When the terms of the new labor agreement were negotiated a year ago, the rules about draft-pick compensation were changed in an effort to help free agents.
In the past, there had been instances of second- or third-tier players not getting offers because teams didn't want to surrender the required draft-pick compensation. Most famously, Juan Cruz -- a journeyman middle reliever who had some good numbers -- was once classified as a Type A free agent, and because signing Cruz meant sacrificing a top draft pick, nobody pursued him for months, and he eventually signed a modest, two-year, $6 million deal with the Kansas City Royals.
The new rules were designed to ensure that only elite free agents, who received $13.3 million qualifying offers from their former teams, were attached to draft-pick compensation. The hope was that the compensation wouldn't hinder the players at all this winter.
But that's not how it's playing out, in the eyes of some general managers and agents. It's not a coincidence, in their eyes, that some of the biggest free agents still on the board are players tied to draft-pick compensation -- most notably Rafael Soriano. "He's a good pitcher," said one GM, "but I don't think teams are wild about giving up a draft pick for a reliever."
Especially in light of other rule changes -- the draft and international signing spending caps, which prevent teams that sign top free agents from making up for lost picks by splurging on picks in later rounds. Because teams have constrained opportunity to improve their organizations through the draft, they are more reluctant to surrender picks.
"You know who the luckiest [free agents] were?" asked one GM rhetorically. "Those guys who got traded in midseason."
Shane Victorino, for example, and Anibal Sanchez. Because they were dealt after the season opened, they were no longer subject to draft-pick compensation, which probably helped their chances of getting big-money contracts.
Consider how the Boston Red Sox did their picking and choosing among free agents:
• Victorino, traded in midseason.
• Ryan Dempster, traded in midseason -- also not tied to draft-pick compensation.
• Mike Napoli, who was not given a qualifying offer by the Texas Rangers; no draft-pick compensation. (The Red Sox and Napoli are still haggling over a restructuring of his deal, after red flags popped up in his medicals.)
This is not a coincidence. LaRoche has been sitting on a two-year offer for weeks from the Nationals, and while he might fit the Rangers or the Chicago White Sox, the fact that he would cost a top draft pick is really hurting him.
There are some teams that still have money to spend in the last half of the offseason, such as the Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs and Rangers. But some officials believe that the draft-pick compensation has become a real factor in the size and scope of the offers.
For example: In theory, the Cubs could be interested in someone like Michael Bourn, a proven performer. But because they know they would have to surrender a top pick to sign him, their deal with him would have to be team friendly -- a contract that would essentially account for what the team perceives to be the value of the draft pick being surrendered. (In their case, a second-round pick, as the top 10 picks of the draft are protected, and the Cubs hold the No. 2 overall pick.)
"You've got to keep your picks, because there aren't as many ways to get better as there used to be," said one official.
Nobody can fully forecast the impact of a new of rules until they're put into use, and the loopholes and the problems are then exposed by smart executives and agents. It seems that once again, an adjustment will be needed with the draft-pick compensation rules in the next round of negotiations. Maybe the qualifying offers should be comprised of three years, instead of one. If the New York Yankees had been required to offer Soriano a three-year deal at $13.3 million annually in order to recoup a draft pick, there is no chance they would've done that, and Soriano would have hit the market free and clear.
As it stands, however, he is now in draft-pick purgatory. The Yankees almost certainly won't consider taking him back because they would prefer the draft pick (and don't have room in their budget for him, anyway), and some teams that engage with him probably will be looking for a discount to offset the value of the pick they'd have to give up to sign him.
Draft pick compensation was designed to provide a team some relief after they lost a significant player. It was never meant to be a drag on the player's market value in free agency. For some free agents, the system continues to be a drag.
Around the league
The Mariners have found out it's all about timing, in their rebuilding.
• By the way: The Cubs never thought they were on the cusp of signing Anibal Sanchez. They thought they were fighting an uphill battle to wrest him away from the Tigers -- and they lost.
• Ichiro told the Athletics he thinks that Hiroyuki Nakajima will hit in the big leagues. After watching this video, I think the biggest question will be whether Nakajima's throwing arm is strong enough to play shortstop in the majors. Mike Bordick didn't have a strong arm and made it work, and the same could be said for Omar Vizquel in the latter half of his career.
Oakland's investment in Nakajima, $6.5 million over two years, is modest enough to give the Athletics some flexibility in evaluating and placing him. If Nakajima -- a Gold Glove shortstop in Japan -- plays the position well enough, the Athletics will have good value. If not, he can be shifted into more of a utility role and Oakland can seek an alternative in midseason.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Phil Mickelson says he won't be part of the Padres' ownership group.
3. Pete Rose Jr. was picked to manage.
5. Washington's roster is good, but not complete, writes Adam Kilgore.
9. The Braves are still looking for a left fielder, writes David O'Brien. From his piece: