Like Wood, Cubs should be careful with phenom
Some years ago, the Cubs had a phenom tearing it up in spring training.
What to do with that kid?
"Bring him," said one veteran.
That kid's name was Kerry Wood, and it was the spring of 1998. After one Cactus League game, I went up to veteran catcher Scott Servais and asked where Wood ranked among pitchers he had caught, based on pure stuff.
All Servais did was hold up his index finger. Numero uno.
The Cubs did not bring Wood to Chicago out of spring training. They waited until the middle of April after reliever Bob Patterson got hurt. Wood made his major-league debut on April 12, 1998 at Montreal, striking out the first batter he faced, Mark Grudzielanek.
The rest, as you know, is star-crossed history, as Wood went on to fortune and fame but not as much baseball glory as he or Cubs fans would have liked, largely due to injuries.
But by waiting to have Wood make his major-league debut, the Cubs saved a full year on his free-agency clock.
Fast-forward to today.
The Cubs have another phenom in camp -- third baseman Kris Bryant -- and he's tearing things up, entering Monday leading spring training with 6 home runs.
Bryant has yet to play in a regular-season major-league game, and many want him to make the opening-day roster.
If Cubs president Theo Epstein is smart -- and I don't think there's any debate that he is -- he'll use the leverage allowed him and hold Bryant back a few days.
Players attain free agency after six full years of major-league service. Even if a player is brought up a few weeks into his first season, he does not get the full year, and the club gets essentially seven seasons out of him before he can become a free agent.
That's business, and that's how it works. Players get their leverage after three years (some with two) of service when they can become eligible for salary arbitration, thus increasing their salaries before they hit free agency.
One of my favorite sites, fangraphs.com, has a good explanatory article on the situation as it relates to Bryant.
"A year of service time is equal to 172 days, and there are normally around 183 total days in the major-league calendar," writes author Craig Edwards. "This means that if a team wants to keep a prospect from accruing a full year of service time, they simply need to leave that player in the minors for around 15-20 days out of the entire season."
During Wood's first year, the season began on March 31. Opening Day this year is April 5, so if the Cubs don't bring Bryant with them out of spring training, his major-league debut would come a little later in the month.
There is other precedent for not opening the season with a highly touted prospect.
Another fangraphs.com article cites Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria.
"For example, the Rays left Evan Longoria in the minors for the first two weeks of the 2008 season; as a result, if Longoria hadn't signed his long-term contract, he would have been under team control through the 2014 season instead of the 2013 season," the article stated.
For fans who say the Cubs are damaging their chances for a playoff spot by not bringing Bryant right away, it should be noted that the 2008 Rays, under current Cubs manager Joe Maddon, went to the World Series having not brought Longoria to the big leagues until April 12. Although the Cubs figure to be much improved this season, there is no guarantee of them going to the postseason, with or without Bryant for a full year.
As I pointed out recently with the Wrigley Field renovations, it's important to take the long view when talking about Bryant and his timetable.
Bryant, the Cubs' first-round draft pick in 2013, is 23 years old. If the Cubs start him on Opening Day, they risk losing him after the 2020 season, when he will be 28. If they can keep him off the market until he completes a season at 29, all the better for them.
Of course, it's possible the Cubs could sign Bryant to a long-term contract before he hits free agency, as they did with Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo. However, Bryant is represented by superagent Scott Boras, who no doubt wants the kid in Chicago right away and who also likes to see his clients reach free agency and maximize their earning potential. There's nothing wrong with that.
A lot can and will happen between now and 2020 or 2021. Bryant could tell Boras he wants to stay long term in Chicago, or he could switch agents, as many players do. Or the whole service-time issue could change, as has been suggested. To Bryant's credit, he has done and said all the right things whenever he's asked about it, which is often.
In any event, by the time we hit 2020 and 2021, what's happening now likely will be forgotten, or some writer will bring it up, just as one did with the Kerry Wood situation.
• Follow Bruce on Twitter@BruceMiles2112.