The MLB PA Sowed the Seeds Keeping Bourn and Lohse Jobless

CBA, Draft, Free Agents, History, Hot Stove, Management, MiLB, Players, Prospects

It’s February 4th and the two biggest names remaining on the free agent market are Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse. With spring training rapidly approaching, there are reasons for both players to still be available at this late date. It’s easy to blame obscene financial demands, agent Scott Boras, age, lack of funds, lack of need or other viable but misapplied reasons. This, however, misses the prominent point that has left them waiting so long: teams don’t want to give up the draft picks. The clubs at the back of the draft probably don’t need Bourn or Lohse; the clubs at the front of the draft won’t want to give up a high pick for Bourn or Lohse leaving them stuck in a middle-limbo.

Because the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to the draconian limits on signing bonuses for draft picks, as well as the compensation due to clubs who made qualifying offers to their free agents that they knew—especially in the case of Boras’s clients—would be rejected, they inadvertently drained the river of cash that would previously have been awaiting players like Bourn and Lohse, both of whom had the best seasons of their careers heading for free agency.

Big league players have long resented the amount of money a draft pick received simply for signing his name. Agents like Boras cannibalized the process by using tactics such as those attempted in the case of J.D. Drew trying to steer his players to preferred locales while being paid millions of dollars straight out of college when they have accomplished nothing in professional baseball. It didn’t work then, but it was a fledgling strategy that agents modified over the years to accrue outlandish bonuses and big league contracts for Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, among others. These payouts also served to force clubs to install a circuit breaker to make these young players earn their fortunes to a greater degree than before.

Unlike the clumsy, blatant, ill-thought-out, illegal and eventually very, very expensive methods owners used in the mid-1980s with collusion trying and briefly succeeding in stopping the free agent migration and limiting salaries, the players walked right into this new legally mandated austerity. Teams don’t have to come up with transparently weak excuses for not pursuing big name free agents. All they need to do is point to the luxury tax penalties on the horizon as the Yankees are, reference the draft picks they’ll lose if they sign a Lohse or Bourn, and explain away the perceived cheapness with statistical reasons that may or may not be spiritually accurate.

In short, with collusion, there was proof that the owners banded together to hold down salaries; with the draft pick compensation, the players agreed to it without truly understanding how it was going to affect them in the long run.

It could be argued that Bourn isn’t worth the $75 million+ that Boras wants, but he’s no less worth it than B.J. Upton and the Braves decided to pay Upton rather than retain Bourn. Upton is younger and has more power, but Bourn has performed on the field with more consistency and desire than Upton ever has. Lohse is at least as good as Ryan Dempster, but Dempster was traded to the Rangers from the Cubs at mid-season. The Red Sox signed Dempster. He doesn’t cost a draft pick and Lohse does.

Until the CBA expires again, agents are going to use various techniques to make sure their players aren’t subject to draft compensation once they reach free agency. In a brilliantly conceived bit of foresight, Boras had it written into Carlos Beltran’s Mets’ contract that the Mets couldn’t offer him arbitration when his contract expired, thereby making him a “free” free agent. The Mets traded him at mid-season 2011 in large part due to that and in large part due to the Giants offering their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler.

In the final year of their contracts, players will also be more demanding when they request a mid-season trade from a non-contender. Zack Greinke was not subject to draft pick compensation because he’d been traded to the Angels at mid-season. While his financial demands precluded at least 25 of the 30 big league clubs from making an offer, it was a comfort for the Dodgers to know that they didn’t have to pay Greinke $147 million while simultaneously surrendering a 1st round draft pick, essentially magnifying his financial and practical cost.

Sign-and-trades are a method used by the hard-cap saddled NBA to make everyone as happy as possible within such a regimented system and get their players the money they desire. It was considered by MLB clubs earlier this winter and the Braves traded Rafael Soriano when he surprisingly accepted their offer of arbitration after the 2009 season. There are loopholes agents will find and exploit. That doesn’t help Bourn and Lohse now.

The players have always been selfish and in many cases, ignorant as to how much of they pie they’re entitled to. As the union heads convinced them to band together, the MLB PA evolved into one of the most powerful and feared unions in sports if not in any industry throughout the world. In search of labor peace and fan/media approval, they’ve forfeited the one hammer they used repeatedly and successfully: a work stoppage. It’s a good thing for the fans that there’s been labor peace since 1995, but for the players they’ve lost much of their bargaining power and the owners—many of whom grew rich in their other businesses by making sure they cut costs wherever they could, especially with their workforce—took advantage of it to maintain “cost certainty,” and “solvency,” on the backs of the players.

Ten years ago, would someone have already signed Bourn for far more than what Boras is now asking? Would someone have signed Lohse? Absolutely. Yet they’re still out there and waiting, hoping that in Bourn’s case the Mets are able to convince MLB to let them keep their first round draft pick if they choose to sign the center fielder or that the Rangers make a late strike; that a club will look at their pitching situation and realize that Lohse can help them and is worth a mid-to-late 1st round draft choice.

