Why remaining big-name free agents are worth risk of losing draft pick
The pick, the almighty pick. Heaven forbid a team forfeit even a second-rounder for an accomplished major-league free agent.
Well, here’s a suggestion for clubs that might want to add one of the four remaining free agents whose acquisition cost, due to qualifying offers, includes the loss of a pick.
Sign your free agent of choice, sacrifice the precious pick, then recoup the selection or keep the player by extending him another qualifying offer next offseason (the system, even with the collective-bargaining agreement expiring Dec. 1, is likely to remain intact at least one more year). Or, if your team disappoints, trade the player before the non-waiver deadline for a return that would exceed the value of the lost pick, if necessary.
Would there be risk? Of course there would be risk. The player could flop, attract little trade interest and then not merit a qualifying offer next offseason, leaving the team unable to recover the pick.
But sorry, we’re not talking about replacement-level talent here. We’re talking about four accomplished veterans — shortstop Ian Desmond, center fielder Dexter Fowler, right-hander Yovani Gallardo and second baseman Howie Kendrick.
Each might still command a multi-year deal, though such an outcome becomes more difficult to envision with each passing day. The guess here is that at least one of the players will settle for a one-year deal — "a pillow contract" in the parlance of agent Scott Boras — one that gives an unsigned player a soft landing spot as he attempts to rebuild his value.
Consider Gallardo. The Orioles, Astros and Rockies are among the teams seemingly balking at the idea of signing him and losing a pick.
I get it with the Orioles, who hold the 14th selection, and even the Astros, who hold the 18th. I also get it with the Rockies, whose first-round choice is protected. The Rox want to retain their next pick, currently No. 38, to add another prospect, maximize their signing-bonus pool and increase their ability to manipulate the draft (that pick figures to fall to the low 40s after all of the compensation free agents are signed).
What’s more, Gallardo easily could be the latest pitcher to flop at Coors Field, in which case the Rockies could forget about trading him or making him a qualifying offer. But how about looking at the glass as half-full for once? Gallardo would be a good mentor for the Rockies’ young pitchers. He also is that rare free agent who might want to pitch at Coors; his agents have spoken to the Rox.
Desmond, though, might be an even better one-year investment for the Rockies, who face the loss of shortstop Jose Reyes to a lengthy suspension under baseball’s new domestic-violence policy. The Rockies’ top shortstop prospect, Trevor Story, probably could use more time at Triple A.
While Gallardo would be something of a risk, Desmond in 92 career plate appearances at Coors has batted .407 with a 1.098 OPS. Imagine his value to a contender at the deadline if the Rockies wanted to move him. It would be a heck of a lot more than the 38th pick.
Desmond also would fit on a one-year deal for the White Sox, who struck out in their quest to land one of the top free-agent outfielders and are awaiting the arrival of shortstop Tim Anderson, their top prospect.
The White Sox, like the Rockies, hold a protected pick, No. 10 overall. Their second pick currently is the comp selection they will receive between the first and second rounds for losing free-agent right-hander Jeff Samardzija to the Giants.
The Sox, by pursuing Alex Gordon, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes, signaled that they want one more bat. They didn’t get that bat. And Desmond would be a significant upgrade over Tyler Saladino, who batted .225 with a .602 OPS in 254 plate appearances as a rookie last season.
Money surely is a concern; the White Sox seemed willing to extend for one of the outfielders on a three-year deal, believing they could market such a player to sell tickets and improve local TV ratings. Desmond on a one-year deal would not be the same kind of attraction. Still, this is a club that wants to contend. Sign Desmond, take your best shot, then flip him if the team fails.
The Rays could take the same approach — Desmond, a native of Sarasota, Fla., might actually hold box-office appeal for a team that has been the worst draw in the majors the past four seasons. Desmond is represented by the same agency as Rays manager Kevin Cash, Sports One Athlete Management. Thinking outside the box never is a problem for the Rays. Spending money is.
Then there are the Diamondbacks, who — after signing free-agent right-hander Zack Greinke for $206.5 million and trading for right-hander Shelby Miller — are even more all-in than the White Sox and Rays. The D-backs already have lost their first-round pick, 13th overall, for Greinke. Their next pick, a competitive-balance choice, currently is No. 39. Yet, the D-backs are hemming and hawing about the pick and talking up Chris Owings as their second baseman — Owings, who could bounce back at age 24, vs. Kendrick, a career .293 hitter at age 32.
Come to think of it, the Dodgers would be wise to re-sign Kendrick and play him over Enrique Hernandez and Chase Utley rather than lust for the comp pick that Kendrick’s departure would bring. They presently hold the Nos. 22 and 32 selections, the latter as compensation for Greinke. Would another comp pick, which most clubs value in excess of $5 million, be more valuable than Kendrick on a discounted deal?
Finally, there is Fowler, whose return to the Cubs would make similar sense, enabling Jason Heyward to remain in right, except for two things: The Cubs remain high on Jorge Soler’s potential, and already have lost their top two draft choices for signing Heyward and right-hander John Lackey. They could use the comp pick for Fowler; their first selection is No. 104.
The Angels, White Sox and Orioles are among the teams that still could use an outfielder, though each of those clubs would need to play Fowler on a corner. We’re talking about a switch-hitter with a .363 career on-base percentage, in a game starved for OBP. No one can find a spot for him?
Clubs are using the picks as a negotiating tactic against lower-level compensation free agents, ensuring that the qualifying-offer system will be a major issue in the upcoming collective-bargaining negotiations.
Meanwhile, the Frozen Four remain available, mostly because they’re attached to draft picks.
Available, that is, to teams still interested enough and creative enough to acquire quality talent.