The Phenom, The Agent And The Cubbies: 2015’s First Baseball Ethics Controversy

No, I don’t count Pete Rose.

Kris Bryant, whose day will come.

Kris Bryant, whose day will come.

The lesson of the Kris Bryant dispute is that sometimes the result that seems the least fair is also the right one. Bryant, in case you don’t follow baseball or do not live in Chicago, is the hot Chicago Cubs minor leaguer—what used to be called a “phenom” in the old days—who will not be playing third base for the Cubs when the season opens despite everyone’s agreement that he is not just ready for National League, but ready to star in it. Last week, the young man was assigned  to  the Cubs’ Triple-A Iowa farm team.  Cubs fans are upset. Sports pundits are outraged. Bryant’s agent is furious.

What’s going on here?

A lot.

The MLB  collective bargaining agreement, negotiated and signed by both baseball management and the players union, gives teams control over players for six years before a player can enter free agency and sell his talents to the highest bidder. Thus most young players earn a small percentage of their true market value initially, and, if they are good, hit the jackpot after that. (The average salary in Major League Baseball is $4 million a year). There is a catch, however—and an unavoidable loophole. A full season is defined as 172 days, though the season is 180 days. If a young player is left off the roster until there are fewer than 172 days remaining in the regular season, that season doesn’t count as one of the six years; a player can’t become a free agent mid-season six years later. Before the demise of the reserve system that bound a player to one team until the team released or traded him, there was no reason not to promote a promising minor league star to the big team the second it looked like he was ready. Now, there is a big reason: delaying those few games will give the team an extra year of control, since under the rule, 6 years and 171 games is still just six years. That means an extra year of the player at bargain compensation, and possibly an extra year of the player, since he can fly the coop once the clock has run.

This is not a new issue: players and agents have been complaining about teams doing this for years, but the rules allow it. Since the rules allow it, and since the monetary and competitive benefits of waiting those extra nine days can be huge, there is nothing unfair or unethical about a team taking advantage of the provision. Indeed, it would be irresponsible and a breach of management’s fiduciary duties not to save millions and ensure the extra year of a star’s services. What, then, has made Bryant’s case so contentious?

It’s the Cubs, that’s what.

The Chicago Cubs, beyond question, have been the least successful team in baseball history. They last won a World Series over a century ago. They were last in a World Series in 1935, and most of the time since then, they have just been last.  Their winning seasons can be counted on one hand. Nevertheless, they have a passionate fan base, an iconic stadium, and a national following. The Cubbies also used to have company in futility—the Red Sox, the cross-town White Sox, the Phillies—but no longer. All of those teams have won a World Championship or more to take them out of the perennial loser category, and Cubs fans, who have been astoundingly patient, are finally getting frustrated with the team tradition.

In 2011, management brought Theo Epstein, who was (excessively) credited with building the 2004 Red Sox team that ended Boston’s 86 year-long World Series drought, to Chicago to do the same for the Cubs as team president. The Cubs kept losing under Theo, but they also have steadily improved, and have accumulated the best collection of young prospects in the game. In the off-season, the Cubs signed free agent starter Jon Lester as the first legitimate ace Chicago has had in decades as a sign that the cake was about ready for frosting, and the Cubs were ready to win at last.

Fans are excited.They are especially excited about Kris Bryant, who is the consensus choice for the best prospect in baseball. The Cubs need a third baseman, and he is a third baseman. The Cubs need a slugger, and he’s that too. Bryant could have made it easy for Epstein by whiffing in Spring Training this year, but no: this spring Bryant  hit .425, with a .477 on base percentage and a 1.652 slugging percentage, with three doubles, nine homers and 15 RBI in 14 games. He can’t be that good, but there is no question, none, that if not for that nine day issue, he would be in the Cubs line-up to begin the season.

Fans and sportswriters are excoriating the Cubs for the ethical breach of not putting its best team on the field from the beginning of the season. Isn’t that the team’s competitive obligation? Isn’t that what sports is about: trying to win? Bryant’s agent, the ethically-dubious Scott Boras, has accused the Cubs of lacking integrity and breaching their duty to the team’s fans. He’s just doing his job, and also trying to fill his already over-flowing coffers: that extra year means millions to his client, and 10-15% of those millions for Boras himself.

