It’s the most wonderful time of the year to be Cubs obsessed 24/7. But if you’ve been following Spring Training news that takes place outside of ballparks named after a toilet (“Steinbrenner Field?” “No, the other one…”), you’ve most likely heard about the situation involving Ronald Acuña and the Atlanta Braves.
The 20-year-old phenom tore his way through three levels of the minor leagues last season, destroying all pitchers who stood in his way from Single-A to Triple-A. He proceeded to put up a 1.247 OPS with four home runs and four stolen bases during 2018 Spring Training–statistics which earned him a one way ticket back to Gwinett until the Braves could have team control for an additional year at the big league level.
In other words, Acuña is the latest reminder that baseball owners would rather create a poster child for service time manipulation than a poster child for actual posters.
As has been pointed out by literally every writer with a take on the story, Acuña’s career path thus far has mirrored Kris Bryant’s 2015 Spring Training to an almost eerie degree. To the point where the only thing keeping Acuña’s people from putting his likeness on a billboard next to SunTrust Park is the 99 percent chance that the Braves will move into another new stadium by the time it’s completed.
Everything playing out in Acuña’s saga should serve to remind the Cubs front office that if they want to retain Kris Bryant once he becomes eligible for free agency, they had better make sure that he is well taken care of over the next four years. They’ve adversely affected his earnings potential once by stashing him in Iowa for a couple weeks and don’t need to risk seeing the consequences of playing hardball with him again.
Like any fan with a functioning cerebrum, I want Bryant to be a Cub for life. But there are a couple of sizable factors that could get in the way of that proposition and push him onto the open market. One of those, of course, is Scott Boras, who as we all know loves the free agent market like a kid loves cake (or at least like the kid’s agent love five percent of cake).
In normal times, Boras is already a big enough roadblock to keeping KB in a Cubs uniform. But there’s now an additional complication: the Cubs will no longer be dealing with base-level Scott Boras–they will now be forced to negotiate with a superagent motivated by revenge. As you know, this offseason has seen several of his clients like Jake Arrieta and Mike Moustakas forced to accept contracts well below what they were expecting in terms of dollars and years.
“They’ve decided we’re going to have 12 teams-a-taking, if you will, and therefore you’ve got a noncompetitive cancer…”
Good God, y’all.
I’ve never been to business school but I have to believe that one of the first rules of negotiating like a sane person is “Try to avoid referencing Christmas carols and cancer in the same sentence.”
Boras’s public statements have been filled with over the top pronouncements and apocalyptic language like that for pretty much the entire offseason, culminating in the moment where he told the assembled media that “The system failed Mike Moustakas” on the very day Moustakas officially signed his contract with the Royals.
So while baseball owners have enjoyed seeing Boras twist in the wind (a phrase which was almost certainly Jerry Reinsdorf’s most recent NSFW Google search), you can be sure of this: when Boras finds himself in a situation where he again has the advantage–such as representing an all-world third baseman who can choose whether his eyes will sparkle off his World Series ring or his MVP trophy–he will use it to make those who have wronged him pay dearly.
To further complicate matters, it appears that the free agent slowdown also inspired Bryant to channel his inner Eugene V. Debs. When he arrived at Mesa, Bryant vowed that “this offseason, seeing how things really work, I definitely want to have more of a voice. Any time our players’ association gets out here and wants to talk, I want to learn, I want to engage, just to express our side of things, and what we’d like to fight for.”
In other words, when Bryant watched the free agent market play out, all he could hear was “Lisa needs braces… DENTAL PLAN.”
And when Bryant was reminded about how the Cubs handled his call to the big leagues, it turned out that John Lackey wasn’t the only World Series champ with a long memory…
“That feels so long ago, it’s crazy now. But this offseason has kind of brought [those feelings] out a bit more. I said at the time that [service time manipulation] should probably be addressed in the next CBA but who knows if it will?…That stuff’s way in the past, and we moved on from it, but I did experience it.”
Thankfully, Bryant doesn’t appear to hold a grudge. But that assessment indicates that he’s already starting to think about what he can do to make things better for the players who follow him. And one of the ways that superstars have traditionally done that has been setting the market for others by establishing a new salary precedent with a record-setting contract.
With all of that in mind, it’s going to be pretty difficult to keep Kris Bryant away from the open market when he becomes eligible for free agency after 2021. There will be a couple factors in the Cubs’ favor: Bryant will be turning 30 that year and the current CBA will be expiring during the offseason, perhaps making the security of a long term deal look more attractive.
Even so, there was no indication of such a possibility when the Cubs approached Bryant and Boras in the winter of 2017 to feel out how they felt about a long term deal. According to Jon Heyman, they essentially replied “We’re good.” Which either means that Boras is already thinking about making sure Bryant hits the open market or KB is secretly having his negotiations handled by Miguel Montero.
The Cubs are in a position where they need to do well by Bryant and give him every reason to want to stay in Chicago the closer he gets to free agency. Thankfully, everything we know about KB indicates that he’s about as low-maintenance as superstars come. Unless one of his teammates smashes a boombox playing the Moana soundtrack or Tom Ricketts decrees a ban on lederhosen, there’s probably nothing to worry about there.
Furthermore, the Cubs have also established a good precedent with Bryant when it comes to contracts over the past two years. In 2017, his $1.05 million salary set a new record for the largest contract given to a pre-arbitration player. And then this year his $10.85 million contract became the highest salary earned by a player in his first year of arbitration eligibility.
Bryant has certainly done his part to earn every dollar of every record salary he has received thus far, and then some. And it appears the Cubs are willing to go above and beyond to demonstrate that they recognize the special contributions he has made. This also combines well with the organization’s consistent effort to exceed every other team in baseball in accommodating players and their families off the field.
We all know that there are no guarantees in any negotiation with Scott Boras–especially after his experience with the most recent class of free agents. But in spite of that, there’s one thing the Cubs can do to retain a player who has become a team legend and it’s a process they’ve already started: give Kris Bryant absolutely no reason to leave.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports