrus makes 550 plate appearances in the final year of 1100 combined appearances between the final two years on the deal, a $15 million team option vests for the ninth year.
If Andrus meets the criteria and then gets traded during the length of the deal, a $15 million player option vests for the ninth year, which could ultimately be a deterrent to trading Andrus, who will 34 in the ninth year of his contract. Andrus also has the option in the extension to choose to opt out in either 2018 or 2019 at age 29 or 30. All in all, the deal gives Andrus some security and a lot of money for a player whose game relies mostly on steals and playing solid defense and it is not considered by many to being even close to an elite shortstop.
Carlos Gonzalez’s deal follows a similar structure to the Andrus one as it aimed to give some security to a player who started to live up to his expectations, but had been traded before making his major league debut. Prior to signing the deal in 2011, Carlos Gonzalez had his best season and it earned him a seven-year, $80 million extension that bought his three arbitration years and first three years eligible for free agency. Boras also earned Gonzalez a $3 million signing bonus and a $1 million bonus in case Gonzalez gets traded during the deal. Gonzalez has been fairly injury prone since signing the deal and over the first three years of the contract has played a high of 135 games. If he continues to struggle with his health, it looks like a clear win for Boras and Gonzalez.
Unlike Andrus and Gonzalez, Jered Weaver signed an extension with the team who drafted him and did so for a hometown discount with the Angels for a five-year, $85 million deal. Weaver admitted at the time of the deal in 2011, that he went against Boras’ advice and probably signed for half of what he could have gained on the free agent market. Weaver who was from the Southern California area thought it was more important to stay where he was comfortable and Boras complied with his player’s demand.
Boras also did the same for Jason Varitek, who ended up playing his whole career with the Red Sox, but it’s little known that he opted to go to free agency four times before ultimately re-signing with the Red Sox, three of those times and retiring after the fourth. The first time in 2004, he signed a four-year, $40 million deal after spending almost two months on the free agent market. At the end of the 2008 season, Varitek entered free agency again and waited until February to re-sign to a contract that earned him one-year and $5 million with a $5 million team option or a $3 million player option with incentives for the following season. In 2011, he signed his final deal with the team for $2 million.
Although not an extension, the last deal to look at when considering Boras in regards to future negotiations with the Cubs and Kris Bryant is the recent two-year, $7.5 million deal signed by the Nationals’ Bryce Harper. Like Bryant, Harper was one of the most highly regarded hitters in his draft class and fast tracked to the majors. When signing with the Nationals in 2010, Harper signed a rare five-year major league deal worth $9.9 million including a $6.25 million signing bonus. Knowing that Harper had a chance to make it to the majors fairly quickly, the Nationals wanted a clause in the deal that did not allow Harper to opt out of the deal in order to enter arbitration before it ended. Boras and Harper wanted it included and threatened not to sign with the Nationals and re-enter the draft the following year.
To break the stalemate, MLB and the Players Association intervened and offered a compromise with a letter of agreement that stated if Harper qualified for salary arbitration before he reached the end of his contract, he could file for a grievance to determine if he could opt out early. With Harper arbitration eligible at the start of this season and heading for the hearing, Boras negotiated a settlement that earned Harper $2.5 million for this year and $5 million for the following season. Considering all the tumult already between the Nationals and Harper, it seems hard to fathom that Harper will consider a long-term deal when he’s eligible for free agency at 26 and will instead opt for a very rich contract.
With things currently contentious, it will be up to Bryant to prove to fans and the Cubs that he is the real deal. If Bryant makes good on his promise it will be interesting, based on the evidence presented, where he will lean when free agency looms. Here’s hoping that management can repair their already strained relationship between their soon to be star’s agent and keep Bryant around for a long time, because it appears the odds are already stacked against them.