What Boras doesn’t acknowledge is that he is part of the problem. Boras’s clients virtually always go into free agency to seek top dollar. If the Cubs thought there would be any chance that Bryant, with Boras representing him, might sign a long-term contract with the team before the six years run, as young superstars Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton have done in the last two years, Bryant might be on the team now.  Meanwhile, the players association has even rattled its sabers, threatening a law suit and saying it would “monitor” the situation. Ridiculous. Bryant isn’t even a member of the union (he can’t join until he’s promoted) and the players union signed the agreement that is creating the problem.

The popular argument being wielded against the Cubs is this: what if the team misses the National League play-offs by a single game because Bryant wasn’t able to win it for Chicago from Iowa? Gee, I don’t know: what if Bryant began the season with the Cubs, didn’t play well in his first nine days, and they still missed the play-offs by one game? This is no argument: it’s playing with moral luck and speculative consequentialism. The question, and the only question, is whether keeping Bryant in the minors for nine days is the right thing for the Cubs to do based on what is known now.

Sure it is. It isn’t even a close call ethically. The Cubs management is using the rules to do what is undeniably in the best interest of the  team, its finances, its business and ultimately its fans over the long term. This would be the right thing to do even if there was a reasonable chance that the Cubs were going to be contenders in 2015, but there isn’t: they are unlikely to make the National League play-offs (I rank them as no better than the seventh or eighth best team in the NL), much less the World Series, for another year or three. True, the Cubs are as good as the Kansas City Royals, who nearly won last year, and the unpredictable happens in baseball more often than in all the other professional sports combined. Competent management does not make decisions based on hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, however.

Is the decision unfair to Bryant? He got a  $6.7 million signing bonus from the Cubs before he had swung a bat for a paycheck—I think he has been well compensated for his agreement to let the Cubs decide when it was best for him to play, and where. Yes, under the old system, he earned the right to be in the major leagues in 2015 from Day #1. This isn’t the old system, and he had to know about the risks of the new one. Yes, the Cubs maneuver will cost him a lot of money, but it is not money he has a “right” to.

Is it unfair to Boras? Agents have no legitimate say in how a team manages its affairs. No.

Is the decision unfair to the fans, who spent the winter being told that the Chicago Cubs were finally going to be winners? If the fans think it’s unfair, then the Cubs have an appearance of impropriety problem. Still, moral luck can solve problems as well as exacerbate them. If the Cubs get off to a hot start, nobody will care that Bryant is in Iowa. If he comes up and stinks, fans will be saying that the Cubs brought him up too soon, or the Theo was right all along. And if the Cubs make the play-offs this year, nobody will remember this kerfuffle in October.

And when they don’t even come close to the play-offs and Kris Bryant is the Rookie of the Year, they should fall down on their knees and thank Theo that he had the sense and composure to do what was necessary to keep Bryant in Chicago for that extra year.


Facts: CBS Sports

Source: NBC Sports.

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts, and seek written permission when appropriate. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at


13 thoughts on “The Phenom, The Agent And The Cubbies: 2015’s First Baseball Ethics Controversy

  1. This was testing my “is it as long as the Declaration of Independence” limit, so I sort of glassed over toward the end and may have missed something. The proper ethical question is, should the teams and union together develop a system that needlessly keeps better players out of meaningful competition?

    • They are welcome to try. If the system necessitates a trade-off between ensuring the best team and the least expenditures for an extra year down the road as opposed to the less than optimum lineup for 9 days at the start of the season (that’s usually 6 or 7 games, or 4% of a season), then any rational team’s choice is clear. If years are going to be the measurement for service, and service determines salary, then year needs a definition, and the definition can be avoided.

      Obamacare has the same problem.

      By the way, baseball is more complicated than independence.

  2. Scott Boras? Scott Boras? Is there anything ethical in a situation if Scott Boras is within five thousand miles of it? Scott Boras???

  3. And speaking of Mike Trout, didn’t the Angels essentially do the same thing with him? I recall that he didn’t start his rookie year in the majors — they brought him up in April. I think — he played 20 games with their AAA club in 2012 (and hit .403 there).

    I didn’t know the specifics of the rule, but it is certainly not the first time I’ve heard this come up.

