We’re basically two weeks from seeing pitchers and catchers in uniforms. Baseball season still feels cruelly distant (for non-believers in the World Baseball Classic), but it’s not much longer that we can truly call this the offseason. Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse remain free agents. Something’s gotta give, and soon.
Anyone reading this (and a heartfelt thanks to all three or four of you) probably knows already that Bourn and Lohse are being held back by the draft-pick compensation attached to each when they sign elsewhere. Because their 2012 teams – the Atlanta Braves, for Bourn; the St. Louis Cardinals, for Lohse – offered them one-year, $13.3-million deals way back in November, and because they each declined those opportunities, whatever team now signs them stands to lose their first-round pick (or second if they pick among the top 10 in the first round, as those selections are protected). The Braves and Cardinals each stand to gain a pick sandwiched between the first and second rounds of the June draft.
Those picks are more valuable and irreplaceable than ever this time around. The new rules implemented when the MLB Players’ Association and owners hammered out a five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement put strict spending limits on the amateur draft, with the total amount available to each club depending upon where and how often they appear in the draft’s top 10 rounds. As a result, teams have been openly reluctant to surrender draft choices in order to sign anyone. It brought down the price on relief pitcher Rafael Soriano demonstrably, such that Soriano got barely 65 percent of the guarantee given to Jonathan Broxton, a clearly inferior hurler. It has also kept Bourn and Lohse on the market deeper into the offseason than top-tier free agents ever go, as evidenced by the fact that Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of Prince Fielder officially signing with the Detroit Tigers.
Bourn and Lohse don’t yet have their backs to the wall, but they’re definitely backpedaling, and the wall is coming up behind them. It’s time for Scott Boras to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Here are three ways he can do so:
1. Wait the bastards out.
Both Bourn and Lohse are looking for long-term deals, likely to be their last given their ages and profiles. Neither will be well-served by signing a short deal and going through the same brutal process a year from now.
Each might do better, in fact, to simply wait until June 10 or so to sign. The compensation pick does not carry beyond the draft, according to Jim Callis of Baseball America. Although the risk would probably be too much for Lohse, Bourn could go play in an independent league until June, then sign a five-year deal unencumbered right after the draft. He might even have a better market, of some team seems surprisingly well-positioned to contend and needs a center fielder.
2. The sign-and-trade
Obviously, the Braves would not lose a pick by re-signing Bourn. Nor would St. Louis lose one for bringing back Lohse. At the moment, though, neither team has any real need for their erstwhile star.
No rule prevents them, though, from signing their guy at terms hammered out by a third party, then dealing them to that third party for something roughly equivalent to the pick that team would otherwise have lost.
This stratagem could be on the table for either team. The Braves gave up their first-round choice to sign B.J. Upton earlier this winter, so they’d likely be loathe to let the potential compensatory pick go. However, they’re also a major contender, and they have uncertainty at third base and at the back of their rotation.
In one scenario, the Cubs could negotiate a deal with Bourn, then convince Atlanta to sign him so that Chicago (a rebuilding club disinterested in giving up a long-term asset like a draft pick) could keep all their selections. To make it work, they could deal from their considerable starting pitching depth.
Another Bourn suitor, the Texas Rangers, could offer third-base prospect Mike Olt for a pre-signed Bourn and a spare arm from the Atlanta system.
Lohse’s situation would be even simpler and more manageable. St. Louis didn’t give up any picks this winter, and already have Baseball America’s top-rated farm system. The value proposition would be much simpler. They could sign Lohse, then trade him to (for instance) the Rangers for shortstop prospect Leury Garcia, or to the Boston Red Sox for Jose Iglesias, or to the New York Yankees for Eduardo Nunez. These are uncharted waters for negotiation – what is a second-round pick worth, in a league that has never permitted the trading of picks? – but Boras is a master facilitator.
3. Cry Collusion
It’s been a fairly anti-competitive winter of front-office quotes about free agents. They’re not in true, legal, punishable cahoots, as they were back in 1987, but there are elements of collusion in the behavior GMs and owners have displayed this winter, a fairly concerted effort to subtly undermine a player market seemingly poised to skyrocket as new TV revenue floods the game.
Boras doesn’t have to prove anything. He just has to make someone sweat. The Cubs are a big-market team whose payroll fell $50 million from 2011-12, and will rise only slightly in 2013. They are stuck in a PR battle they can’t win over stadium renovations, and need some goodwill. Boras should target them as a Bourn suitor. He should also lean on the Rangers, the Mariners, the Royals, the Yankees and the Rays.
Lohse could be the perfect fit for the Orioles, who haven’t done much to reinforce the team that used smoke and mirrors to reach the playoffs last year, despite a strong fan response. Boras could use the Marlins as a scapegoat; they flooded the market with one big trade, made to cut costs. He could use the Mets. He could use anyone or anything. It would be a last-ditch publicity campaign, nothing more, but as those go, it would be fairly well-founded. Even I would buy in.
I have to confess that I’m rooting like Hell for Boras. The owners used the new draft system to absolutely slash their budgets for amateur talent acquisition, making it an ever riskier proposition to try a baseball career, at home or in Latin America. Meanwhile, they managed to finagle rules that also restrict and effectively cap prices at the top of the market for free agents. It was a money grab, and sort of a despicable one. I hope Boras carves them up.Next post: Fun with Managerial Stats: Dale Sveum is Sweet Relief from Mike Quade for the Chicago Cubs
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