Out of Service: Does Service Time Manipulation Violate Major League Baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement?

By Kessock, Patrick | Boston College Law Review, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Out of Service: Does Service Time Manipulation Violate Major League Baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement?


Kessock, Patrick, Boston College Law Review


Introduction

After a record-breaking career at the University of San Diego, Kris Bryant was selected by the Chicago Cubs with the second overall pick in the 2013 Major League Baseball ("MLB") first-year player draft.1 The Cubs rewarded Bryant with a $6.7 million signing bonus, and later assigned him to their low A minor league affiliate team.2 In his first one and one-half minor league seasons, Bryant hit for a .327 batting average, .428 on-base percentage, and .666 slugging percentage to go along with 52 home runs.3 Against major league competition in spring training before the 2015 season, Bryant led the Cubs with a .425 batting average, .477 on-base percentage, and 1.175 slugging percentage with nine home runs.4

Just before the close of spring training on March 30, 2015, the Cubs assigned their twenty-three-year-old star to their minor league camp instead of keeping him on the major league roster.5 Given Bryant's utter dominance of pitchers at both the major and minor league levels, there seemed to be no baseball-related reason to keep Bryant off of the Cubs' major league roster.6 In the wake of the decision, baseball pundits predicted that the wait for Bryant would not be long, and that he would be called up on a day in mid-April that happened to coincide with the day that marked exactly 171 days remaining in the 2015 regular season.7

On April 17, 2015, just as pundits predicted, Kris Bryant was officially called up to the Cubs' active major league roster.8 By the end of the regular season, Bryant led all National League rookies in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and home runs, proving to be an essential factor in the Cubs' 97win team.9 He went on to win the Sporting News' National League Rookie Player of the Year award, and became only the third unanimous selection since 2000 for the Baseball Writers' Association of America's National League Rookie of the Year award.10

In isolation, the Bryant saga seems like a resounding success for the young star, the Cubs' organization, and baseball fans alike.11 The discontent with Bryant's late call-up before his breakout season, however, caused the Major League Baseball Players' Association ("MLBPA") to publicly forewarn litigation against the MLB and the Cubs.12 Practically, the reason the MLBPA and Bryant claim to be aggrieved is simple: Kris Bryant had the talent and production to start in the Cubs' major league lineup, but was stashed in the organization's minor league team long enough to ensure that Bryant and his team-friendly rookie contract would be exclusive to the Cubs for one extra year.13 Whether the MLBPA's claims have legal merit, and if they will ever reach the courts, however, is a more contentious and nuanced issue.14

The MLBPA's dispute with the Cubs' treatment of Bryant revolves around the use of a measurement called "service time" to determine when a professional baseball player is eligible to submit his salary to arbitration, or alternatively to become a free agent and negotiate a contract with the team of his choosing.15 This Note will explore the concept of service time and its implications for rookie-contract players under the MLB and MLBPA's collective bargaining agreement ("CBA"), and examine whether the MLBPA could present a valid claim against an MLB team for violation of the CBA for manipulating a player's service time in the team's favor, or whether there is some viable alternative to service time that may be negotiated when the current CBA expires in December 2016.16 Part I of this Note provides background information on collective bargaining, the MLBPA, and the CBA.17 Part II discusses the concept and incentives of service time manipulation and introduces several case studies of potential service time manipulation in recent history.18 Part III introduces the implied obligation of good faith in contract law and sets out the ways in which it may be violated.19 Finally, Part IV applies the implied obligation of good faith to the context of service time manipulation, discusses potential roadblocks to a successful challenge of service time manipulation in the grievance-arbitration process, and analyzes potential alternatives to the service time system that may prevent manipulation when the CBA is renegotiated in 2016. …

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