There's a lot of talk this spring about how the Chicago Cubs are going to handle the arrival at their top prospect, Kris Bryant, at the major league level.
The slugging third baseman is hitting .435 with six home runs this spring. Judging from his play, he ought to make the big league roster of a team that has been in rebuilding mode for several years. Cubs fans have been champing at the bit to see Bryant lead their team's turnaround since he was drafted in 2010.
But there is more to the decision on whether Bryant should open the season at Wrigley Field -- or if he should be sent to Class AAA for the start of the season.
Why? Because if the Cubs send him down for two weeks, it would delay Bryant's major league service clock to the point that the team would maintain another season of control over a guy who is expected to be a premium player. He'd be free after his age 29 year instead of his age 28 year.
So it's a no brainer, right? Send Bryant to Iowa over the protests of his agent, Scott Boras, who is already steamed that Bryant didn't get a September call up in 2014. Keep him for an extra year and laugh all the way to the bank. That's pretty much the opinion of just about every pundit I've read, amateur or professional.
But might I suggest that there is some merit to the other scenario.
To put it succinctly: Players remember when their teams screw them over. And it will be obvious to everyone who follows baseball that, if Bryant is sent back to the minors, the Cubs are blatantly screwing him over.
That's the way the game is played, you say? Those are the rules so fair is fair, right? We're talking about a situation that causes grown men to claim they are being disrespected when they are "only" are offered $20 million a year to hit a little ball with a stick.
So don't be surprised when Bryant stews over this for his entire Cubs tenure, especially every time he gets a shot at his team in arbitration.
The Cubs might be able to keep Bryant for another year if they send him to the minors for two weeks. But will that ruin their ability to keep him for his entire productive career? Sure some will scoff and say that if the Wee Bears put a giant pile of money in front of a young player he's going to sell himself out and take a contract after two or three years of major league service that will keep him in Chicago blue until he's 32 or 33... or longer.
But let's remember that his agent is Boras. And Boras' signature move is not to sign extensions that give away free agency years before players hit the open market. Sometimes players over-ride that sort of power play and decide they want to play where they've made a happy home. But not when they've been jerked around by their team.
Look at the San Francisco Giants and Pablo Sandoval. His former team irritated him by offering a low ball contract before he hit the market while offering his teammates more lucrative deals. The result? Despite the Giants eventually making a competitive offer to retain him, Sandoval took a similar offer from the Boston Red Sox, more determined to make a point than every last dollar.
What if Bryant takes the same course? Suppose that the Cardinals, flush with cash thanks to a new local television contract, decide they want to throw a big contract at Bryant when he becomes a free agent. Will the Cubs and their fans pat themselves on the back for that one more year of service when they get to look at their star player wearing their chief rival's uniform because they decided to be cheap seven years earlier.
That's a worst case scenario. But there are teams in New York, Los Angeles and other big market towns who would love to have a slugging third sacker. It's not as if Bryant won't have options if he turns out to be as good as advertised.
Because of the trend of mega players signing contracts well past their prime, it seems the only reasonable way for the Cubs not to lose Bryant at some point of the peak of his play would be to treat him fairly and let the chips fall where they may in the future. Then, and only then, might they be able to create an atmosphere where Bryant would be willing to take less years or dollars than the market might bring.
The Cardinals, lauded as one of the best teams in baseball these days in evaluating talent and producing young players, certainly haven't been a fan of holding players down to keep their free agent clock from ticking.
They called up Oscar Taveras, Carlos Martinez, Randal Grichuk, Marco Gonzales and other players when they deserved to be called up, not when it made the most of their controlled years. Because of the way they treat players, the Redbirds were able to sign Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and other key players to team-friendly extensions before they hit the open market.
They Cardinals didn't hold back Albert Pujols and they were able to sign him to a brilliant contract earlier in his career that kept him in St. Louis through his age 31 season. Sure, the club wasn't in a position to keep him beyond that with the Anaheim Angels throwing around a quarter billion dollars in a contract now widely viewed as one of the three worst in MLB history. But they kept their superstar for 11 seasons, not seven or eight.
Sending Bryant to the minors seems penny wise -- but pound foolish -- from my perspective.