With Christmas come and gone and so much movement having already happened this Hot Stove season in MLB, the four most prominent remaining free agents are Michael Bourn, Adam LaRoche, Kyle Lohse and Rafael Soriano. Since all four are among the group (it only began a group of nine) who received qualifying offers from their 2012 teams that ensure draft-pick compensation, it has become en vogue to opine that the new system clearly is hurting these players’ value on the free-agent market.

It may turn out to be true, too. So far, though, that case is not a compelling one. Let;s examine it for a moment.

Again, nine players initially received the newly-created qualifying offers (one year, $13.3 million) that (under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement) guarantee a compensatory draft pick after the first round to the offering team if the guy signs elsewhere. By rule, the team that signs each of those players loses their first-round pick–unless they had one of baseball’s 10 worst records last year, in which case they lose their second-round selection. Two of those players quickly re-signed with the incumbent clubs. Three have signed with new teams. Four remain.

B.J. Upton, Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher are the men who have changed teams so far. Upton got a five-year, $75.5-million deal from Atlanta after receiving an offer from the Rays; Hamilton declined an offer from the Rangers and got $125 million over five years from the Angels; and Swisher left the Yankees for $56 million over four years, plus a vesting option for 2017.

Those three clearly got market value for their services. To whatever extent they might provide surplus value over the lives of their deals, it will be because their respective points of uncertainty (Upton’s alarming lack of on-base skills the past two years; Hamilton’s history of addiction, injury and prolonged slumps; and Swisher’s strikeout-rate spike) will not become serious problems.

All three signed for something close to full value, because all three teams doing the signing had plenty of incentives to ignore the new rules that makes draft choices very valuable and simply lock in on their targets. The Braves made an offer to Bourn, so signing Upton simply moved them down a few slots in the draft order. The Angels play in what is becoming baseball’s most loaded division; have little chance of building a farm system that can sustain their competitiveness on its own merit within the next five years; and have key players who will never be better than they are right now. The Indians needed a first baseman/right fielder with thump, and their first-round pick was protected, anyway.

Think about what a draft pick is. It’s a long-term asset, with virtually no immediate value. It’s a high-risk, high-reward stock, but one that the buyer knows will not shoot upward for at least the next two years or so. Therefore, teams can basically arrive at the conclusion that giving up that pick is worthwhile through one of two calculi:

1. The contract/player they are acquiring is a long-term asset itself. This is true of both the Upton and Hamilton deals. They’re five-year commitments, but also five-year assets. The upside may be lower, and the term of control over the asset is nearly always shorter (how many draft picks reach free agency within six or even seven or eight years of being chosen?), but the risk is minuscule, compared to the riskiness of any draft pick outside the top five. If you have the choice between a long-term asset with (relatively) low risk and a slightly longer-term one with very high risk, very often, the former is a better bet.
2. The time value of the contract/player they are acquiring outweighs the greater total value of keeping your draft position. These cases are somewhat more rare, and crucially, it takes longer for them to take shape. The last time Rafael Soriano was a free agent, the Yankees’ ownership overruled GM Brian Cashman and signed Soriano, at the expense of the team’s top pick, because they saw a lack of depth in the Yankees bullpen that threatened to compromise a loaded roster’s shot at reaching the World Series. The new system complicates matters, because a draft pick is more valuable than it used to be–that’s a topic for another time. However, it is still true, sometimes, that a team primed for a major playoff push is better served to surrender the long-term asset of a draft pick for the short-term gain a player can provide.

The latter case, as I noted, always takes a while to crystallize. You can’t know how well-positioned you are to profit from a marginal win or three in the coming season until you more or less know what shape your roster (and those of your opponents) will be in come Opening Day. Therefore, you can’t know quite how to value the potential addition of the player to whom the poison pill of a lost pick is attached until you see where you stand.

In this tumultuous offseason, no one is at that stage yet. The Tigers say they don’t plan to bid on Soriano; they’re prepared to go into 2013 with rookie Bruce Rondon in the closer’s role. In a month, though, if the Royals have added (for instance) Kyle Lohse, that calculus changes. The Rangers say they don’t have much interest in giving up a draft choice to sign Adam LaRoche. However, in a month, they might have missed on one or two other potential solutions to the need for another left-handed bat, and with the Angels having already given them a compensatory pick by signing away Hamilton, they might well soften that stance.

In the end, maybe these four free agents WILL lose money to the new rules. In many ways, the owners have cleverly rigged the system to cap top-of-the-market free-agent payouts, which might slowly bring down the demands of even players who sign pre-free-agent extensions with their initial clubs. For now, though, it’s impossible to say. When the music stops, it usually feels more like teams are scrambling to find the right player, not like players are clamoring to find one last open spot on whatever team will take them.

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