The Cubs and Kris Bryant: following the rules, manipulating them or both?

MLB

After all the debates, arguments, anger, rhetoric, defensiveness, explanations, excuses and rants, it comes down to the one simple question regarding the Chicago Cubs and third base prospect Kris Bryant: Are they following the rules, manipulating them or both?

It’s not a hedge or a dodge or an attempt to avoid taking a side to say it’s both.

If the Cubs keep Bryant in the minors for a minimum of 12 days at the beginning of the season, they’ll be able to recall him, play him for almost the entire season while simultaneously having an extra year of team control before he’s eligible for free agency. There’s nothing illegal about this. It doesn’t even violate the collective bargaining agreement as it currently stands. As for whether or not it’s ethical or moral, that’s up in the air. From the perspective of Bryant and his agent Scott Boras, it’s a manipulation in violation of the spirit of the rule. From the perspective of the Cubs and team president Theo Epstein, it’s manipulation camouflaged by the rules and buttressed by the excuse that Bryant needs to improve his defense at third base.

Is it true that he needs to improve his defense? Yes. Is that improvement going to magically happen over the course of two weeks after he’s been working on his defense for years? You tell me.

It’s ironic how Epstein’s methods are glorified when the vast proportion of the media agrees with them and/or they work, but when he does something that looks shady, it turns into a relentless holy war as to how far his ruthlessness should go. Epstein is a new age baseball executive whose entire being is supposedly based on objective analysis. It was how he helped build the Boston Red Sox to win the club’s first World Series in 84 years; it’s how he grew into the epitome of what many analysts and observers believe a sports executive should be; and it’s how he’s gotten a pass on certain behaviors that are petty, babyish, self-indulgent and morally and ethically questionable.

This is no different from the tactics that made Billy Beane famous and helped Epstein win that elusive championship for the Red Sox. It’s how he’s trying to win another elusive championship with the Cubs. Finding loopholes and stretching the boundaries to its fullest advantage isn’t limited to finding a Scott Hatteberg or David Ortiz. It includes blaming managers like Dale Sveum when the “plan” isn’t following the preordained script. It includes dumping Sveum’s replacement, Rick Renteria like he’s the first wife to a suddenly famous Hollywood actor when the “hotter” wife who was previously unattainable, Joe Maddon, comes along.

You can’t have it both ways. It’s one or the other. Either you’re all in with Epstein’s methods or you’re not. For now, he’s bulletproof because he has the resume to be bulletproof. Even the shallow critiques of his treatment of Bryant and arrogant dismissal of assertions that he’s simply using sleight of hand to justify it won’t change the outcome: they’re sending him to the minors to start the season. Those who suddenly find his actions distasteful are not in a position to be judging him since it’s they who built him up in the first place.

With Bryant and how he’s likely to lose that year of service time, this is a loophole that is the responsibility of the union to close. Some players have willingly gone along with being kept them in the minors for this reason alone. Evan Longoria is the most famous case as the Tampa Bay Rays started him in Triple A in 2008, recalled him and immediately signed him to a long-term contract that has since been called the most value-laden deal in baseball history. At the time, the idea of signing a player who hadn’t yet played in the big leagues to a guaranteed contract was revolutionary or insane. It turned out to be a stroke of brilliance on the part of the Rays that was rapidly copied. Players like the Astros’ George Springer who don’t give in to the pressure with the big league carrot dangling in front of them are kept in the minors. Players like Bryant will simply have to deal with the reality that his free agency will likely come after 2021 instead of after 2020.

To compound Longoria’s acquiescence to and tacit agreement with this circumventing of the spirit of the CBA, he also eschewed his opportunity to gauge his value on the open market Robinson Cano-style and get the $200+ million deal he’d undoubtedly receive by signing another contract extension with the Rays for $100 million in guaranteed money.

Every time a player does what Longoria, Mike Trout and many others have done and take the upfront, guaranteed money in lieu of free market capitalism, it damages what Boras is trying to do, much to the chagrin and anger of the agent. Even one of Boras’s own clients, Jered Weaver, took less money to stay with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, citing his happiness with the club and that he didn’t need to get every single available dollar to prove his worth. Weaver is an anomaly among Boras clients.

Since Bryant’s agent is Boras, the likelihood of the player signing a long-term extension with the Cubs to buy out his arbitration eligibility and first few years of free agency are minuscule if not outright not-existent. This is the way in which the Cubs are combating the understanding that they’ll have Bryant for a limited period and either have to pay him or move on. Longoria and Weaver were content enough in their station and egos that they didn’t have to scrounge for every penny. Not everyone is like that.

Strangely, the Cubs have stated that they’re going to play Bryant in the outfield over the next few spring training games essentially undermining the entire concept of him getting his defense at third base to be serviceable enough that he’s deemed “ready” for major league duty. Then again, it’s a wink-and-nod act of dishonesty to say that his defense isn’t good enough and that it will improve in those two weeks in the minors that, coincidentally, will also let the Cubs keep him at a reasonable price for an extra year.

The fact is that everyone knows what the Cubs are doing. Not everyone agrees with it, but it’s perfectly legal based on the CBA. If the union and Boras have a problem with it, it’s up to them to close the loophole to stop it from happening again.

While the number of home runs that Bryant has hit in spring training (nine in 32 plate appearances as of this writing) is largely irrelevant and doesn’t mean he’s automatically “ready” for the majors, he’s clearly got the goods to be a big league star. A former second overall pick with consistently massive production at every minor league level, he’s going to hit and hit with power in the majors. But it won’t be until after 12 days have passed in the 2015 season.

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