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Is what the Cubs are doing with 24-year-old second baseman Nico Hoerner service time manipulation? The most important answer is neither yes nor is it no: it’s that it doesn’t matter as much as it should, thanks to the Cubs themselves.
This isn’t the same as saying it’s not worth pointing out that what the Cubs are doing is service time manipulation. It’s that we still don’t have a definitive answer on what service time manipulation is, even though it sure felt like we were going to know well before this time last spring. The Cubs won Kris Bryant’s service time manipulation grievance last February, and that, in essence, was that for a while in terms of the players’ side being able to successfully point out that clubs were trying to get away with something as far as service time is concerned. As I wrote at the time the grievance was being arbitrated, the implications went far beyond just the state of Bryant’s tenure with the Cubs:
[The Cubs] explained Bryant’s demotion as necessary to work on his defense at third base, and for him to cut down on his strikeouts. And yet, despite this need for additional work, the Cubs didn’t take any steps to get Bryant additional playing time and chances to improve in between the end of the 2014 minor-league season and the start of the 2015 regular season, in order to benefit both parties the following season: Bryant wasn’t called up in September, where he could have picked up some at-bats and time in the field, or at least do big-league drills with big-league instructors, and Chicago didn’t send him to the Arizona Fall League or one of the various winter leagues, either. Those latter options would have been a little weird for this high-ranked of a prospect who was already in Triple-A, sure, but no weirder or less demoralizing than, say, holding back the same prospect by keeping him in Triple-A even longer when he clearly didn’t need what that level offered, if he needed anything at all.
That’s why this grievance is more about the correct interpretation of service time rules and applications than anything else, and why a victory by Bryant’s side could have far-reaching implications. If teams are made very aware by the decision here that service time shenanigans will no longer play, then they won’t be able to do what they’ve done to Bryant and others since going forward. They might find some new loophole to exploit, sure, but the current method of service time manipulation will no longer work. It’s like what happened with collusion in the 1980s: the Players Association kept filing grievances, but the collusion kept happening year after year, until an arbitrator sided with players on the first case and it became obvious to even the bumbling owners listening to then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth that collusion like they had been doing wasn’t going to work to suppress salaries in the long run.
The problem is that the reverse happened, and Bryant lost what should have obviously been a case of service time manipulation, in large part because of the way the Cubs (and Major League Baseball) defended against the grievance. By arguing that Bryant still wasn’t ready when he made it to the bigs, from the Cubs’ point of view, but was “forced” to head to the majors when Mike Olt, the third baseman who never should have been playing the hot corner in place of Bryant to begin with, was injured, the league’s teams managed to push off the larger discussion and ramifications of their service time manipulation. So, now we’re here in spring training 2021, the first regular-length season since the decision on Bryant, and we’re right back to business as usual with potential service time shenanigans, since no reckoning was forced upon the teams making these decisions.
Now, Hoerner’s time in the majors hasn’t been stellar, by any means, but he played well enough in Double-A in 2019, and didn’t embarrass himself in 20 games in the majors that year. His 2020 season was much worse, but trying to draw any definitive conclusions from that season is probably going to be a bad idea, generally speaking. He’s 24, hasn’t played at Triple-A yet, and hasn’t excelled in the majors. However, he’s had a hell of a spring, and at a time when his only competition for the second base job is Eric Sogard, who was even worse in 2020 than Hoerner was, and, it’s not like that was an irregular Sogard performance. He’s awful more often than he’s mediocre, and as he’s 35, it’s not a stretch to say this is who he is.
His spring wasn’t much to write home about, and while spring training certainly isn’t the end all be all, when you’ve got the younger guy with promise vs. the low upside, usually bad player, and the former has a kick ass spring, there’s nothing wrong with going in that direction. Instead, the Cubs will keep Hoerner out of game action for a month, as the Minor League Baseball season won’t begin until May, and in doing so they’ll likely recoup all of the service time his previous stints in the majors got him. According to Jeff Passan, 36 days in the minors will earn the Cubs an extra year of team control on Hoerner. Minor League Opening Day is 33 days after MLB Opening Day, so Chicago has this in the bag unless Sogard ends up injured like Olt was.
Hoerner clearly needs reps and playing time in order to continue developing, but the Cubs won’t give it to him. The priority is so obviously in getting that extra year of service: otherwise, why would you put Eric Sogard in a position to pick up big-league at-bats in 2021? Normally, you could argue that Hoerner wouldn’t get enough playing time cooped up on the bench behind second baseman David Bote, but there is no alternative thanks to the way the coronavirus pandemic has impacted MLB’s scheduling: Hoerner is going to be at the alternate site, not playing in games for the next month, instead of in the majors with big-league coaches and big-league drills and big-league pitchers as competition. But at least the Cubs will get to control his destiny for an entire other year because of it!