Baseball’s qualifying offer system as we know it needs to end
As the players and owners continue to negotiate the collective-bargaining agreement, the inequities created by the qualifying offer remain infuriating.
Kenley Jansen received a qualifying offer. Fellow free-agent closers Aroldis Chapman and Mark Melancon did not, only because they were traded in the middle of the season.
Mark Trumbo received a qualifying offer. Fellow sluggers Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales did not, only because they played for lower-revenue clubs that feared paying a player $17.2 million for one year.
Jansen, Trumbo and the eight others who received qualifying offers must decide whether to accept them by 5 p.m. ET on Monday. Most, if not all, are expected to reject the offers and remain free agents. And if representatives of the players and owners are smart, they will take a sledgehammer to the system in the next CBA.
I’m not talking about a tweak here or there. I’m talking about abolishing direct draft-pick compensation — that is, the loss of a draft pick by a team that signs a free agent who received a qualifying offer.
The system hurts the team. It hurts the free agent. It needs to end, once and for all.
The owners will want significant concessions from the players to effectively grant them unrestricted free agency, something that never has existed in baseball. Well, the players should yield, starting perhaps with the international amateur draft, which might be difficult for the owners to implement even if they succeed in making it part of the CBA.
Draft-pick compensation was part of the first CBA to include free agency, the 1976 agreement that followed a decision by arbitrator Peter Seitz to nullify baseball’s reserve clause. The concept should not be eliminated entirely; the compensation should just be indirect. In other words, the team that loses a qualified free agent still should be awarded a pick. The signing team, however, should not lose one.
What better alternative is there?
The players want to limit the number of free agents subject to compensation; the qualifying-offer system, established by the 2012 CBA, actually achieved that goal. The union, in fact, likes the stipulation that a player must be with one team the entire season to be eligible for a qualifying offer. Potential free agents, if they are traded, become exempt from draft-pick compensation, reducing the number of eligible players.
Other revisions to the system are possible; the parties could alter the current rules in any number of ways. The problem is that every potential change would be just as arbitrary as the trade exemption — and produce the same frustrating results.
Consider a troubling pattern that emerged in the latest round of qualifying offers — nine of the 10 came from high-revenue clubs, with Trumbo’s Orioles being the exception. One idea, then, would be to prevent teams ranked in, say, the top 15 by market size from making qualifying offers. That way, those teams could not collect draft picks if their free agents departed, enhancing competitive balance in a small but meaningful way.
Not bad, right? Well, the current CBA ranks the Astros 15th by market size, the Mariners 16th. Is the difference between the two markets so great that one should be forbidden from making a qualifying offer but not the other? No, such a revision would create just another artificial distinction, one that neither the owners nor players could justify as fair.
Indirect compensation is the cleanest solution, but the union — under its new leader, Tony Clark — might balk at making the necessary concessions. Such caution would be understandable. The qualifying-offer system is a classic example of how a new rule can lead to unintended consequences. Labor agreements, meanwhile, are highly complex documents, requiring compromise on a myriad of issues from both sides.
Clark, as he negotiates his first CBA, surely is mindful of potential giveaways, and the slow pace of the talks likely is attributable, in part, to his careful approach (Rob Manfred, by contrast, is bargaining for the first time as commissioner, but was baseball’s lead negotiator for the previous three agreements).
The stakes are high; both Clark and Manfred need to be more concerned with the big picture than any single aspect of the agreement. And let’s face it, issues such as the luxury tax, revenue sharing and international draft carry greater significance than the qualifying offer, which harms only a handful of players each year.
I get it, but the bottom line is undeniable: The qualifying-offer system is arbitrary and unfair. The elimination of direct draft-pick compensation would be an easy fix — and a potential coup for the union.
Figure it out. Get it done.