The Chicago Cubs aren’t really expected to be connected to many of the top free agents this offseason. It isn’t a fun reality to accept, but it’s where the organization is right now.
But it’s worth pointing out that, if the Cubs did want to connect themselves to one of those type of players, they might have a signing advantage held by none of their competitors.
The “top” free agents tend to be the guys who received “qualifying offers” from their former teams – a one-year offer of $13.3 million, which, if declined, ensures that the former team will receive a compensatory pick after the first round of the 2013 Draft, should that player depart in free agency. On the flip side, the team signing that player has to give up a draft pick for the privilege of making the signing. The lost pick, for most teams, is their first round pick. While that isn’t a reason not to sign a guy, it certainly hurts to lose your first rounder.
There is an exception, however, for the first ten picks in the Draft – they are protected, and the teams holding those picks risk losing only their second rounder if they sign a top free agent. The Cubs will pick second in 2013, and the risk of losing a second round pick is far less scary than losing a first round pick.
That means that signing one of these “top” free agents, for the Cubs, is considerably less painful than it would be for 20 other teams in baseball. That gives the Cubs an advantage. And it’s an advantage that lasts this offseason only. (Yes, it could repeat next year if the Cubs are terrible in 2013, but, for this crop of top free agents, the advantage is this year only – next year’s is a whole new advantage.)
Interestingly, of the teams picking in the top 10 next year, only the Boston Red Sox figure to be players for the top free agents. So, for virtually every top free agent out there, the Cubs would have a slight signing advantage over every team but the Red Sox – the advantage being that signing such a player is quite a bit less painful for the Cubs than it would be for the other team.
The question, of course, is whether it is worth the Cubs taking advantage of the, um, advantage. The relative difference between a first and second round pick (say, between the 30th overall pick and the second pick in the second round) isn’t huge, although it is existent. If the Cubs are going head-to-head with the Yankees for a free agent, is that difference enough to make it worth the Cubs spending slightly more than the Yankees are willing to spend? And if so, is it worth inking a big money free agent simply because you’ve got that advantage this offseason? Maybe not.
And the crop of free agents that fall into this category must be considered as well. The eight free agents who received and rejected qualifying offers are Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Kyle Lohse, Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano, Hiroki Kuroda, Michael Bourn and Adam LaRoche. Several – Soriano, Kuroda, and LaRoche – can be dismissed out of hand because there isn’t a spot for them, or they aren’t coming to the Cubs. Of the remaining five, only B.J. Upton and Nick Swisher make some sense as plausible targets (Bourn is an aging speed guy, which terrifies me, Lohse is in his mid-30s and is coming off a career year, and Hamilton comes with so many unique risks for what he’ll receive). Is Upton or Swisher so valuable that it’s even worth having this relative-advantage-draft-pick-thingy conversation? I could see it either way. The Cubs might not like either player, making this entire discussion moot.
The point, for the most part, is simply this: being terrible in 2012 came with a number of going-forward advantages, designed to aid competitive balance in baseball. The Cubs should be considering all of these possible advantages, even those that are a bit more latent, like this subtle signing advantage.
A parting thought: in December 2010, the Washington Nationals were coming off of a 93 loss season, and the 2011 season was expected to be a non-competitive one (they would go on to finish a game under .500). But, for reasons only they could understand, the Nationals dropped a shocking $126 million on outfield Jayson Werth, signing him for seven years. The deal was laughable, and the Nationals were excoriated for signing it. Two years later, the Nationals were among the best teams in baseball, and Werth put up a 125 OPS+ for an eventual playoff team. Perhaps the lesson of the Jayson Werth signing is not that you don’t ink middling stars to nine-figure deals just because it’s a thin market or you’re looking to make a splash. Perhaps the lesson is: you’ve got to sign Jayson Werth when he’s actually available. Had the Nats waited until 2012 to sign Jayson Werth (or his reasonable facsimile), maybe their 2012 season doesn’t happen the same way. Werth wasn’t the difference between a loser and a winner in 2012, but he was probably the difference between a good and a great team.
As the Cubs look ahead to competitiveness in, say, 2014 or 2015, it’s fair to wonder whether free agency this offseason should be viewed through a similar lens. Nobody’s laughing at the Nationals now.