It’s Theo Epstein’s problem today. Terry Ryan knows it may be his problem soon enough.
Epstein, president of the Chicago Cubs, is at the center of a controversy after announcing that third baseman Kris Bryant will open the 2015 season in Des Moines rather than Wrigley Field, even though the Cubs’ top prospect hit nine home runs this spring and looked every bit ready for the major leagues. Epstein insists that Bryant needs additional work in the minor leagues on his defense at third base, and he prefers not to overwhelm rookies with the pressure of making the team on Opening Day.
The players’ association, and Bryant’s agent, insist that Epstein is simply manipulating the rules over service time, sacrificing two weeks of Bryant’s rookie season in order to delay his eventual free agency by a year.
“You are damaging the ethics and brand of Major League Baseball,” agent Scott Boras lectured the Cubs via USA Today. “… Do they really want to win here?”
New commissioner Rob Manfred shot back last month, saying, “I don’t think the Cubs’ decision with respect to what’s going to happen with Mr. Bryant is really any of Mr. Boras’ business.”
It’s Ryan’s business, though, since he could face similar questions next spring if Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton appear ready to make their big-league debuts. The Twins general manager says he won’t let off-field considerations trump what’s best for the everyday lineup.
“We’ve never had any problem with [service-time issues]. If a guy puts himself in position to make this club, then we give him every opportunity to do so,” Ryan said. “We have had many players here, whether out of Triple-A or Double-A, make our club from Day 1.”
Yet the incentive to shave off a couple of weeks of playing time is large, particularly in the case of a potential superstar such as Bryant — or, the Twins hope, Buxton and Sano. Under the rules — which could be changed when the players and owner negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2016 season — a player is credited with one year of service time if he is on a major-league roster for 172 days of the 183-day season, and he needs six full years in the majors to become eligible for free agency. By keeping a player in the minors for 12 days, a team can delay free agency, and thus keep a player under its control, for an additional full season.
The decision must be a baseball one, under the current CBA, but that’s such a subjective standard, any demotion can be plausibly rationalized, as the Cubs have done by saying the prefer Bryant work on his footwork at third base for the time being.
When faced with similar decisions, Ryan says, the Twins have ignored the contractual considerations, “and I don’t have any better example than [Aaron] Hicks. We brought him up right out of camp” in 2013. Had Hicks developed into a superstar, Ryan points out, he would have been eligible for free agency after the 2018 season, rather than 2019.
The Twins also brought Denard Span to the majors during the first week of the 2008 season, though like Hicks, he was eventually returned to Class AAA and didn’t bank a full season as a rookie.
On the other hand, Oswaldo Arcia was called up on April 15 in 2013, and Danny Santana made his debut May 1 last year — delays that were entirely baseball-driven, Ryan said, but which had the potential to benefit the Twins eventually.
Perhaps the stakes are best illustrated, though, by the case of Joe Mauer, an interesting what-if. In 2004, after trading catcher A.J. Pierzynski the previous winter, Ryan chose to name Mauer, the team’s hottest prospect, the starting catcher during training camp. Though he injured a knee, he remained in the majors all year, meaning Mauer was eligible for free agency after the 2009 season. The Twins delayed it a year by signing him to a four-year deal before the 2007 season that bought out his first year of free agency.
In the spring of 2010, facing his impending free agency the following winter, the Twins (under former General Manager Bill Smith) signed Mauer — fresh off his MVP season in 2009 — to an eight-year, $184 million contract that reached its midway point this offseason.
It’s merely a hypothetical, but what if the Twins had sent Mauer to the minors to open the 2004 season, bought out a year of free agency, then negotiated with him after the 2010 season, when his home runs declined from 28 to nine, his batting average from .365 to .327, his status from future Hall of Famer to merely a great player? Perhaps the price would have been markedly lower, the contract length somewhat shorter.
With a farm system stocked with highly rated prospects, Ryan knows those sort of decisions loom again, and while he points to his track record on such players, he also indirectly defends the Cubs’ right to make their own decisions.
“Whatever’s best for the organization, we’re probably going to do it, as long as it obeys the rules,” Ryan said. “Is there a rule [against sending good players down]? No. We’ve got a collective bargaining agreement, and we follow the rules.”