Arbitration MLB Players MLB Teams Sports Business

Kris Bryant v. Chicago Cubs

            Earlier this week the baseball world received the decision heard around the world…an impartial arbitrator decided against Kris Bryant, and in favor of the Chicago Cubs, regarding the star player’s 2015 service time grievance. 

            The decision is quite obviously a loss for Bryant and the players, but to put a positive spin on a bad situation, this decision will undoubtedly continue the conversation against service time manipulation by Major League clubs. 

            The problem is deeply rooted within the Basic Agreement (more commonly known as the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”)), and the process by which the Teams and Players determine the grievance procedures and service time standards for all Major League players. 

Collective Bargaining Agreement Primer

Article XI of the CBA, defines the process by which a grievance is filed by a Player or MLB team and either heard or settled. 

In the case of Kris Bryant, his now famous service time grievance was filed in accordance with Section B of Article XI, which defines the procedures by which a Player may file a grievance against a Major League team. 

Bryant first filed his grievance after a 2015 rookie campaign which yielded a .275/.369/.488 slash line as well as 26 home runs in 650 plate appearances. Bryant’s rookie season also produced an All-Star Game appearance, Rookie of the Year award, and an 11th place finish in the NL MVP voting at just 23 years old. 

The Cubs called Bryant up to the Major Leagues on April 17, 2015, after he dominated at Triple-A for the first two weeks of the season. The Cubs made this decision with intent in order to limit Bryant’s Service Time for the 2015 season, and therefore, ensure that Bryant remains in team control through the 2021 season as opposed to November 2020. 

One year of Service Time is defined by Article XXI of the CBA as 172 days on the Major League Club’s Active List each day of a championship season. By the start of the 2016 season, Bryant had 0.171 service time or 171 days on the Cubs’ Active List. This strategic move by the Cubs President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, and the Cubs’ brass, allowed the team to retain control of Bryant’s contract for one more season. This move by the Cubs gave rise to the grievance filed by Bryant. 

Let’s take a closer look at the collectively bargained process by which Player’s can file a grievance: 

Step 1: The Player’s Initial Grievance with the Team

  1. A Player must first discuss, with his respective Team, any matter which a Player believes gives rise to a justifiable grievance.
  2. If Player and Team cannot reach a settlement, the Player (along with his representatives and potentially the MLBPA) must provide written notice to the team within 45 days of the occurrence of the event in questions OR within 45 days from the date of which facts became known or reasonably should have been known
  3. The Team must render its decision to the Player within 10 days; the Player has 15 days to appeal the matter to Major League Baseball’s Labor Relations Department (“LRD”), otherwise it is considered settled.

Step 2: The Player’s Appeal to the Labor Relations Department

  • The Player and the LRD have 35 days to discuss the matter in questions. Within these 35 days both sides may exchange any documents or other pertinent evidence. 
  • The LRD must provide a decision within 10 days of meeting with the Player. 
  • If the Player is unsatisfied with the result, he may appeal the matter to an arbitration panel for a final and complete decision within 15 days of the LRD’s decision; otherwise, the matter is considered settled. 

Step 3: The Player’s Appeal to the Arbitration Panel 

  • Specifically, the Player must appeal a matter to the Panel Chair.  The Panel Chair is an impartial arbitrator agreed to between the Player (and his representatives) and the LRD. 
    • Note: If Player-LRD cannot agree on a Panel Chair, the matter will be heard before the American Arbitration Association. However, at any point before a hearing, the parties may request a three-person panel preside over the hearing made up of: 
      • Impartial Arbitrator
      • Arbitrator chosen by the Player/MLBPA
      • Arbitrator chosen by the LRD 
  • The Panel Chair shall attempt to open the matter for hearing within 1-year of filing of the grievance. 
    • Note: If the Panel Chair cannot do so, an Alternate Panel Chair shall preside over the hearing. 
  • The person (or people) presiding over the hearing shall render a decision “as soon as practicable.” 
  • The decision of the Panel shall constitute a full, final, and complete disposition

You might be wondering why, given the time constraints detailed above, the Bryant decision has been on-going since 2015. Well, thanks to one sentence in Section F of the Article covering grievances, “each of the time limits set forth [in this Article] may be extended by mutual agreement of the parties involved.” This clause can play favor to both parties to the CBA, however, it clearly allows for grievances to be dragged out over a period of time when a decision can be rendered more expeditiously. 

Given that the CBA dictates that the arbitrator’s decision full and final, Bryant is at a loss for options. Although the Cubs will never say that this is outright manipulation of the Service Time rules, it is clear that this situation exposes a flaw in the system. 

Fixing the CBA

The answer, of course, is complicated, and goes beyond just fixing the CBA, but rather, the length of MLB Player Contracts as well. The standard MLB Player Contract is 6 years, with players becoming eligible for arbitration after accumulating 3 or more years of MLB Service Time (but less than 6 years); Super Two player become eligible for arbitration with at least 2 years of MLB Service Time but less than 3. 

MLB is unique from most other sports in that all player go through a Minor League system prior to reaching the Major League level. Initial player contracts are so long because players need time to develop on the field and off and show they are worth of a big contract.

Chances are, the current Service Time regime will remain in place. However, small changes can be made to prevent Teams from manipulating the system. 

            Here are some crazy, off-the-cuff suggestions for how to combat this problem in baseball, which not only deprives the fans, but also, deprives players of achieving their dreams and earning a significant salary bump. 

1) Major League-Minor League Liaison

For example, just like a neutral arbitrator is appointed to decide grievances, maybe a neutral person can be appointed with consent from the LRD and the MLBPA to oversee service time. This hypothetical person, acting almost as a judge, can oversee the various transactions across the league, interpret statistics, and establish a baseline for players that should be called up to The Show versus remain in the Minor League. This Major League-Minor League Liaison position would have to be established by the Professional Baseball Agreement and incorporated by reference in the CBA and Major League Rules and Regulations.   

2) Checks and Balances             

            The MLB can establish a panel or department to oversee service time and regulate it. Any decision made by the Club to keep a player in the Minor Leagues can be appealed to this board (that is made up of people similar to those in the Arbitration Panel). The Board would then render a decision considering MiLB statistics, competitiveness of the MLB franchise, and whether the evidence overwhelmingly supports calling a player up to the Major Leagues. If a decision of the Board is unsatisfactory, the Commissioner would have the ultimate decision on a player’s status. 

3) Deadlines

            In the next CBA (the current one ends in 2021), a deadline can be imposed by which players will be afforded a full year of service is called up by X date. This prevents teams from imitating the Cubs model with Bryant, and it helps get star players to the league quicker. 

The then-first year General Manager of the New York Mets, Brodie Van Wagenen made a bold statement in the winter of 2018 when he proclaimed that Mets stud prospect Pete Alonso would have every opportunity to start on the Big League team on Opening Day. Brodie ignored all precedent and threw service time manipulation out the window, rightly so. Maybe Brodie will start a trend, maybe he won’t. Star players deserve to be in the league as soon as they are ready, service time aside. However, given the current constraints of the CBA and the process put in place, can we blame Teams for taking advantage of the rules put in front of them?