Adam LaRoche set reasonable expectations as he entered free agency this winter, certainly lower than what could have been justified. He had been the most productive first baseman in the National League in 2012: a 33-homer, 100-RBI force and the winner of both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove, perhaps the most valuable player on the 98-win Washington Nationals. He sought a three-year contract without an outrageous annual price tag, and recent history suggested he had no cause to worry.
By Tuesday, when LaRoche accepted the same two-year offer the Nationals had made him in late fall, he had learned the potentially harsh effect of baseball’s altered free agency. New, collectively bargained rules pertaining to the draft and draft-pick compensation have seemingly dovetailed to stifle the small group of players in LaRoche’s class: free agents worthy of multiyear deals but not at the very top of the market.
“It didn’t make it easy. There’s no doubt,” LaRoche said. “There were teams that came out and told us, ‘We would love to have to you, but we cannot give up this pick.’ ”
Nine players this offseason were subjected to the new brand of draft-pick compensation. LaRoche became one of three, so far, who returned to their old teams. Three have signed elsewhere. And three still remain unsigned, all clients of notoriously patient agent Scott Boras.
“For some players, it worked exactly the way both sides expected,” MLB Players Association Executive Director Michael Weiner said. “What we have now, we have a handful of players for whom draft-pick compensation is more burdensome than either side anticipated or, frankly, desired.”
So how did otherwise marketable free agents like LaRoche land in limbo? Two provisions collided in a manner unforeseen by the union, but predicted by others.
The new collective bargaining agreement streamlined the old “Type A” and “Type B” draft-pick compensation system and replaced it with one based on qualifying offers. Rather than rankings from the Elias Sports Bureau deciding which players would cost draft choices to sign, their teams would make that determination by offering one-year contracts worth the average salary of the 125 highest-paid players ($13.3 million for this season). If the free agent declined, any other team that chose to sign him would forfeit its first-round draft pick. The top 10 overall picks were protected; those clubs would instead forfeit a second-round choice.
“It was not believed by either side that it would really interfere with the player signing” with another team, Weiner said. “For a player who would warrant a $13 million qualifying offer, the thought was it wouldn’t interfere with teams who wanted to sign that guy.”
In one regard, the system worked as hoped. Just nine players this year were extended qualifying offers and turned it down, compared with 21 “Type A” free agents last offseason.
But there has been an unintended penalty. Four players — LaRoche, starting pitcher Kyle Lohse, outfielder Michael Bourn and closer Rafael Soriano — remained unsigned into January. All found teams resistant to give up a draft choice that, under the new rules, has increased in value.
The new CBA placed a restrictive cap on how much teams can spend in the draft, assigning a value on each pick in the first 10 rounds to create a suggested bonus pool for each club. So a team that forfeits a first-round pick also surrenders the money associated with the pick from its pool, limiting its flexibility to manipulate bonus money.
Weiner said both Boras and LaRoche’s representatives at the SFX agency have reached out to the MLB Players Association with concern about the new system.
“It’s not exactly the situation I envisioned, not at all,” Lohse told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week. “It hasn’t been exactly a free market because I’m tied to a draft pick and other guys in my class aren’t.”
Boras said he warned the players’ union during CBA negotiations last year that limiting draft spending and then tying it to free agency compensation would affect some top free agents.
“Teams had access to talent. They just had to pay more money to get it,” Boras said. “Now all of a sudden, the burden of signing a No. 1 pick is not only more difficult, it’s dramatically more difficult.”
Clubs are clearly bent on building through the draft, and that process has changed under the new CBA.
“In the past, you could give up a high pick and realize you were going to overpay someone later on,” Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein said on Boston radio station WEEI last week. “You could give up a couple draft picks and realize that you’d just go out and try to dominate international free agency that year. You just don’t have the ability to do those things anymore.”