Back in March of 2015, there was a debate of sorts going on regarding the Cubs and their young, stud third baseman, Kris Bryant. The Cubs had decided to send him back to Triple-A to start the season despite the fact that he crushed the ball in Spring Training, hitting .425/.477/1.175 with nine home runs in 40 at bats. The Cubs would likely have argued, if engaged, that Bryant still had things to work on—such as defense or contact ability—before being ready to be called up to the big league club.
Fans and pundits fired back and forth on the topic, some complaining that it was a cheap way for the team to save money by manipulating Bryant’s service time, and others seeing a savvy business decision. The nuts and bolts explanation of the service time rule is that a player needs 172 days on the active roster (not including the playoffs) to accumulate a year of service time. The MLB season lasted 179 days in 2015, which meant that the Cubs could call up Bryant on the ninth day of the season—April 17th—and avoid him accumulating a year of service time. The Cubs did exactly that.
This is important, because teams claim six years of control over their players. Because Bryant earned 171 days of service time in 2015, he won’t have entered his first official year into the books until Opening Day of 2016 (barring some reason for him not to be on the active roster). This will begin the first of his six seasons under club control, which is the difference between him hitting free agency at 29 or 30 years old.
Why is this background important? Stick with me, I’m getting to the point. By calling up Bryant so early in the season, the Cubs walked a fine line between following the letter of the law and quite obviously doing harm to their employee (‘harm’ meaning in the legal sense, as in he could lose millions of dollars because he was sent to Triple-A for eight days). Many—including myself—argued at the time that it shouldn’t even be a debate; the Cubs would be fools to give up a year of control on Bryant for eight days of performance in his rookie season.
But that argument comes from a place that, whether we admit it or not, clutches to our proclivity for our favorite teams. In any other workplace would we make such an argument? When major employers cut the hours of full-time employees to avoid having to provide health insurance under the Affordable Care Act—as the Cubs reportedly did with their grounds crew in 2014—did we argue that this was justified business sense or that it was a clear manipulation of a law?
The way the rules are set make it possible for teams to use subjective reasons for calling up players at arbitrary times throughout the season and then later claim the relation of service time had nothing to do with it. We know it’s all been a pack of lies. The case is high profile enough that it drew attention nationally when it happened, and that’s where the merit in Bryant’s service time grievance, originally filed back in May, begins to shine through.
At this point, I should note that I’m speaking to you as a union steward, an elected delegate to a bargaining committee that is negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, and a student of labor relations and employment law. In my opinion, there are a few clear reasons for the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) to pursue a grievance on Bryant’s behalf.
The first, and likely most important reason, is because the MLBPA represents a lot of players, many of whom were drafted by teams in Major League Baseball and played a portion of their career in the minor leagues. Continuing to look the other way, as they have essentially done in the past as every team—and yes, it’s literally all of them—sidestepped the service time rules to secure an extra year prior to free agency, damages the union’s reputation among the players they represent or will represent at some point. A high profile case such as Bryant’s, with all the national fanfare that comes with it, provides an opportunity for them to begin an important conversation.
Timing is everything, too. The current CBA is set to expire on December 1, 2016, which should mean that negotiations on the next CBA will begin very soon. Unresolved grievances, especially ones that the league may be concerned about losing, are excellent leverage in negotiation. Even if the employer didn’t really feel like they were going to lose such a grievance, simply filing it in the first place is a necessary step. Had the MLBPA simply kept quiet and began the conversation about service time manipulation at the bargaining table, they’d be asked why they had never filed a grievance if it was such a big problem.
Like with all things involved in union-employer relationships, this is bigger than just one employee—in this case, Bryant. The major goal in filing this grievance is to begin a chain reaction of events that leads to change in the way the current rules directly favor the employer. I won’t go into great detail about what those changes could be, but Mike Petriello of Fangraphs wrote some ideas on the topic last March.
The other side of the coin is how this grievance relates directly to Bryant. Most have assumed that the MLBPA has no shot at winning their grievance, and I generally lean that way as well. However, the process is different than typical courtroom-style law. If the MLBPA and MLB don’t settle the grievance, it will head to an impartial arbitration panel that will hear both sides and decide the case. In this event, substantial proof—such as text records or recorded phone calls in which the Cubs blatantly admit guilt—isn’t required to rule in Bryant’s favor. Because the union is arguing that the Cubs broke the “spirit of the contract,” all they need is for the panel to agree that the Cubs held Bryant down at Triple-A for the purpose of obtaining extra service time and that it directly harmed Bryant.
MLB arbitration cases relating to service time and “spirit of the contract” are fairly non-existent, so there is no precedent case from which to draw. However, for a reference, here is the language used by the United States Appeals Court of the District of Columbia in reference to the “spirit of the contract” (access requires a subscription) in the case of Brown v. Sessoms, 39 IER Cases 785 (D.C. Cir. 2014):
“All contracts in the District of Columbia contain an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing, which means that neither party shall do anything which will have the effect of destroying or injuring the right of the other party to receive the fruits of the contract. A party breaches this covenant if it evades the spirit of the contract. A party does not breach its duty of fair dealing when reasonable persons in the parties’ shoes would have expected the contract to be performed as it was.”
That’s a lot to take in, but I’ll break it down the best I can (with the caveat that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice or analysis). If an arbiter or panel of arbiters used this language as a guide, it gets somewhat hazy with respect just how strong a case MLB has to protect themselves. Did the Cubs holding Bryant down eight days injure his right to receive the fruits of the CBA, i.e. his salary earning potential? Would a reasonable person have expected that Bryant needed to go to Triple-A for about a week to start the season, given everything we knew at the time? At best, it’s not black and white.
But this is only an example of one court case that is unrelated to MLB and service time, and arbiters are not bound to use precedent from a court case like a judge would be. The MLBPA might cite language such as this from a prior case to strengthen their stance, but ultimately the decision comes down to the panel. “Spirit of the contract” violations are generally a slippery slope, and it’s one that most arbiters choose to not slide down. That means Bryant’s chances of winning his grievance are slim, even if the grievance is completely merited.
But the purpose here is the greater good. Service time issues are likely to come up at the negotiation table and, even if the issues don’t get resolved in the new CBA, the national publicity and status of the grievance create leverage for the union. We may never know what that leverage translates to; it could mean real change to service time rules or it could merely be a proposal that’s removed in exchange for another unrelated proposal being accepted. Ah, the beauty of the bargaining process.
So, as a fan, don’t stress yourself over the fact that one of your favorite players has filed a grievance against your favorite team. There is an extremely small chance the Cubs are ever ordered to repay damages of any kind to Bryant, and when the Cubs are in the midst of chasing down a trip to the World Series in 2016 I doubt Bryant will be either unhappy in his situation or a distraction to his team.
But for the future of labor in baseball and fairness to the players that provide the entertainment we love so much, let’s collectively hope that this is the first step toward positive change for the greater good.
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports.