Mets-Bourn match looks unlikely

BY Ken Rosenthal • January 24, 2013

First off, I’ll believe the Mets are signing Michael Bourn when I see them introduce him at a news conference and present him with a ceremonial cap and jersey. So, the debate over the type of draft pick they should forfeit for him probably is a pointless exercise.

Oh, the Mets’ interest in Bourn is serious, according to major league sources. Heaven knows they need outfielders. They have only $33.55 million in commitments for 2014, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, giving them the flexibility to sign Bourn — or any free agent, for that matter — to a back-loaded deal.

But forgive me for being skeptical.

Yes, the Mets locked up third baseman David Wright with an eight-year, $138 million extension in November. But over the past three offseasons, they’ve signed only one free agent for more than $3.5 million — reliever Frank Francisco, who received $12 million. Tip money for Albert Pujols.

Now the Mets are going to spend on Bourn, a 30-year-old center fielder whose value will plummet the moment he loses his speed? Now they’re going to turn bold when they stand little chance in the near future against the Uptons in Atlanta, the Mike Rizzo Machine in Washington and Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Co. in Philadelphia?

Stranger things have happened, particularly when a team awakens from a slumber one day and asks: “How the heck are we going to sell tickets?” But then there is the matter of the first-round pick that the Mets would lose if they signed Bourn. For a rebuilding club, that should be a deal-breaker. Except if the pick is a second-rounder instead.

The Mets, as first reported by the New York Daily News, want baseball to cut them such a break. They have a legitimate beef, actually. If they get to the point where they are ready to sign Bourn — capital I, capital F — that beef could lead to a battle between the players union and Major League Baseball. One that the union, and by extension the Mets, probably would have a hard time winning.

Here’s the deal:

The Mets hold the 11th pick in the draft. But under the new collective-bargaining agreement, only the top-10 picks are “protected.” Teams holding those picks can sign a free agent who received a qualifying offer without losing their first-round choice as compensation. Those teams would lose their second-rounder instead.

Sounds clear-cut, except for one thing: The Mets had the 10th-worst record in the majors last season. They fell to the 11th spot only because the Pittsburgh Pirates did not sign their No. 1 pick, the eighth overall selection, Stanford right-hander Mark Appel. As compensation, the Pirates will pick ninth this year.

The draft goes in the reverse order of the previous year’s standings. The idea is to reward the worst teams with the best amateur players. But under the current system, the Pirates could have won the World Series last season — in theory, people, in theory — and still picked ninth. That’s not how the draft is supposed to work.

The sympathy for the Mets, though, can go only so far. The clubs agreed to the new CBA. Negotiators for baseball told them that only the first 10 picks would be protected — as opposed to the previous CBA, in which the first 15 picks were protected, along with any compensation picks.

Oh, and lest anyone forget, there is a Scott Boras factor in all this. There always seems to be a Boras factor if there is an opening to be exploited, a loophole to be had.

Boras represents Bourn. He also represents Appel. Baseball is not inclined to do Boras any favors — and allowing the Mets to lose a second-rounder instead of a first for Bourn would be doing Boras a big favor, increasing his client’s value.

The union, sources say, would side with the Mets, citing bargaining history, the spirit of the provision and sheer common sense. But baseball, according to other sources, likely would fight a grievance by the union.

Baseball would not want to establish a precedent for teams that get stuck just outside the top 10. And other clubs — specifically, the Mets’ rivals in the NL East — would justifiably howl over a sudden change in the rules for the benefit of one club. A deal is a deal, right?

The arguments on both sides are worthy, but let’s see the Mets force the issue on Bourn before delving any deeper into the legalities. Let’s see them spend big on a free agent for the first time since signing Jason Bay three years ago.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for the Michael Bourn news conference.

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