MLB's qualifying-offer system is stacked against low-revenue clubs
The qualifying-offer system doesn't only screw certain free agents. It also screws certain teams.
The Rays should sign shortstop Ian Desmond. The Indians should sign outfielder Dexter Fowler. But neither move likely will occur, in part because neither low-revenue team is comfortable sacrificing its first-round draft pick and accompanying bonus-pool money.
The Rays, choosing 13th, and the Indians, selecting 15th, won too many games last season to qualify for a top-10 protected pick. Yet, they did not win enough games to fall into, say, the 22-to-30 range, where the selections are less valuable.
The draft, which supposedly is designed to enhance competitive balance, sometimes does just the opposite. Low-revenue teams are tired of the inequities throughout the game's economic system. High-revenue teams are tired of subsidizing low-revenue teams that spend too little on baseball operations. The coming collective-bargaining negotiations once again will pit not only owners vs. players, but also owners vs. owners
The draft is a particular mess.
Whether you call it tanking or just plain rebuilding, is it fair that high-revenue teams can add to their advantages by securing protected picks almost by design?
Likewise, is it fair that low-revenue teams must sacrifice a pick to sign a free agent who received a qualifying offer, when merely coming up with the money for such a player is challenging enough for those clubs?
Think of the benefits that the high-revenue Phillies will enjoy by losing big last season:
*The No. 1 pick, which is protected.
*The highest bonus pools for the draft and international market.
*The financial resources to spend lavishly on free agents whenever the mood strikes them (in the Phillies' case, not yet).
Successful high-revenue teams hold a different kind of edge -- the ability to sign multiple free agents who received qualifying offers at the cost of lesser picks.
The Cubs, after winning 97 games last season, had a low first-round position, No. 28 overall. They forfeited both that pick and their second-rounder to sign free-agent outfielder Jason Heyward and right-hander John Lackey, spending $216 million in the process.
High-revenue teams, due to their greater spending power, also are better suited to extend qualifying offers, which this year came at a price of $15.8 million. They also are able to leverage their financial resources internationally, paying overage penalties to sign premium talents such as the Red Sox did last year with Yoan Moncada.
Low-revenue teams have made numerous qualifying offers, but not a single free agent accepted in the first three years of the system. Three players accepted this time, and as the amount of the qualifying offer rises, the threat of acceptance only will become more acute for clubs with lower payrolls -- that is, if the system remains in place.
Where, then, can low-revenue teams currently find relief?
Well, six additional picks at the end of each of the first and second rounds are awarded to teams through the "Competitive Balance Lottery," which is as about as aptly named as the propaganda-spouting "Ministry of Truth" in the novel "1984."
Teams that either play in one of the 10 smallest markets or generate one of the 10 smallest revenue pools are eligible for the picks. In addition, any teams that receive revenue-sharing funds are eligible for the picks after the second round.
The first of these picks in 2016, likely to be No. 39, belongs to the Reds. The Rays hold the last such selection, likely to be No. 81. Some years, the Rays have been shut out entirely, while the perennially strong Cardinals, due to their market size, actually "earned" a pick in '14.
In any case, such picks amount to crumbs, particularly at a time when the divide in local TV revenue between the haves and have-nots has never been greater.
No wonder the have-nots feel trapped.
Desmond and Fowler are precisely the types of free agents who should be in play for low-revenue teams at this late stage of the offseason. Yet, even as the prices of such players drop, teams such as the Rays and Indians are scared off by the prospect of losing their picks and pool money.
Fix the system. Stop harming players and teams.