(Photo by Associated Press)
(Keith Law’s prospects rankings are out on ESPN.com, and he’s not quite as high on Mariners’ minor-leaguers as other analysts. Taijuan Walker rises from No. 24 to No. 9, but Danny Hultzen tumbles from 30 to 66, Nick Franklin falls from 57 to 69, and James Paxton drops off the list completely after sitting at No. 51 last year. Mike Zunino debuts at No. 15, and Brandon Maurer is on the list of 10 players who just missed the top 100. Jesus Montero was No. 9 last year on Law’s list and is ineligible this year after a full season in the majors. Yesterday, Law had the Mariners’ farm system ranked No. 8 in the majors).
As Yahoo’s Jeff Passan pointed out recently, Scott Boras is known as “Mr. January” by MLB owners for his habit of waiting until the new year to find lavish free-agent deals for his client.
The list is long, the contracts are lucrative, the most recent example being Prince Fielder, who signed for nine years, $214 million last Jan. 24.
This year, however, Boras is going to have to become Mr. February. Two of his top free agents, pitcher Kyle Lohse and outfielder Michael Bourn, remain unsigned. The assumption in the industry is that this is the case not because Boras is waiting for a panicky team to relent to the terms he is seeking — which he has invariably been able to do successfully over the years. But rather, those clients are the unwitting victims of changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement governing free agency.
To summarize: If a team offered one of their own free agents a “qualifying offer” (definied as the average of the 125 highest-paid players in the majors the previous season, which added up to $13.3 million this year, but will no doubt go up in future years) then the team stands to get a draft pick in next year’s draft as compensation if that player signs elsewhere. That pick would be at the end of the first round. Only nine players received such offers, because here is the catch: The player has the option of accepting the qualifying offer, so you had better be prepared to pay that player $13 million. It’s much like the old system of having to offer arbitration to free agents to get a draft pick as compensation — you had to be prepared for the player to accept arbitration.
Now, once the qualifying offer has been put forward, and rejected, as was the case with nine players this year, then they become free agents, with a catch. The team that signs one of those players has to forfeit their first-round pick next year (except for the teams picking one through 10 in the draft; they give up their second-round pick). Not only that, but they must give up the slot money that goes with the first-round pick, part of another change in the CBA. Teams no longer can spend whatever they feel like on the draft. They are given a pool of money they can’t exceed without having to pay a significant tax — the worst the team finished the previous year, the larger their draft pool. Last year, in the first year of the system, some teams (most notably the Astros) spent less than their slotted first-round money in order to have more to spend in subsequent rounds — theoretically allowing them to get better value for those picks. So losing the first-round slot money could have ramifications beyond just the first round.
Getting the qualifying offer has proven to be a curse for many of the affected players.
Of the nine players, three re-signed with their previous team: David Ortiz (Red Sox), Hiroki Kuroda (Yankees), and Adam LaRoche (Nationals). Ortiz and Kuroda probably weren’t going anywhere else, but LaRoche appeared to not find the market he had hoped for, and took two years and an option from Washington rather than the three years he was seeking.
Josh Hamilton, the best position player on the market, had no issues, getting a five-year, $125 million contract from the Angels, who will lose the No. 22 overall pick next year by doing so. And the Braves were willing to give up the No. 28 pick to get B.J. Upton. Boras has always done well placing clients with the Nationals, and this year was no exception, with reliever Rafael Soriano signing a two-year, $28-million deal. Nick Swisher signed for four years, $56 million (less than projected) with Cleveland, which as a protected team only had to give up its second rounder.
So that leaves Lohse, who was 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA for the Cardinals last year, and Bourn, who was the sixth-rated position player in WAR in the National League, still dangling on the market. They are clearly victims of the new system. If the loss of a draft pick wasn’t attached, no doubt a larger and more vigorous market for their services would have developed. I would never, ever doubt Boras’s ability to ultimately come away with a great contract — he’s done it far too many times — but it will take all his skill and persuasive power this time around. (There are rumblings now that the Mets’ interest in Bourn is growing, particularly if they can convince MLB to keep them from losing a first-round pick). Both players come with enough questions that many teams have decided, at least for now, it’s not worth a large commitment in years and dollars, PLUS a draft pick, to sign the player.