    Also, I hadn’t retained the fact that Boras was his agent, but having an extra year without having to negotiate with Scott Boras surely must be a boon to humanity.

  4. The issue is Boras and his track record. His clients rarely, if ever, sign any type of contract that will extend beyond their free agent window. Numerous other players in baseball have signed contracts that give them years beyond free agency. Management knows this and so do players. I will also state that I consider Boras the best agent in the game. Players love him, fans hate him and management fears him.

    Owners have an issue with the system their own intrenched stupidity resulted in the structure that now exists. But, let’s face it, Bonds will be in the HOF before Marvin Miller.

    With Kris Bryant is there a garantee he will be a lights out player? An impressive spring certainly shows the potential, but I will wait on the sidelines a season or two.

    • 1. Ask Stephen Drew how great an agent he is. He’s a great agent, usually, if all you care about is money. Smart players, like smart people, know there’s more to life, and to baseball, than money.

      2. I wouldn’t vote for Miller. He was a lawyer, doing his job, He didn’t care about baseball, and said as much. He also would have blocked steroid testing if he could have. I’d put him in a labor lawyer’s Hall of Fame in a second, though.

      3. No rookie is a sure thing. Bryant is, however, better than what the Cubs have at third. There is no question that before the Basic Agreement now in force, he’d be playing for the Cubs tonight.

      • Both JD and Stephen had Boras as an agent. Remember J.D. passing on Philly? Also, Boras played the market wrong on Stephen. That is the gamble one takes. Exactly what was Drew’s reaction? He still has Boras as his agent and grabbed 10M from Boston and now another 5M from NY.

        I’ve always taken into consideration Miller’s impact upon the game. But, I would have to concur with your evaluation – a rather unique HOF that would be.

        The BA is the direct result of ownership ineptness. Bryant will play after a few games and it will all pass.

        • Drew was advised to pass on the Red Sox’s 14,000,000 one year offer, which was idiotic on their part (and I like Drew) and insane on Drew’s part. So he’s got 15 mil for two years, is no longer a shortstop, and one more bad year like 2014 probably finishes him. Boras got greedy, and his client suffered.

          • With Boston I consider the move not necessarily idiotic. They had the payroll flexibility to pay Drew since Drew had received 9.5M for the previous season in which he was the third rank SS in the AL. Overpay? Certainly, but Cherington had some level anticipation of Boras in this approach and knew that there was absolutely no way Drew/Boras would accept a one year contract. What Cherington botched was the same as Boras – not realizing the market. Cherington was thinking draft pick and Xander Bogaerts in 2014. No draft pick and Drew Part II – now THAT was idiotic!

            Boras would never accept a qualifying offer. His client now went on a market where he had “good” numbers offensively and defensively. But the contract Boras was attempting to snare was in the five year range and in excess of 55M. You saw the results. And the signing team would have to relinquish a draft pick.

            Boras has made some legendary moves by obscure interpretation of baseball’s rules. I remember several years ago he had managed to have a player who was drafted declared a free agent. I believe the kid signed with the Rays. Been several moves like that. Boras seems to always be one or two steps ahead.

            Good to talk baseball.

            • Nothing better.

              Boras has too many clients, and thus cross-cutting conflicts. Boras is Borgaert’s agent! There is no way he could represent Drew and Bogaerts in a zero sum game without having to harm one client to help the other. It should be prohibited. Was Drew advised to turn down the Sox offer so Boras’s other Sox ss could get his job? How could Drew be sure that didn’t factor into the advice?

              • Well, Jack, my opinion was the Red Sox knew Boras would never accept a qualifying offer and they could simply grab a valued #1 pick. The SS job was clearly set for Xander after his late season push in 2013 and both Boras and Cherington figured the market would be there for a long term deal and they simply underestimated. Boras’ client got stiffed, the Red Sox missed a pick, Xander hit the skids in late May and resigning Drew was a disaster.

                The conflict issue is one that should be examined as part of the agent certification process. IMO if a player feels uncomfortable in that situation they should be able to move on as painlessness as possible.

                The only one close to Boras with contract value is SFX and they have some cross over and probably same with Arn Tellen. Boras still draws in the first round picks. I may be wrong but I thought he had six in the last draft.

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