Just like any document that runs 295 pages and 95,268 words, Major League Baseball's collective-bargaining agreement flirts often with the law of unintended consequences. Attempting to uphold a free-agent market while meddling with its ecosystem begs for chaos, and that's exactly what the basic agreement has given the sport this offseason.
Just like any person who challenges the very nature of the environment in which he operates, Scott Boras flirts often with the law of unintended consequences. Attempting to annually upend a draft system that neutered the value of amateurs begged for retrograde justice, and that's exactly what the basic agreement has given the sport this offseason.
Welcome to what seems like Round 20 of Baseball vs. Boras. Subtitle: The Artificial Market faces Mr. January.
Mr. January is a nickname bestowed on Boras by owners flabbergasted by his propensity to snag large free-agent deals after New Year's Day. Boras, long the sport's villain, is the protagonist in this tussle, because baseball's new rules governing the draft have destroyed the free-agent market for Adam LaRoche, Kyle Lohse, Michael Bourn and Rafael Soriano – the latter three of whom are Boras clients.
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They are far and away the four best remaining players on Yahoo! Sports' Ultimate Free-Agent Tracker, and their continued free agency is more than a product of Boras' predilection to take top players into a new year without a deal. After years of watching Boras bully teams into paying over the recommended dollar value for draftees, MLB made overhauling the draft a priority – one the union was willing to cede in exchange for six extra players a season qualifying for arbitration a year early.
The new draft format included fixed bonus pools for teams based on the previous year's record; the worst teams would get the most money. A separate rule transformed compensation for free agents who left. Teams would have to offer a player a one-year deal worth the average of the highest-paid 125 players in the major leagues the previous season – about $13.3 million this year. If another team chose to sign one of those players, it would forfeit its first-round draft choice and the bonus-pool money that came with it – unless it was a top 10 pick, in which case it would lose its second-rounder and the accompanying bonus value.
The resulting concoction was poisonous to the nine players offered the one-year tender. David Ortiz and Hiroki Kuroda re-signed with the Red Sox and Yankees. Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton, the jewels of the class, went to the Angels and Braves, who forfeited the Nos. 22 and 28 picks, respectively. Nick Swisher's market collapsed before he found a four-year, $56 million deal from Cleveland, which didn't lose its first-round pick because it's No. 5 overall.
In the old draft system, even when teams lost their first-round picks for free agents, they could overspend in later rounds to pluck players who slipped because of signability concerns. The pool system limits flexibility and creativity, leaving teams even more reticent to plunge into an already-inflated free-agent market when it's tied to the draft.
"We'd love any of them if we didn't have to give up our pick and pool money," one GM said this week, and others have echoed his sentiment, frustrated that two disparate entities commingle in such fashion. Players are even angrier, and agents say they've had trouble explaining how stars in the future could be hindered by a rule that MLB promises it did not implement to create a false market.
One solution is simple: sign-and-trade deals. When the previous compensation system left Juan Cruz seemingly unsignable, MLB considered OK-ing a sign-and-trade deal. Whether the player would sign with his original team or go to another team that already has sacrificed its bonus pool – say, Cleveland, Los Angeles or Atlanta – the details are spare, and MLB is reticent to OK such a plan. The league worries it would be collusive, though such activities limit a market, whereas this would expand it.
Boras' involvement in three-quarters of the cases also may be a factor in the league's slow response. Teams have handed out more than $750 million to Boras clients in January alone, from Barry Bonds in 2002 to Carlos Beltran in 2005 to J.D. Drew in 2007. In 2010 he got Matt Holliday $120 million, in 2011 Adrian Beltre $90 million and in 2012 Prince Fielder $214 million.
While it's tough to argue Bourn, Lohse and Soriano are in any of those players' classes, the distinct lack of interest – especially from the teams with pick Nos. 11-20 – makes his job that much harder. Should Boras extract multiyear contracts with new teams for any of them, it would be among his greatest victories as an agent.
Boras certainly will argue that January is the best time for discerning shoppers – and his history, in some cases, affirms as much. January signings of Pudge Rodriguez (2004) and Magglio Ordonez (2005) helped propel the Tigers to the 2006 World Series. Same with Drew in Boston, Beltre with Texas and Fielder with Detroit. Juan Gonzalez turned in an MVP-level season with Cleveland in 2001.
Then again, whether it was Derek Lowe going to Atlanta for $60 million, Jason Varitek returning to Boston in 2009 or either of Jeff Weaver's January deals, there have been misses. And between the Boras upcharge and the draft picks, teams are leveraging all they can before relenting on needing a player.
Because teams do. Especially those on the cusp of contending or on the precipice of dominance. To understand this means understanding marginal wins – that victory Nos. 85, 86 and 87 are worth a lot more than, say, 75, 76 and 77, and that a team should be willing to pay more for the victories that get them closer to the postseason or division titles.
January, then, provides a perfect time for teams to stand above the landscape, survey it and take advantage of the wasteland that is free agency for the best players out there.
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If that means Texas shoring up its outfield with Bourn or its rotation with Lohse, it would lose only $200,000 in bonus-pool money because of a compensatory pick for losing Hamilton (though the Rangers, one of the teams that vehemently opposed the new draft rules, may prefer to hoard such money). If that means Milwaukee rounding out a staff that needs help or Detroit finding a closer or another team supplementing its roster, it would save MLB a huge headache – and give it time for an on-the-fly amendment before next season to prevent this.
When Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez got get-out-of-jail-free cards because they were traded midseason – only players who spend the whole season with one team are subject to compensation rules – and the interest in Edwin Jackson dwarfs that of Lohse, the system is broken. There's a chance Mr. January weasels out of it like he has so many other problems. There's also a chance some of the best players out there have to pull a Ryan Madson and take a one-year deal, and we saw how well that worked out.
Four players flap in the middle of this hurricane, which seems to spin with no end. Per usual, MLB and Scott Boras, the provoked and the provocateur, are in its ugly eye.
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