MLB shortsightedly doesn’t let clubs trade draft picks and they’ve implemented a hard cap and preventative techniques to stop players from making as much money for as many years as they could. Agents will adapt, but like Curt Flood, Dave McNally, Andy Messersmith and Catfish Hunter, Lohse and Bourn are case studies in why this situation is bad for the players and, like Flood, may not benefit from the fallout as anything but a footnote to get the ball rolling to change.

Players will have to deal with this new landscape until the CBA expires, then they’re going to play hardball to recoup the freedom that they lost through their own selfishness, trust, and bottom-line stupidity.

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Earl Weaver (1930-2013)

All Star Game, Award Winners, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MVP, Players, Playoffs, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

Glenn Gulliver exemplifies what it was that made Earl Weaver different as a manager from his contemporaries. It wasn’t Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr.—all Hall of Famers. Nor was it Ken Singleton, Boog Powell, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar—consistently top performers. It wasn’t Steve Stone or Wayne Garland—pitchers who had their best seasons under Weaver; it wasn’t Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein (an MVP-quality platoon) or role players Benny Ayala and Terry Crowley; it wasn’t even the one year Weaver had Reggie Jackson on his team and punctuated Jackson’s arrival by screaming in his face because Reggie wasn’t wearing a tie on the team plane. (Brooks Robinson found him one and explained how things worked in Baltimore—Earl’s way or…well, it was just Earl’s way. Reggie behaved that year.) It wasn’t the frequent ejections, the foul mouth, the chain-smoking, the public ripping of players, his longevity and consistency.

It was none of that.

It was a nondescript third baseman whom the Orioles purchased from the Indians prior to the 1982 season and who played in 73 big league games, 50 under Weaver. Gulliver, more than any other player, shows why Weaver was ahead of his time. If he were playing today, the two things Gulliver did well would’ve gotten him a multi-year contract as an in demand asset because he: A) walked a lot; and B) could catch the ball at third base.

Gulliver batted .200 in his 50 games under Weaver and walked so much that he had a .363 on base percentage. Weaver saw this, knew this, and could only wonder about the stupidity of those who questioned why Gulliver was playing at all with his low batting average.

Twenty years before Moneyball and everyone thinking they were a genius because they watched baseball for five minutes and knew how to read a stat sheet, Weaver was an actual genius and innovator by using a discarded player who other clubs had no clue was so valuable.

For all the talk of Weaver’s use of statistics, riding his starting pitchers, putting a premium on defense and battles with Palmer and Davey Johnson, the concept that Weaver was a dictator who didn’t know how to be flexible is only half-true. He was a ruthless dictator off the field, but on the field, he was willing to go to whatever lengths he needed in order to win.

Weaver’s teams were always near the top of the league in certain categories. They weren’t always the same. Many times, at the plate, it was on base percentage. On the mound, it was complete games and shutouts. Weaver was known not to be a fan of the riskiness of the stolen base, but as he looked at his transitioning club from 1973-1975 and realized he wouldn’t have the power to win, he let his players loose on the basepaths because he had no other alternative and during those years they were at or near the top of the American League in stolen bases.

If Weaver were managing today, that would be seen as “evolution,” or “adapting.” It wasn’t any of that. Often, the question has been asked how Weaver would function today if he were managing; if the old-school techniques of, “I’m the boss, shut up,” would fly with the multi-millionaire players who can get the manager fired if they choose to do so.

Like wondering why he was using Gulliver, it’s a stupid question. Because Weaver was so ahead of his time as a manager using statistics and that he adjusted and won regardless of his personnel, he would have won whenever he managed.

If a player had any talent to do anything at all, Weaver found it and exploited it for as long as he could, then he discarded them. He did so without apology.

Old-school managers who tear into the absence of the human element, increase of instant replay, and use of numbers are doing so because these techniques are marginalizing them and potentially taking their jobs away. Do you really believe that Weaver wouldn’t have wanted expanded instant replay? To have a better method to find tiny advantages over his opponents through numbers? The older managers who’ve subtly changed have hung around. The ones who couldn’t, haven’t.

On the other hand, Weaver wouldn’t have responded well to agents calling him and complaining over a pitcher’s workload; or to have a kid out of Harvard walking up to him and telling him he should bat X player in Y spot because of a reason that Weaver was probably already aware of and dismissed; or bloggers and the media constantly haranguing, second-guessing and criticizing managers and GMs endure today. But he always altered his strategy to the circumstances and he would’ve continued to do so if he managed in any era.

Interestingly, Weaver retired very young at age 52, then came back to manage a terrible team for a couple of more years before finally retiring for good at 56. In a day when Charlie Manuel, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre managed in their late-60s and early 70s, and Jack McKeon won a World Series at 74 and came back to manage again at 81, could Weaver had continued on? Could he have taken a couple of years off in his 50s and returned? Absolutely. He would’ve been well-compensated and just as successful as he was when he was in his 30s and 40s for one simple reason: he knew what he was doing. And that’s about as great a compliment that a manager can get.

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Soler Provides A Window Into The Future

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Through Jorge Soler, I’ve gazed into the future.

