Fortunately for Jason Heyward, the Atlanta Braves thought they had a chance to win in 2010. Unfortunately for Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals knew they didn't.
Both Heyward and Strasburg were young phenoms that spring. The Braves put Heyward on their Opening Day roster. The Nationals had Strasburg make 11 minor league starts before calling him up for a much-hyped major league debut on June 8.
This matters in December 2015 because Heyward was a free agent who just agreed to a $23 million-per-year contract with the Chicago Cubs. Strasburg is stuck for one more year in a salary-arbitration contract that will likely pay him somewhere around $10 million, and he won't be a free agent until next winter.
It matters because this year, two players filed grievances complaining about service-time manipulation, bringing the issue to arbitration and raising hopes MLB will find a way to end the ugly but profitable game teams often play with the current rules.
"There's always flaws in every sport, and over time, things change," one of the players, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, told the Huffington Post's Jordan Schultz. "Hopefully, this is something that can get changed."
It won't be easy for reasons as big as the difference between the Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton contracts. It won't be easy because we're talking about millions of dollars—or tens of millions.
The Cubs sent Bryant to the minor leagues after a monster spring training, with manager Joe Maddon explaining, per MLB.com's Carrie Muskat, that "when you look at the entire picture of development, you're still looking for a couple other areas to improve a little bit."
Seventeen days later—conveniently, just long enough to delay Bryant's free agency by a full year—the Cubs decided his "entire picture of development" had improved just that little bit. Bryant joined the Cubs, became the National League Rookie of the Year and helped carry the Cubs to their first postseason appearance since 2008.
Bryant ended the season with 171 days of service time. Maikel Franco finished with 170 days after the Philadelphia Phillies kept him in the minor leagues until May 15. Both Bryant and Franco filed grievances, as Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports first reported.
Passan suggested the grievances could be resolved during bargaining for baseball's new collective bargaining agreement and that they could lead to changes in the CBA to limit the service-time game.
As Bryant told the Huffington Post, he's "kind of going to bat for the people after me."
And for the rest of us, whose only interest is in seeing the best players compete in the major leagues. The system, as it stands, includes a huge incentive for teams to keep some of those best players out of the major leagues longer than necessary.
It's been going on for years, from Evan Longoria with the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays to Strasburg and Stanton in 2010 with the Nationals and Florida Marlins, respectively. It's hard to blame teams for doing it because not only is there big money at stake, but the extra year before free agency can help them keep a key player for one more year.
And that's exactly why it will be tough to get the system changed, even if Bryant or Franco wins his grievance or if new rules are negotiated because of the grievances.
No matter how they draw it up, there has to be some dividing line to decide when a player is eligible for free agency. No matter how they set that up, a team can gain by delaying when players cross that line.
Perhaps a player could gain his first full year of service time if he has even 75 days in the major leagues that year, or 100 days (rather than the full 172). Teams could still hold top players back, but the penalty for doing it would be much greater.
If the Cubs had held Bryant back to make sure he ended 2015 with fewer than 100 days, it easily could have cost them their playoff spot.
One American League executive said Sunday the Franco decision could impact teams more than the Bryant ruling because what the Cubs did with Bryant seemed so "obvious." What the Phillies did with Franco, while also fishy, seemed more like what many teams do with many players every year.
If you don't believe it, read what Passan wrote for Yahoo about Strasburg back in April 2010:
All that's preventing Strasburg from pitching Sunday in the big leagues, as opposed to Altoona, Pa., is a clause in baseball's collective-bargaining agreement that for 20 years has encouraged teams to keep their most talented players in the minor leagues simply to avoid paying them more in the long run.
He was right then, and what has happened to Strasburg since has proved it. Strasburg is still with the Nationals, still not eligible for free agency for another year.
And the Braves?
With Heyward having a big rookie year, they did make the playoffs in 2010. But they traded Heyward last offseason, knowing he was already within a year of free agency. The deal helped them in their rebuilding process, but they were forced into it because back in 2010 they were the rare team that didn't try to game the system.
Five years later, maybe it's time to change the system.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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