Kris Bryant leads spring training with six home runs so far -- in just 23 at-bats, an impressive start for the player widely regarded as the best or second-best prospect in baseball. I heard a fact that no player in the past 20 years who led spring training in home runs has started the season in the minors.
Bryant, however, will start the season in the minors. It will be the right decision and an easy one for Chicago Cubs management to make. This has Cubs fans in a bit of an uproar, but it's a pretty basic equation: Would you rather have Bryant for two weeks at the start of the 2015 season or for an entire season in 2021? As Joe Sheehan writes,
A player earns the right to free agency after six full seasons of service time. Not 5.99 years; a full six seasons. A full year of service time is 172 days. Because of this threshold, the Cubs can retain Bryant's rights for a full extra year -- 2021, Bryant's age-29 season -- just by leaving him in the minors for 12 days at the start of the 2015 season.
The baseball calendar is about 183 days, thus the need to leave him off the major league roster for 12. Joe also points out that the Cubs play just nine games in the season's first 12 days, and considering Bryant would likely sit at least one of those games, you're looking at eight games without the heralded rookie.
I've seen references to how in 2010 the Braves started the season with Jason Heyward in right field on Opening Day. (He even homered that day.) Heyward had an excellent rookie season and the Braves ended up winning the wild card by one game over the Padres. Thus, it can be argued the Braves made the right decision, as maybe Heyward helped them win an extra game or two in those first two weeks.
Except it doesn't exactly work that way. For one thing, players don't win and lose games by themselves. You can't go back after the fact and isolate a game or two as proof that Heyward "won" that game. In 2010, Heyward's value was 6.4 WAR in 142 games, or .045 WAR per game. Assuming the Braves would have played a replacement-level player for 10 games at the start of the season in place of Heyward, we're estimating .45 WAR of lost value, or less than half a win.
If you want to be generous, maybe Heyward starting the season did make a difference and help the Braves to an extra win. On the other hand, the Braves also traded him this offseason with one year left before free agency; if they had held him back a couple weeks back in 2010, they would have two years of team control remaining, meaning they could have kept him or extracted a lot more in return in trade.
Back to Bryant. For starters, he doesn't project as a 6.4-WAR player. ZiPS has him at 4.2 WAR in 132 games. Even if he's a 5-WAR player over 145 games, over eight games we're looking at .28 WAR. The odds of Bryant not playing eight or nine games and costing the Cubs a playoff spot is extremely remote.
Still, it's not fun that the system punishes a player who should be in the major leagues. Bryant should get the opportunity to get introduced on Opening Day. Mike Petriello wrote an interesting column at FanGraphs arguing that it's time to fix the "broken" service time system. He suggested changing the requirement for a full year of service time from 172 days to 100.
The problem I see with that idea is it doesn't completely solve the issue of players being unnecessarily held back in the minors, and punishes small-market teams at the same time. If the service time date is essentially pushed back from 12 days into the season to June 15 (or whenever), all that means is that players who would otherwise be called up in May or early June would be held down until mid-June. Those call-ups just aren't as noticeable as a player like Bryant breaking camp with the big league squad. And small-market teams do gain an advantage with the current system, since they can essentially keep a star player for six-plus seasons instead of just six (or five-plus under Mike's proposal) before potentially losing the player to free agency.
Yes, changing the days required for a year of service time would at least force a team in the Cubs' situation to think twice about leaving a player of Bryant's ability in the minors. Though the current system isn't perfect, I'm not sure there's a better solution.