Chicago Cubs Kris Bryant and the service-time game

The game is thriving financially and players are reaping the benefits. With salaries escalating, major-league teams are giving second thought to potential superstar call-ups and when they want to start the service-time clock.

In an average year there are 183 service days in a major-league season, 162 games and 21 off days. If you accrue 172 days in any season, it is considered a full year. Six full years gets you to free agency. Five years and 170 days — like Rick Porcello currently has — does not.

Porcello is an interesting case as the Tigers did not intentionally alter his service time to delay his free agency for a year; they just got a little lucky. He actually made the Tigers’ Opening Day roster in 2009 and spent the full season in the majors that year. But he was optioned to the minor leagues (deservingly so) in June of 2010 and spent 26 days in Triple-A Toledo. This move paused his service-time clock enough to delay his free agency. Otherwise he would have been a free agent this past winter.

I bring this up because the conversation of Cubs potential superstar Kris Bryant is an interesting one. Bryant is the No. 5 overall prospect in MLB according to Baseball Prospectus. He slugged 43 home runs between Double- and Triple-A last year, his OPS was 1.095, and he has already hit two home runs this spring. The Cubs have a need at third base, and it seems like a perfect match.

But do we see him in the lineup at Wrigley on April 5th? Maybe not.

The Cubs might contend this year, but it’s more likely they will just fall short. With their slew of hitting prospects and already respectable pitching staff, it is reasonable to expect the club to contend for years to come. Ideally, Kris Bryant is an integral part of that anticipated run.  

If the Cubs wait 12 days into the 2015 season to call up Bryant, he would finish 2015 with less than one year of service time, 171 days total. Bryant is not currently on the Cubs’ 40-man roster. So technically, if he starts the year in the minors, he is not “optioned” there, he is just “assigned” to minor-league camp.

In Major League Baseball, if a player is optioned to the minor leagues and recalled in less than 20 days, he does not use an option. He also accrues all of that service time retroactively. If Bryant were on the 40-man roster, the Cubs would actually have to wait 21 days into the season to call him up without the possibility that he accrues a full year of service time in 2015.

So, can the Cubs afford to wait until April 17th, or 10 games into the season for the arrival of Kris Bryant?

Probably.

The Atlanta Braves didn’t wait on Jason Heyward in 2010. He made the Opening Day roster and hit a memorable home run in his first at-bat. Heyward has exactly five years of service time and was traded away to the St. Louis Cardinals this off-season with free agency looming after 2015. With a decent year, he could be looking at a Jacoby Ellsbury type seven-year, $153 million contract. I wrote about that here.

But what if the Braves waited 12 days and 10 games to call up Heyward? They won the wild card that year by one game, holding off the San Diego Padres. They went on to lose in the NLDS to the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants three games to one. Would they have made the postseason that year without Heyward for those first 10 games? He hit .316 in that span and posted a 1.041 OPS. He also hit three home runs and drove in 12 runs. Did he help the Braves win at least one game, maybe two, in that time that otherwise might have been losses with a lesser right fielder?

Probably.  

If the Braves held back Heyward, he would be two full seasons from free agency right now and probably still with the team in 2015. Worst case scenario, the Braves would have received an even better return for trading two years of player control rather than just one.

So, would Braves fans have preferred that Heyward be held back 11 or 12 days in 2010, knowing that he would still be with team today or at least fetched even more in a trade this winter?

That’s what Cubs fans, and more importantly their front office, have to ask themselves. Kris Bryant April 5th or wait 11 or 12 days and have him under control for seven years?

I hate the manipulation of service time when it works against players. I believe if you’ve earned a spot on a major-league roster, it should be yours. But I also understand this business and the smart play is controlling Kris Bryant for seven years, not six. The Cubs are smart and my money is on Bryant making his major-league debut April 17th at Wrigley Field versus the Padres.

But maybe the more important question is whether construction on the new bleachers will be complete so someone can catch his first home run.