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Baseball free agents left hanging

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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All those weeping for the Frustrated Four, begging for them to be liberated by sign-and-trades, check your calendars, check your histories and check your facts.

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When it comes to predicting division winners, Ken Rosenthal and Jon Morosi only agree on one thing.

The calendar says it’s Jan. 3, too early to pass judgment on how the new draft-pick compensation rules are affecting the free-agent market.

The history says that disputes over compensation date back more than three decades in baseball, starting with the 1981 strike.

And the facts say that the new system actually is a triumph for the players, greatly reducing the number of free agents tied to compensation, creating a fairer method of identifying those players and accelerating the timetable for them to enter the market.

Is the system perfect?

The Frustrated Four — center fielder Michael Bourn, right-hander Kyle Lohse, reliever Rafael Soriano and first baseman Adam LaRoche — would be correct to say no. Each appears to be dealing with a limited market after receiving — and rejecting — a one-year, qualifying offer of $13.3 million, triggering draft-pick compensation.

But does the system require immediate revision, with baseball permitting such free agents to circumvent the new rules through sign-and-trade agreements?

As the sabermetrically inclined would put it, small sample size!

Or as Rob Manfred, baseball’s executive vice president of labor relations, puts it: “I’m not inclined to get into a discussion about changing an agreement when it hasn’t even operated for a full year.”

Sign-and-trades would enable free agents to sign with clubs willing to lose a draft choice, then get traded to teams that are not. The free agent would stand a better chance of getting market value. The team that acquires him would keep its pick. The team that trades him would receive appropriate talent in return.

Everyone would benefit — everyone, that is, except management as a whole, which believes it already granted significant concessions to the players union with the new rules, and doesn’t necessarily want to give free agents any additional help.

If, in a month, Bourn and Co. continue to linger on the market, the sign-and-trade solution might merit more serious consideration. But who’s to say that their predicament is entirely the fault of the new system?

It’s Year One, for heaven’s sake.

Part of the problem might be the overall weakness of the market and the unwillingness of teams to forfeit picks for free agents whom they do not perceive to be difference-makers.

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Another part might be that clubs are overreacting to the potential losses not only of the picks, but also of the dollar values assigned to those picks in their new draft pools.

And yet another part might be that Scott Boras — the agent for Bourn, Lohse and Soriano — is asking for too much money for his clients, a criticism with which he is not unfamiliar.

Boras rightly bristles when his work is evaluated before its completion — he has made some of his biggest deals in January, and no one in the industry will be surprised if he pulls off a similar feat or three again.

Should Boras have better anticipated that certain teams would freak out over the new rules? Eh. Not even the union’s top leaders expected that some clubs would guard their draft positions the way some still guard their top prospects — overzealously.

Few also seemed to grasp the extent of the advantage that players traded during the season — and freed from compensation under the new system — would enjoy over players who remained with their clubs all year.

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“It’s not exactly a free market for a guy like me when a guy like (Zack) Greinke gets a get-out-of-jail-free card because he was traded midseason,” Lohse told Tim McKernan of KFNS in St. Louis on Thursday.

Actually, Greinke would have been fine without his “get-out-of-jail-free card,” just as Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and even Nick Swisher were fine despite receiving qualifying offers.

Still, Lohse’s point is well-taken; it’s almost as if certain players are penalized because they are too valuable to trade. On the flip side, how long will it be before some potential free agent deliberately turns into a malcontent at midseason, trying to get himself traded so he becomes unrestricted on the open market?

Fair question, but again, let’s not lose sight of the big picture. Each of the Frustrated Four had options. Each could have accepted the one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer and lived quite comfortably in 2013. Heck, Soriano could have earned $14 million in the final year of his contract with the New York Yankees instead of opting out.

Bourn, meanwhile, might have stood a better chance of staying with the Atlanta Braves — and avoiding the compensation issue entirely — if the team thought it had a chance to sign him quickly and at a price it deemed fair.

Boras, though, rarely moves quickly with his big free agents, and rarely is interested in settling for a number that, in his view, reflects less than the player’s full value. So, the Braves signed Upton for $75.25 million over five years, effectively replacing Bourn.

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The loss of the draft pick did not spook the Braves; at the time, they were selecting 28th, near the bottom of the first round. The compensation pick they will receive for Bourn currently would be 33rd. Not much of a difference in draft position or the assigned dollar value of the selection.

For a team such as the Seattle Mariners, the issue is much thornier. Under the new rules, teams cannot lose their first-rounder for a free agent if they hold one of the top-10 picks; those picks are protected, and those clubs would lose their second-rounders instead.

The Mariners are sitting at No. 12, right behind the New York Mets, who are not pursuing major free agents. If the M’s sign Bourn, they would lose not only that pick, but also its assigned dollar value, which last year was $2.55 million. The Mets held the No. 12 pick in that draft. Their aggregate pool, based on their number of selections in the first 10 rounds, was $7.15 million.

The amounts will change this year, but if the Mariners lose that money, they lose flexibility within their draft pool. If, on the other hand, they keep the pick, they strategically could pay the No. 12 choice less than his assigned value, and overpay some of their lower selections.

Thus, the Mariners’ reluctance to sign a free agent such as Bourn would be understandable. The behavior of some other clubs, however, is more difficult to grasp:

• The Boston Red Sox, choosing seventh after a rare poor season, likely will not “qualify” for another protected pick anytime soon. Thus, they are in position to aim high in free agency, yet they have been unwilling to lose even their second-rounder, signing only free agents who are not subject to compensation.

• The Texas Rangers, like the Braves, wouldn’t suffer much if they lost their first-rounder by signing, say, Lohse or Bourn. The Rangers would pick 24th in the current draft order, but would gain the 31st pick for losing Hamilton.

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• The Baltimore Orioles, currently at No. 23, will not gain a pick from any of their free agents who depart. Still, most in the industry believe that the team was somewhat lucky last season and likely will pick higher in the future. Forfeiting the No. 23 choice for Lohse or LaRoche might enable them to continue building momentum.

The above trends will not necessarily last. One or more of The Frustrated Four still might compel a team to jump. Teams also might be more willing to sacrifice picks in the future, just as they’re now willing to trade their once-precious prospects for the right starting pitchers.

Draft-pick compensation always will be a concern; free agents are not truly free if an artificial burden devalues them on the market. Still, let’s see how this plays out. The market remains open. The sample size remains small. It’s too soon to weep for the Frustrated Four, too early to pass judgment.

Tagged: Yankees, Mariners, Braves, Cardinals, Kyle Lohse, Rafael Soriano, Michael Bourn

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