I wrote about the mistake the Major League Baseball Players Association made in allowing draft pick compensation to infiltrate big league free agency here, but in a more human sense, it’s unfair to the players like Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse that the situation has reached the point it has.
Neither Bourn nor Lohse are prototypical “star” players. This is part of the problem with the draft pick compensation being so steep in that it costs a club drafting between numbers 11 and 30 the pick to sign one of these players. Teams are willing to surrender draft picks to sign Josh Hamilton, but rarely with Bourn or Lohse. The middle class is getting squeezed and that’s not the idea of free agency.
The Indians signed Bourn two days ago and have been on a spending spree of sorts (for them) in getting a big name manager (Terry Francona), and a bat (Nick Swisher), after making a bold trade of Shin-Soo Choo to get Trevor Bauer. But the Indians were so bad last season that they’re picking 5th overall and the top 10 picks are protected. They have to give up later round picks, but that’s not as costly as a top 5 pick.
There’s also been talk that the money the clubs surrender in the draft when they sign a free agent is a deterrent. I don’t see it as prohibitive as others do. The slot money has limited the bonuses drafted players can receive, so if the team doesn’t have the draft pick, then what do they need the extra bonus money for other than to pay extra (and have agents of draftees knowing they can pay extra) for later round picks? It’s like having $50 in your pocket and no credit card. You can’t spend any more than that, so it is what it is and you can buy goods for up to $50 and no more.
What’s truly wrong with this situation is what it’s doing to a pitcher like Lohse, who had his career year in 2012. In years past without the deterrent of compensation and punitive damages to an interested team, Lohse would have gotten a 3-year deal from someone. While that’s short of what Scott Boras would prefer, it would be lucrative along the lines of what an inferior pitcher like Jeremy Guthrie and a similar performer Ryan Dempster received. And he’d have a place to go in spring training rather than sitting around, waiting and lamenting his fate.
The current circumstances are worthy of scrutiny. Perhaps it would be fairer to the players if the qualifying offer remained on the table until they signed elsewhere so if this situation arises again, they can just accept it and go back to their former team, perhaps to be traded but at least paid for one year. This would discourage teams from making the offer to the middling players.
Lohse, having just had the best year of his career, shouldn’t have to be scrounging for work especially in the same off-season in which Melky Cabrera—suspended for PED use and having taken part in an elaborate scheme to get away with it—received $16 million from the Blue Jays. This is not what Marvin Miller had in mind when he fought for the players’ collective freedoms to go where they want to go based on their performance and the market, not to preserve the right to draft some kid coming out of high school 15th overall who might never make it past A ball.
No solution helps Lohse now. He’s on the sidelines not because his demands are too steep, but because teams wouldn’t want to trade the pick and the contract money for Lohse even if he was coming at a discount for one year. Lohse isn’t a great pitcher and there’s every chance that he was a creation of Dave Duncan and will revert to the mediocre and worse pitcher he was in every prior stop before getting to the Cardinals, but he doesn’t deserve to receive the prototypical “death penalty” as if he was a football coach and committed an NCAA recruiting violation.