With spring training for Major League Baseball (MLB) just around the corner, a recent arbitration ruling in the Kris Bryant grievance against the Chicago Cubs serves as a major setback to players’ seniority rights.
For most unionized workplaces, seniority is a cornerstone principle of collective bargaining. It affects job security, wages, pension, benefits and other entitlements. In major league baseball, a player’s seniority is equally as fundamental to a player’s livelihood.
Essentially, seniority or “service time” is the length of time a player accrues with the league. It is not calculated from the date a player is drafted, but rather the amount of time the player is active on a major league team 26-man roster or is on the major league disabled list each season. To accumulate one year of service time, the player must be active for 172 days out of the 187-day baseball season.
Players’ service time is used to determine when they are eligible for salary arbitration and free agency. Generally, a player must accumulate three years of service time, before he is eligible for salary arbitration. Salary arbitration is important to a player because it gives him greater leverage in salary negotiations based on the player’s performance. If the employer refuses to increase a player’s salary, he has recourse to binding arbitration as a fallback.
Once a player accumulates six years of service time, he is eligible for free agency. Free agency is significant, as it allows the player the freedom to sign with a team other than the one that drafted him, or the one to which he was traded once his original contract expired. When a ballplayer becomes a free agent, that is often when they finally earn the millions of dollars that makes the headlines.
As noted above, a player must be active for 172 out the 187 days in a baseball season to receive a full year of service time. That means if he is active even one day fewer, he does not accrue the year of service time and his team keeps control over his contract for another year.
That then means one more year added on before he is eligible for salary arbitration where he finally gets a raise. It also means one more year before he can become a free agent where he has control over where he works. That one more year has also now resulted in that player becoming older and less likely to get that same lucrative second or third contract.
Baseball is unique among the major North American sports in that most players do not reach the highest professional level until their mid-20s. The Guerrero Jr.s and Mike Trouts are very much the exception. For most players, the six-year requirement for free agency often pushes the point in which the player achieves his highest salary leverage past his athletic prime. As such, artificial delays in achieving free agency serve to negatively impact players’ salaries.
Bryant filed a grievance in 2015 taking on the owners of the Chicago Cubs for what he viewed as “service-time manipulation.”
Although blazing through spring training, Bryant was sent to the team’s minor league team at the beginning of the 2015 season to “work on his defence.” Eight days later, he was called up to the Cubs on April 17, 2015. That artificial delay of only eight days meant the Cubs had one more year of control over Bryant as he would not be eligible for free agency until 2021 instead of 2020. Bryant grieved the owners’ actions following his rookie season.
This month, arbitrator Mark Irvings ruled in favour of the Cubs, finding that the MLB Players Association failed to prove that the team deliberately held Bryant back in order to delay his eligibility for free agency.
The arbitrator declined to rule on the broader question of whether the team had the right to manipulate service time, leaving the door open to similar grievances. Following the arbitrator’s ruling, the players association stated that it will pursue “any and all measures” to discourage service time manipulation.
Bryant’s case is not isolated. Other players have echoed similar concerns. Most recently, Blue Jays fans may recall that the team did not call up Vladimir Guerrero Jr., baseball’s top prospect up at the time from the minors until April 26, 2019, so he could “work on his defence.” The fans were not happy. Many fans and baseball experts strongly believed the “work on his defence” pitch by Blue Jays management was a flimsy pretense for keeping him in the minor league to ensure the Jays keep him until the end of the 2025 season.
There is a growing feeling in the baseball world that dismissal of the Bryant grievance will strengthen the players’ resolve to fight for better free agency rules at the bargaining table. If the free agency rules are not modified and the collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec, 31, 2021, without a renewal, baseball fans could be looking at a work stoppage at the start of the April 2022 season.
For this spring at least, we can look forward to a complete season of baseball.
“Previously published by The Lawyer’s Daily (www.thelawyersdaily.ca) a division of LexisNexis Canada.”