No, I don’t count Pete Rose.
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?
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.
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