Players union must fight again as familiar story unfolds in Chicago

Kris Bryant's debut might end up being similar to Mark Grace's.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

 

In 1988, the Cubs chose the fading Leon Durham over red-hot rookie Mark Grace as their Opening Day first baseman. Grace went to the minors, only to return on May 2, forcing the trade of Durham 17 days later.

The players union stewed over the turn of events, believing that the Cubs started Grace in the minors to delay his arbitration eligibility by one year. Grace, in the recollection of one agent, became the “poster child” in the union’s fight during the 1990 labor talks to make 17 percent of the two-year players arbitration-eligible.

And now, as history repeats with another Cubs phenom, the union must fight again.

If Kris Bryant starts the season at Triple-A, the union should file a grievance to restore his lost service time, even though it would stand little chance of winning the case.

The old union leaders — Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr, et al — never backed down, always supporting players on issues of principle, regardless of the anticipated outcome.

The relationship between the players and owners is less combative now, to the benefit of all. But the union’s mission — to protect the rights of its players — remains an important part of the industry’s give-and-take.

New union chief Tony Clark should embrace the pending Bryant absurdity as the perfect opportunity to take a stand, knowing that bigger fights lie ahead with the collective-bargaining agreement expiring in 2016.

Bryant, 23, leads the majors with eight home runs this spring. He is one of the Cubs’ 25 best players, maybe their best position player, period. And yet, he is almost certain to follow the path of Grace before him, and start the season at Triple-A.

Cubs president Theo Epstein says that the Bryant decision will be a baseball decision, and that the third baseman still must improve his defense. But it is not nearly that simple, as everyone in the industry knows.

If the Cubs postpone Bryant’s major-league arrival for at least 12 days, it will enable them to gain an additional year of control over the player before he becomes a free agent, according to baseball’s collective-bargaining agreement.

Why won’t Epstein simply acknowledge service-time considerations with Bryant? Presumably for the same reason that other executives follow the same script when dealing with the same situation: Concern that the union would use such remarks as grounds for a grievance.

So, the explanation for the act might trigger a grievance, but the actual act wouldn’t?

Makes no sense.

The refusal of executives to discuss the service-time question indicates that management has some degree of doubt about the legality of its position. The union’s argument would be that the Cubs are operating outside the spirit of the CBA, demoting Bryant not because he needs to improve as a player, but because they want control over him for an additional year.

The case law overwhelmingly favors the clubs, according to one source — as long as there is a reasonable basis for the decision, even if it is wrong, the club will prevail. No matter. A grievance would demonstrate to both the players and owners — louder than any verbal threats — that the new union leadership will not be a pushover come 2016.

Granted, a player’s spring home run total tells us only so much about his performance, particularly a player’s spring homer total in Arizona. Still, no major-league spring homer leader has failed to make an Opening Day roster since STATS LLC began tracking the data in 1996.

Epstein points out that two players he helped develop — Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo — benefited from significant time at Triple-A. But there also are examples of players who had fewer than Bryant’s 297 plate appearances at Triple-A — and became stars.

The list includes Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton, plus Albert Pujols, Justin Upton and many others. Bryant is at least two years older than all of those players were at the times of their debuts, and less of a defensive question than some. Pujols did not even have a set position his first season. Cabrera played three games in left field at Double-A before assuming that spot for the Marlins full time.

Meanwhile, Bryant’s teammate, Jorge Soler, had only 127 plate appearances at Triple-A before the Cubs promoted him last Aug. 27. The difference between Soler and Bryant, who did not receive a September call-up, is obvious. Soler signed a nine-year contract that began in 2012, so the Cubs need not worry about whether the will become a free agent in six or seven years.

Make no mistake: If I were Epstein, I would handle this exactly the same way, particularly knowing that Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, generally prefers his clients to establish their values on the open market rather than accept long-term extensions.

Some Cubs veterans believe that the team should make a statement by keeping Bryant, and demonstrate that the franchise’s sole objective is to win a World Series for the first time since 1908. Well, do the math: The Cubs would sacrifice two weeks at the start of Bryant’s career to ensure keeping him through his age-29 season. Almost every team would make that trade — as long as it went unchallenged by the union.

A number of player agents express concern that the union has tolerated too many recent infringements — most notably, in baseball’s investigation of Biogenesis — without generating an adequate response.

The demotion of Bryant would amount to another hit. A strong union would respond.

AROUND THE HORN