Which brings us to the Mariners, and Michael Bourn. I’ve advocated for him for quite awhile, and I still see him as a good final piece for the Mariners’ offseason reworking. Or near-final — his acquisition would free the Mariners to trade Franklin Gutierrez for pitching help, perhaps to the Dodgers for Chris Capuano, as Geoff has suggested. Eric Wedge has talked a lot this winter about how the new hitting acquisitions — Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales, along with Raul Ibanez — will allow the Mariners to take young players like Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak out of the No. 3 and 4 spots in the batting order and put them in less pressurized spots down in the lineup. The acquisition of Bourn would do the same for Dustin Ackley, who never seemed a good fit in the leadoff spot. Whether that was attributible to his injury (bone spurs removed out of the season) is a fair question, but Bourn’s presence would move Ackley him to a seemingly better fit as the likely No. 2 hitter. You’re looking at a possible lineup of:
CF Michael Bourn
2B Dustin Ackley
DH Kendrys Morales
RF/LF Michael Morse
3B Kyle Seager
1B Justin Smoak
C Jesus Montero
LF/RF Michael Saunders
SS Brendan Ryan
That’s not a bad major-league lineup, even if you fiddle with a couple of the spots in the batting order. I understand you can have a spirited debate about how good Bourn will be moving forward, at age 30, as a speed/defense guy. I understand (but disagree with) the reluctance to sign Bourn because of the failure of Chone Figgins (different guy, largely irrelevant to this discussion, in my opinion). But I think Bourn is a dynamic player who would make the Mariners significantly better. They still have room in the payroll to add his contract, at least based on the projections that they were prepared to raise the payroll above $90 million.
You have to wonder if Boras’s reported asking price of reportedly something like $75 million for five years for Bourn will be coming down as spring training nears. Buster Olney tweeted this today: “The Indians are among the teams that might have interest in Bourn if his asking price drops “A LOT.” If the years and money drop, I think it would behoove the Mariners to jump in despite the loss of the draft pick. Certainly, this organization has thrived on its high draft picks since Jack Zduriencik and scouting director Tom McNamara came aboard. But this is universally regarded as a weak year for draft talent. I’m sure McNamara would respond that great players are still going to be out there — and that’s the way he should think. The Mariners will draft 12th overall, an awfully high pick to forfeit. I understand the reluctance to do so. Looking at No. 12 picks since 1980 shows a completely mixed bag, from stars (Chris Sale, Jay Bruce, Jered Weaver, Nomar Garciaparra, Matt Morris) to solid players (Brett Myers, Delino DeShields, Joe Saunders, Oddibe McDowell, Doug Glanville) to fringy major-league players (Lastings Milledge, Joe Borchard, Todd Ritchie, Ken Felder, Scott Hemond, Jeff Reed) to washouts (Mike Jones, Kasey Kiker, Aaron Akin, Tom Fischer, Jay Roberts, Ron DeLucchi).
No real trend there — it comes down to scouting acumen and a little bit of luck. In Bourn, on the other hand, you’d be getting an established major-leaguer with a strong track record. No guarantees there, either, but I think he would push the Mariners forward now, as opposed to two, three or four years from now — and by waiting out the market, you might get a better deal. Much could depend on whether the Mets get an indication that MLB will bend on the draft pick, which is a fascinating debate in its own right. If they only have to lose a second-round pick, I think the Mets would leap into the favorite’s role for Bourn. If not, it’s still wide open.
At any rate, this one is going to start moving forward soon, you’ve got to believe, unless Boras is prepared to have Bourn remain unsigned when camp opens in a week.