Arbitrator Mark Irvings accepted Theo Epstein's rationale for delaying Kris Bryant's debut at the start of the 2015 season, concluding there was no proof of "a nefarious motive" by the Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations to delay the third baseman's eligibility for free agency.
In a 42-page decision obtained by The Associated Press, Irvings accepted Epstein's explanation that injuries to Mike Olt and Tommy La Stella prompted the timing of Bryant's call-up to the Cubs in April 2015. Had Bryant been brought up one day earlier, he would have been eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. Instead, he will be eligible after the 2021 season.
"The association could not satisfy its burden of proving that the Cubs' assignments of Bryant were done in bad faith to mask service time manipulation," Irvings wrote. "Given this finding, there is no need to resolve, and this decision does not address, the global issue of whether clubs have the right to manage service time to delay a player's achievement of the service benchmarks for salary arbitration and free agent eligibility."
Hearings were held last Oct. 21-23, with a final day on Nov. 6. Irvings issued his decision to the parties on Feb. 4, but it was not made public.
Now a three-time All-Star third baseman, Bryant hit .425 with nine homers in 40 at-bats during spring training in 2015. Hampered by a sore shoulder, he made three errors in eight games, a factor cited by Epstein as among the reasons for having Bryant start the season at Triple-A Iowa.
"The fact that Bryant amassed the worst fielding percentage of any third baseman in baseball during spring training cannot be ignored," Irvings wrote.
Olt started for the Cubs at third base on opening day and La Stella in the second game. La Stella strained an oblique muscle on April 10 and Olt was hit on his right wrist by a pitch the following day, then diagnosed with a fracture on April 15.
Bryant batted .321 with three homers in seven games at Iowa. The Cubs were off on April 16, and Bryant was brought up to make his debut against San Diego on April 17. If Bryant had been called up a day earlier, he would have had exactly six years of major league service — the time needed for free agency — by the end of the 2020 season.