MESA, Ariz. – As much as Kris Bryant steamed at the time, he kept his mouth shut and took it when the Cubs used the service-time rules against him as a rookie in 2015
Two All-Star appearances, an MVP award and one historically slow free agent market later, Bryant sees the writing on the wall and doesn’t plan to be quiet anymore.
“This offseason is one that really opened my eyes,” said Bryant, who hadn’t considered broader labor issues a priority. “But now it is. I need to study up, have my voice heard, continue to learn, because this is going to affect us for years to come. And I’d be foolish not to kind of offer myself out there.”
Bryant, who hopes to replace Jake Arrieta as the Cubs’ player rep when the players make that decision this month, is one of a fast-growing number of players around the game speaking up after being awakened by a free agent market that stunned top free agents by a sudden deflation in offers, and even raised whispers of collusion.
“Coming up, you don’t really pay attention to that stuff too often,” Bryant said. “But I was kind of brought into it earlier with my spring training and being sent down for 11 days.”
That was 2015 when he had the best offensive spring training in a decade but was optioned to the minors for exactly the length of time that assured the Cubs an additional year of club control before he could become a free agent. He then won the Rookie of the Year award.
The players union filed a grievance that went nowhere, and since then signed off on a new collective bargaining agreement widely viewed as an ownership victory. That deal runs through 2021 – when Bryant becomes a free agent.
“Maybe the focus was on other things rather than some of the more important things,” Bryant said of the new CBA. “But I think with this next one things are definitely going to change, and there’ll definitely be more fight on our side just because we’re going to get the chance to experience the effects of some of the things we agreed to.
“The only way to get what you want here is to fight for it. And I think you’re going to see a lot of that.”
It’s a fight that Major League Baseball never has won. And if a generation of newly awakened players such as Bryant take up that fight, it could quickly turn MLB’s recent bargaining gains into Pyrrhic victories.
The union has only itself to blame for signing off on a bad deal.
But if the anger among players grows into the next labor war?
MLB would have only itself to blame for that, if only for its tacit endorsement of tanking as a means of rebuilding, with even mid- and big-revenue teams following the Cubs’ and Astros’ blueprints.
“The three-year rebuild-type thing is tough on this league,” former Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija of the Giants said.
As many as 11 teams open this year with no intention of contending for a championship. “You could argue that you are going to compete with more clubs to try and get the first pick in the draft than you are to try and win the World Series,” Seattle general manager Jerry DiPoto said in January.
“Tanking shortens up who’s in the pool to get talent,” said Samardzija. “If half the [remaining] teams don’t have the money to spend [because of a desire to stay under the luxury tax threshold], now you’re down to a quarter of the teams that are spending. And it’s just a numbers game after that.
“Maybe this will be a wakeup call,” he added.
Players obviously still make a lot of money, the average salary as high as it’s ever been. But league revenues – which just reached $12 billion annually – have risen much faster. And franchise values have skyrocketed – even the White Sox value nearly doubling, to $1.36 billion, since 2014.
It’s become popular among fans on social media to rail against “greedy” players and agents or to applaud “smart” GMs for improving the way players are valued.
Both ignore a basic business fact of professional sports: Players aren’t simply labor like other businesses; they are the product. And as such, they directly drive the revenues, which means their fair share is directly related to those revenues.
“You look at just what the raw [salary] number is, and it’s `greed,’ because who needs all that,” said Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks, who has an economics degree from Dartmouth. “But it’s all relative. That’s how business works.”
Hard restrictions on spending at the amateur level and relatively low luxury tax payroll thresholds in the new CBA have given the owners a power advantage over players they haven’t had since the earliest days of free agency.
Twenty-three years of relative labor peace has created a new normal in baseball labor relations. Some players were born after the last labor stoppage in 1994-95.
“Maybe that’s why we’re here where we are,” Samardzija said, “because it has been going so well for so long, and you get complacent with things.”
That seems to be changing fast.
“Maybe we have to go on strike,” Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen said in late January.
Bryant isn’t sure about that, at least not yet.
“But I think more people’s voices will be heard. I think that’s the bottom line,” he said. “Because people are upset. I think a strike is the very last thing you want to get to.
“But if it does [get to that], a lot of people have expressed their opinions so people can put two and two together.”
Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub