Qualifying offers last offseason yielded varying results
Draft compensation under new CBA has changed teams' approach to free agency
Kyle Lohse has been the sort of pitcher the Brewers likely hoped they were getting when they signed him this offseason. The veteran right-hander carried a 3.43 ERA into his start against the Reds on Monday night, fighting off some minor injuries to give Milwaukee a solid presence in its rotation.
But the situation is more complicated than that. Beyond paying Lohse $33 million over three years, the Brewers also had to forfeit the 17th overall pick in June's First-Year Player Draft, as part of the rules in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
"My job is to be responsible to the organization in the present and in the future," Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said when the Lohse deal was completed. "The present is signing Kyle Lohse and putting him in the rotation and having him be a part of a club that we feel can win the division and get back to the postseason."
The Lohse situation, indicative of the complicated decisions facing many clubs last offseason, prompted substantial debate within the Brewers' front office. Despite Lohse's steady performance, it's now easier to see the opposing view.
As the season nears the All-Star break, the Brew Crew is sitting in last place in the National League Central, with the league's second-worst record. It will be years before anyone knows what might have become of the lost Draft pick, but it's not looking good for Lohse being a part of any Milwaukee postseason run.
According to the new CBA, teams could choose to offer their free agents one-year deals equal to the average of the top 125 player salaries from 2012, or $13.3 million. If that player declined and signed with another team, his former team received a sandwich pick after the first round of the Draft, while his new team gave up its first-round selection, unless it had a top-10 pick. In that case, it surrendered its second selection. If the player declined but still re-signed, his team thereby passed up the opportunity to gain a pick.
Most clubs elected not to extend the qualifying offer to their eligible free agents. In some cases, they have paid the price. Take the Yankees' decision to part ways with Russell Martin, who signed a two-year, $17 million deal with the Pirates.
"The Pirates got a really good one, but at the same time, I think we'll find ways to cushion the blow, like we always try to do," New York general manager Brian Cashman said at the time.
Instead, Yankees catchers rank near the bottom of the Majors in several offensive categories, with a collective OPS roughly 160 points lower than Martin's. The Pirates, meanwhile, have thrived.
Other decisions appear more sound with a half-season's worth of retrospect. The Angels, for example, didn't make an offer to right-hander Dan Haren, who signed with the Nationals and now owns MLB's highest ERA.
Every player with a chance to accept a qualifying offer declined. Three still re-signed: Hiroki Kuroda with the Yankees, Adam LaRoche with the Nationals and David Ortiz with the Red Sox. The other six all inked new deals elsewhere: Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher with the Indians, Josh Hamilton with the Angels, Lohse with the Brewers, Rafael Soriano with the Nats and B.J. Upton with the Braves.
There is little chance that the Boston front office is worrying about the sandwich pick it could have added if Ortiz left. The Red Sox gave him a two-year, $26 million contract despite an Achilles injury that caused him to miss most of last season's second half, and he began this season on the disabled list. But Ortiz has helped Boston to the American League's best record, hitting .313/.399/.595 with 17 home runs and 61 RBIs through Sunday, earning his ninth trip to the All-Star Game.
"I know I'm one of the forces on this ballclub, and I know I have to bring something to the table for us to win games," Ortiz said recently. "I worked hard to get to that point. And here we are. A lot of people thought the Red Sox giving me that contract at my age was wrong."
The Indians doubled down as they executed a roster overhaul. The club spent a guaranteed $117 million on free agents, including Bourn and Swisher.
The opportunity cost of such maneuvers was dulled a bit by the fact that Cleveland's first pick (fifth overall) was protected, but the Indians still lost their next two selections, both in the top 70. Yet Bourn and Swisher both have provided solid production as the Tribe has rebounded from a 94-loss season to challenge the Tigers in the AL Central.
The Nationals also focused their emphasis on the present by re-signing LaRoche and adding Soriano on two-year deals. That left them without a pick until the end of the second round of the Draft.
"It's never easy, because [the Draft] is where our bread and butter is," Washington GM Mike Rizzo said after signing Soriano. "We felt the best strategy for us to win now, and in the near future, was to forgo the pick and get the talent."
LaRoche has come on since an extremely slow start, and Soriano has provided stability in an often shaky bullpen, standing second in the NL in saves. The Nats have begun to get hot, as a weekend sweep of the Padres left them only four games behind the Braves in the NL East.
The remaining signings have worked to varying degrees.
Kuroda returned to the Yankees on a one-year deal for $15 million plus incentives, and he has posted a 2.77 ERA over his first 18 starts for a club hanging around in the postseason race.
In the first year of a five-year, $75.25 million pact, Upton has generated easily the lowest batting average of any qualifying Major Leaguer, but it hasn't stopped his club from sitting atop its division.
Angels owner Arte Moreno called it a "great investment" when his club secured Hamilton's services for five years at $125 million. Yet even after a recent hot streak, the 32-year-old is hitting .230 with a .700 OPS, and Los Angeles remains a distant third in the AL West.