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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Kris Bryant case will have implications for future collective bargaining

Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs celebrates with

Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs celebrates with teammates after hitting a third-inning home run against the Oakland Athletics in a preseason Cactus League game at HoHokam Stadium on March 24, 2015 in Mesa, Ariz. Credit: Getty Images / Norm Hall

This isn't just about Kris Bryant, as much as it feels that way this year.

Long story short, Bryant, the Cubs' mega-prospect, obliterated Cactus League pitching during the past month and did everything humanly possible to earn himself a spot on the Opening Day roster.

So what did the Cubs do? Option him to Triple-A Iowa, naturally.

The public outcry that followed was only slightly more predictable. What happened to Bryant happens every March -- if not on the same talent scale as the 23-year-old plate prodigy, then to varying degrees -- and some people get upset.

Depending on your stake in the game, Bryant is either the victim of an unfair labor system or a prized employee merely waiting on a promotion.

Truth is, Bryant is both. And for that, the antagonists on either side can thank the collective-bargaining agreement, which lays down the laws regarding service time. Those laws determine the parameters for how quickly a player reaches arbitration and eventually free agency.

It is the giant clock that governs how people are paid in Major League Baseball, so you can understand why players want to start the ticking as soon as possible -- and teams would rather delay pushing the button.

In Bryant's high-profile case, there was more drama than usual because of the principals involved. Bryant, the sport's No. 1 prospect as ranked by Baseball America, hit nine home runs with a 1.652 OPS in 14 exhibition games. And that was after crushing 43 homers with a 1.098 OPS in 138 games at two minor-league stops last season. Without a September call-up by the Cubs, we might add.

When you consider the Cubs are in the midst of a 106-year title drought and expectations for this season could not be higher -- with a bumper crop of young talent to go with the hiring of former Rays manager Joe Maddon -- this had all the makings of a public-relations nightmare for both the team and MLB. Which is sort of what happened when Bryant was sent down last week.

"Today is a bad day for baseball," the Players Association said in a statement released shortly after Bryant's demotion. "I think we all know that even if Kris Bryant were a combination of the greatest players to play our game, and perhaps he will be before it's all said and done, the Cubs still would have made the decision they made.

"This decision, and other similar decisions made by clubs, will be addressed in litigation, bargaining or both."

The current CBA is up after the 2016 season, and we've been assured there will be plenty of conversation about modifying the service-time rules to prevent another Bryant situation from happening.

As it stands now, a season lasts 183 days, and a player gets credit for a full year of service time by spending 172 days on the major-league roster. So by waiting at least 12 days to promote a player, a team gets the benefit of another year tacked on before free agency -- seven years of control rather than the six prescribed in the CBA.

With a prospect as good as Bryant, the savings could be astronomical. He will get big money after three years through arbitration, but the huge payday comes in free agency. The loophole for starting the service-time clock, however, is that the CBA gives the last word to the team in Article XXII, which states that "nothing in this agreement shall be construed to restrict the rights of the clubs to manage and direct their operations in any manner whatsoever . . . "

Translation: The front office merely has to provide some sort of defensible baseball reason to wait before promoting a player, whether it appears to be financially motivated or not.

Cubs president Theo Epstein said Bryant needs more work defensively at third base and that this move was consistent with his handling of prospects in the past.

Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, had a different opinion. "MLB is not the MLB without the best players," he said in a text message to The Associated Press. "Kris excelled at every level and earned the right of entry."

Boras went on to say that Bryant's case should be the catalyst for changes to the CBA in two years, but MLB and its teams always will look for some more cost-efficient givebacks as they try to deal with skyrocketing salaries in a very competitive market.

When it comes to assembling a 25-man roster at this time of year, there's always a tug-of-war that goes on between short-term and long-term outlooks -- and the CBA doesn't make either approach illegal. The discussion also involves the formation of a roster in its entirety with many other considerations beyond performance in spring training coming into play.

"You could look at it from a couple of different directions," one National League general manager said. "Are you putting the best possible team on the field for the next two weeks? Or are you putting together the best possible team on the field for the next seven years?"

It's just smart business under the current system. In this season, 12 days is only nine games for the Cubs, who probably will wait a little longer to not be so obvious about it. And in a few more years, players will have the upper hand. That's the power dynamic in baseball at the moment, with both sides working the leverage while they can. And when it comes to leaving Bryant off the roster, that still means a job for someone else, as MLB mentioned in its defense of the Cubs.

"In accordance with the long-established practice under the basic agreement, a club has an unfettered right to determine which players are part of its Opening Day roster," MLB said in a statement. "We do not believe it's appropriate for the Players Association to make the determination that Kris Bryant should be on the Cubs' 25-man roster while another player, who, unlike Bryant, is a member of its bargaining unit, should be cut or sent to the minor leagues."

Point taken. But the players association also feels the need to be vigilant about teams trying to manipulate the terms of the CBA to their benefit, which may be according to the letter of the law but not how it was intended to be used when the terms were negotiated.

Bryant surely will be up with the Cubs before the bleachers are even finished at renovated Wrigley Field. In the meantime, adidas already has put up a billboard -- on Addison, outside Wrigley's main entrance -- featuring Bryant above the slogan "WORTH THE WAIT."

To Cubs fans, agonizingly familiar with waiting, Bryant can't come soon enough.

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