Not because he’s such a hot prospect and was so heavily in demand that the Cubs today signed the 20-year-old Cuban outfielder to a 9-year, $30 million contract. I have no idea how good he is or if he’s going to take 3-5 years of seasoning to become anything close to what his talent indicates he could be. Cubs’ team President Theo Epstein is a good executive, but he’s gotten torched on the international market before both practically and narratively.

The posting fee and signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka was costly. The results were inconsistent at best and, by all accounts, disappointing. One can only hope that Epstein won’t take to calling a 20-year-old from Cuba “Mr.” Soler as he called Matsuzaka “Mr.” Matsuzaka.

When the Red Sox were avidly pursuing Jose Contreras, Epstein had just taken over as their GM and there was still a sense of puppetry with Larry Lucchino holding the strings floating over the head of the then-28-year-old, so it wasn’t such a shock that the story of Epstein being so angry that the Yankees had signed Contreras that he broke a chair in the Nicaragua hotel in a fit of rage.

Epstein vehemently denied it and I believe him. In subsequent years, he became a respected GM and won two championships while working in his hometown and running what isn’t a passion in Boston, but is a religion. It’s no surprise that he was showing the wear of eight years at their helm—he was burned out and needed a new mountain to climb. The Cubs are certainly that.

That said, no one knows what Soler will be. In that sense, he’s like a highly drafted player who is given a massive signing bonus along the lines of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg just for signing his name on a contract.

But he’s not a drafted player. He was a former professional player in Cuba who, because of that status, became an MLB free agent.

It’s ironic that the Soler signing occurred during the frenzied confusion that’s been a corollary to the new MLB draft rules that have the “experts” and advocates of drafting and developing throwing hissy fits over players like Stanford pitcher Mark Appel. Appel was considered one of the top if not the top player in the draft, but fell to the Pirates at 8 because of signability concerns that have placed him in a box: his eligibility as an amateur is exhausted; MLB is the only game in town; it’s sign or don’t play.

A large part of the preparation for a drawn out battle is Appel’s adviser, Scott Boras. Boras has been openly critical of the new draft rules.

You can read about the new draft rules here. They’re hardline to say the least.

It’s only a matter of time before the defector’s handbook is used in the opposite way for the known amateur stars in North America and Canada to circumnavigate the draft. Much like the reserve clause challenged and from which Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally eventually won their freedom from the indentured servitude that used to be in place, someone will try to take MLB to court to negate the draft. From the legal wrangling initiated by Flood, the entire wall came crashing down not long after. It only takes one player and one agent to try and sue baseball to get out of the requirement that the player go to the team that drafted him or be forced to delay the start of his career by years if necessary to get the opportunity to be paid and go to a venue he prefers. J.D. Drew tried something similar when he (also represented by Boras) played with an independent minor league team after being drafted 2nd overall by the Phillies and couldn’t come to an agreement on a contract. The ploy didn’t work, Drew went back into the draft the next year and was taken by the Cardinals with the 5th pick in the first round. This time he signed.

Much like the concussion and long-term damage inspired lawsuits now being filed on behalf of retired NFL players, it only takes one to start the train rolling before others (some traveling in first class; others hopping onto the boxcar) join in and try to get their piece of the American Dream of riches through lawsuits.

That’s not to diminish the tragic deaths of Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Mike Webster among many others, but did they need a warning that playing in the NFL was dangerous? That repeated blows to the head and body would eventually take its toll and that they were trading years off their lives for the money, glory, excitement and perks of playing in the NFL?

How long before Boras convinces a top draft pick to shun MLB and walk through the loophole of age and professional status presented by players who’ve played in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Cuba? According to this piece on MLB.com, that loophole is big enough for a convoy of prospects to walk through—maybe even the entire first round of the draft.

The relevant bit follows:

Not all international players will be subject to these rules. Players in leagues deemed to be professional (those in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Cuba apply), are at least 23 years old and have played a certain number of years in those leagues can be signed without the money counting against the pool. Yoenis Cespedes, the 26-year-old outfielder who is a free agent after defecting from Cuba for example, would not count against the pool. Neither would Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, should he be posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters. But the money spent on Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman, who was 22 when he signed with the Reds almost two years ago, would have counted against the pool.

Japan has a working relationship with MLB that nets them large sums of money for the posting fees on players like Darvish and Matsuzaka so it’s unlikely that they’d want to upset that applecart by messing with MLB’s attempt to install cost certainty into the draft and cap the bonuses, but would Taiwan care? Would Korea? And if Cuba sees a way to really stick it to a big American business that has raided their players and caused embarrassment with worldwide stories on players defecting, what’s to stop them from creating a baseball player program where college age players would be able to come to Cuba, make some money and then walk back into MLB as free agents and make a truckload of cash that they wouldn’t make otherwise?

Don’t think these scenarios haven’t been considered by Boras.

And don’t think that a player isn’t going to be willing to destroy the draft and the rules because it’s depriving him—in a way that doesn’t reflect the capitalism of what America stands for—of the freedom to auction his skills to the highest bidder due to MLB’s oligarchical constraints.

Baseball as an industry has to think about this. They never thought the reserve clause would be struck down, but it was. The same thing could happen to the draft if they wind up in front of the wrong judge.

It’s going to be tested. Soon.

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