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Will baseball labor talks set Bryant free from Cubs in 2020?

Kris Bryant

MESA, Ariz. – If Kris Bryant and the players’ union have their way, last year’s National League Rookie of the Year will spend one fewer year with the Cubs before being allowed to seek untold riches wherever he chooses.

Union chief Tony Clark on Monday did not rule out seeking credit for the 12 days of service time Bryant was denied at the start of last season as part of discussions to reform service-time rules and practices during upcoming CBA talks. That would make Bryant a free agent after the 2020 season instead of 2021.

The players union filed first-of-their-kind grievances last year over service-time manipulation on behalf of Bryant and Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco. The grievances have not been resolved, but the “remedy” for each seems more likely to be found in the larger CBA negotiations than an actual grievance hearing.

“When and if there are grievances related to Kris or anyone else on this issue, that would be part of the conversation,” said Clark, who refused to specifically acknowledge either grievance.

“Meaning, a remedy [could include] finding those days and giving those days back,” Clark said, “and if so, how does that affect the system? It’s a challenging issue. It doesn’t have a clear answer.”

Clark was in Mesa Monday as part of his annual tour of spring training camps to address union-related issues with players, this visit carrying additional significance because of the expiration of the current CBA at the end of this year.

Less than a year ago, Clark’s office issued a scathing statement when Bryant was cut from big-league camp near the end of March despite coming off a Minor League Player of the Year season at AA and AAA and producing the best offensive spring training by a player in at least a decade.

The union called it “a bad day for baseball” and threatened the litigation that Clark now refuses to acknowledge.

Bryant on Monday said it’s about more than just him and Franco.

“It’s happened before, with Dexter [Fowler], Anthony [Rizzo],” he said. “I think they’ll do things in the next CBA to alleviate that, but I don’t know how much. … We’ll see next year, I guess.”

The changes that could be made to prevent what happened to Bryant are murky at best. It’s difficult to prevent teams from using the letter of the law to maximize club control of a player or, in other cases, to keep him from earning enough service time to qualify for an extra year of arbitration.

“Anytime you have a service-based system, simply drawing a line as to what the day or times that ‘X’ is going to happen or ‘Y’ is going to happen suggests that there are potential manipulations that could happen,” Clark said. “Maybe there are a lot of challenges here, but I think the premise is the same: Having a situation where fans don’t have to worry about or have conversation about why a particular player isn’t here or there and it being tied to a potential service-time manipulations.”

As for that change of being granted the 12 days he lost when Mike Olt opened the season as the Cubs’ third baseman, Bryant shied away from offering an expansive opinion.

“If that happens, that’d be great,” he said. “But I don’t really know how that stuff works.”

Bryant said he’s just glad he’s not the center of attention in Cubs camp like he was at this point last year for all the business-related reasons.

“This is great,” he said of his run-of-the-mill, .211 spring that included an RBI double in Monday’s first inning against the Padres. “I’m just another guy in the clubhouse. And that’s how I want it.”