Peter Gammons: Current free agency and draft system flawed

stephen drew

When Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Marlins counterpart Dan Jennings sat and watched North Carolina State lefthander Carlos Rodon Friday night, their decisions played out in front of them. Rodon is big, he’s lefthanded, he’s been the projected first pick for more than a year now, and while some executives have had concerns about Rodon’s fastball command and heavy use of his slider, Luhnow, with the first pick a month from now, and Jennings, who follows the Astros, have clear, developmental decisions.

Do the Astros, whose best prospect (shortstop Carlos Correa) is in the California League on a terrific prospect team, want to spread their draft allotment out over three or four players in lieu of having Rodon in their 2016 rotation, especially when last year’s number one, Mark Appel, is back in their extended spring program after problems adjusting to their developmental piggyback pitching program? Or do they want to go the high school route with lefthander Brady Aiken from San Diego, and try to paint a broader landscape?

For the Marlins, if Rodon is there, it is a simple choice. Like Jose Fernandez, Rodon is of Cuban decent. With Fernandez, Nate Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Andrew Heaney, Anthony DeSclafani, Adam Conley, et al, the Marlins could have one of the most dominant starting pitching staffs in the game, all while the progress of their young players have taken a huge leap this season.

Simple enough. We know there will be some drama in the contract negotiations, but, chances are they will sign. Fine.

But because Major League Baseball wanted to lessen the power of agents and limit the money paid to amateur prospects—which, in reality, was per club less than the arbitration value of a prime closer—they established a system linking free agency and the draft that purported to improve parity. Now, the system is still based on losing, so a top six market like the Astros can get the first pick three years in a row by putting out a last place product, with very little reward for small market, nickel-and-dime revenue clubs like the Athletics and Rays who annually put forth a pennant-contending product.

Meanwhile, with the qualifying offer system that links draft choices—and, unlike the past, draft slot money that keeps teams like the Red Sox, Tigers and Cubs from signing free agents then paying top round money to lower round prospects to build their systems. That draft slot money is extremely significant, because while the Yankees didn’t have any qualms about surrendering their draft pick and the slot money for a star player like Jacoby Ellsbury, other teams are hesitant to sign complimentary players; hence, Jhonny Peralta is signed and playing. Stephen Drew is not, and we’ve all been hearing that eight days a week.

We get the Scott Boras debate. Should he have advised Drew to take the $14.1M qualifying offer from the Red Sox? In hindsight, probably, and let the Red Sox figure out the whole Xander Bogaerts/Will Middlebrooks/Garin Cecchini/Deven Marrero jam over time. We all hear arguments that Drew is a .243 hitter since he suffered a severe ankle injury with the Diamondbacks and since that injury played 86, 70 and 124 games.

At the time, there were more eyebrows raised when Kendrys Morales turned down the $14.1M from the Mariners. Morales’ market was limited by the fact many teams consider him a DH; he’s played 59 games at first base since 2010. Nelson Cruz also turned down the qualifying offer from the Rangers and ended up signing with the Orioles for $8M with the 2013 suspension fresh in people’s minds, but he got to a good lineup on a good team in a great hitters’ park, and one way or another can make in excess of $30M over three years whether the Orioles make him another qualifying offer, or not.

Here’s a question: how did the union allow management the right to hold a player to a restrictive qualifying offer more than once? Was this sold to them by someone marketing electronic fences for puppies?

Obviously Boras is now going to wait on Drew and Morales until after the draft, then sign without compensation. What’s going to be important isn’t what each player makes for less than two-thirds of the season, but how it plays for the next three seasons. Drew, for instance, might be able to replace Jose Iglesias for a World Series run (although the Tigers insist they haven’t discussed the idea for any length of time), then Drew could go to the Yankees in the off-season, free of compensation, to replace Derek Jeter. Maybe Brewers owner Mark Attanasio would put Morales into his lineup, or something could work; the Mariners have seven home runs against lefthanded pitching this season.

Union board members this spring argued that this current system was more democratic for its members. This system produced 22 players with free agent compensation over two years. In the winters of 2009-2010, 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, there were 78 Type A free agents and 136 Type B’s, all under a qualifying system, and scattered among those 214 free agents were names like John Grabow, Jon Rauch, Mike Gonzalez and Brian Shouse, who needed to be free, at last and at the least.

The owners aren’t giving back this control over free agency or the draft until the next collective bargaining sessions in two years. They also know that star pitchers like Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields are going to get deals several exits north of $100M.

In the meanwhile, can there be some middle ground now that we know the Red Sox aren’t getting a pick for Drew or the Mariners for Morales (remember, the Orioles’ first pick was protected)? Boras and others have suggested ways that high payroll teams can sign free agents for immediate competitiveness, then buy other draft picks, with the purchase price of the pick (say, $3-4M) divided to small market teams like the Rays, Athletics and Indians and added to their pool allotments. Teams seem willing to pay penalties for exceeding international signing limits; wait until we see how much the Yankees shell out on July 2.

In case you’ve forgotten, the Yankees and Red Sox made three qualifying offers apiece last off-season. The only small market team that has received draft pick compensation for losing a player is Kansas City, when the Braves had to sign Ervin Santana after losing three pitchers to Tommy John Surgery.

There isn’t a lot of sympathy throughout the industry for Boras, Morales or Drew. But the issue is broader. Reality is that the way the draft and free agency were bonded reeks of some pork barrel legislation passed in the bowels of congress, where a rep from Arkansas gets $100B worth of corn from pork development. The majority of general managers do not like the draft system. Teams like the Cubs who invested a lot of money to get the club cannot rebuild in less than six years through the draft. Never mind that three of the Fab Five pitchers in the 2011 draft (Danny Hultzen, Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley) are all hurt, all before throwing a pitch in the major leagues), teams do not feel they can lose top draft picks.

It should just be a Rodon-Aiken debate. Or the question of whether picking one of the three top college pitchers needing Tommy John Surgery makes sense, a la Lucas Giolito, or run the risk of tempting one team’s research that shows that once a pitcher has TJS, he needs another surgery within seven years.

But it’s not simply about the draft, it’s about a mix of costs and agents that long rankled management traditionalists. If you are a player staring down the barrel of free agency today, hope that between now and the trading deadline you get sent to another team, because you’d sure rather be Jhonny Peralta than Stephen Drew.

  • Andre Mayer

    I understood that the draft thing was all about Jerry Reinsdorf’s hatred of paying big money to unproven players. To what extent is this true?

  • PKCasimir

    As usual, Peter Gammons is totally incoherent on this subject. Only in America could a sportswriter who has never uttered or written a sentence that can be parsed successfully get into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a writer.

  • https://profiles.google.com/114883729683493996570 daniel lacosta

    Why don’t you do something useful like leading the charge to end the stupid draft and limiting contract length to 4 years…banning no trade clauses…come Gammons start doing this!

  • scorp2780

    Why can’t teams trade draft picks? It adds a nice element of intrigue to the NBA, NHL and NFL drafts.