The years and dollars attached to the Cubs’ free agent pitching targets will understandably receive the bulk of attention this offseason from analysts, and will also receive the bulk of consideration from the front office. But, when it comes to free agents in the draft pick compensation era, the contract price is not the only consideration.
In the current CBA, large-market teams like the Cubs (if they are not over the luxury tax cap) must give up their second highest draft pick and $500,000 in IFA pool space to sign a qualified free agent. If they lose a qualified free agent, they gain a pick after the second round.
So, when talking about the draft pick implications of the Cubs’ current free agent starting pitcher dance:
- If the Cubs sign Alex Cobb, they will lose their second highest draft pick. In their case, that is the second round pick.
- If someone other than the Cubs sign Jake Arrieta, the Cubs will gain a draft pick after the second round.
- If the Cubs sign Yu Darvish, there are no draft changes impacting the Cubs one way or another, because he was not eligible to receive a qualifying offer.
Let’s ignore the payroll impacts, the IFA impacts, projected future lines, health concerns, any every other consideration regarding these pitchers for a minute and look purely at their impact on the Cubs’ 2018 draft. How big of a loss is that second round pick if they sign Cobb, or not getting that extra pick after the second should the Cubs re-sign Arrieta? Are those considerations enough that they should push the Cubs even more toward Darvish?
In short, the consideration here isn’t nothing, but it isn’t huge either.
The picks in question are relatively close together. Close enough that we can almost consider them as having the same value. Some of these numbers could shift a bit as free agents sign various places, but right now the Cubs will pick 24th overall in the first round (that pick won’t move no matter what happens in free agency), 62nd overall in the second round, and will have two picks after the second round that will be in the ballpark of 75th. One of those picks is locked in (thanks to the Rockies signing Wade Davis). The other one, potentially, would come when Arrieta signs with the not-Cubs.
At the top of the draft, a gap of thirteen slots is massive. Once you move in the early part of the second round (some would argue the latter part of the first round), that difference in pick value declines rapidly. To say that differently using the 2013 draft as an example, the difference between the 2nd overall pick and the 15th overall pick is Kris Bryant to Braden Shipley. The difference between the 35th pick and the 48th pick is Matt Krook to Andrew Church. Shipley is a nice prospect, but he isn’t Kris Bryant. Krook and Church are likely both anonymous to all but the most die-hard prospect hounds.
That isn’t to say a team with a really good scouting and player development department couldn’t find a lot of value in the 62nd to 75th range. Value can be found there. Sometimes. But it is rarer than we’d likely hope, and generally comes with added risks and caveats.
So how big of a deal are the 62nd and 75th overall picks?
To answer that question, we have to confine ourselves to drafts that took place under the CBA that took effect in December of 2012. Prior to that Collective Bargainin Agreement it was relatively common for prospects to hold out for very large signing bonuses and fall in the draft until a team that could afford those bonuses drafted them outside of the first round. The 2012 CBA instituted much firmer rules that punished teams that exceeded their draft bonus pools by doing this, and as a result the number of high ceiling players who fall due to signing demands has greatly decreased. Jon Lester was famously drafted in the second round, for example, but I think the odds of finding someone like Lester in the second round these days are relatively low.
Unfortunately, many prospects drafted in the second round in 2013 or later are just now starting to reach the majors. It is a little early to say for sure just how valuable those draft slots are objectively under the newer CBA rules, but some good indicators are starting to emerge.
In 2013, the 61st overall pick was well-regarded Orioles catching prospect Chance Sisco. Starting at No. 63 we find three straight young players who have reached the majors (if only for a few games): Dillon Overton, Ryder Jones, and the Cubs’ own Victor Caratini. Oakland utility man Chad Pinder was taken 71st overall that year.
Moving to 2014, the 62nd overall pick was Dodger outfield prospect Alex Verdugo, a guy who showed up near the middle of a lot of Top 100 lists this time last year. Ranked somewhere in the second quartile of the Top 100 was Pirates pitcher Mitch Keller, drafted 64th overall. Brent Honeywell, a pitcher in the Tampa system, was often ranked around Keller; he was taken 72nd overall.
A lot of players taken in 2015 are still in A ball, and a result there aren’t many well known names at the back of the secound round. There is one guy, though, who has already reached the majors. Andrew Moore, a pitcher drafted 72nd overall by the Mariners, has 11 games (9 starts) on his resume already.
Each of these drafts appears to have produced a small number of major league players or Top 100 prospect types in the late second to early third round range, but not many. And, so far anyway, the Cubs haven’t landed any of those Top 100 types in the draft (Caratini was drafted by the Braves). Valuing purely from a talent available standpoint, the gain or loss of picks in this range is the gain or loss of a moderately low chance lottery ticket. Some of those tickets can turn into a trade asset or a useful role player, and a few will result in an impact guy, but mostly the players taken become the answers to trivia questions.
The bonus pool dollars attached to those picks, on the other hand, is a totally different story. Last year ,the 62nd overall pick came with a draft budget of just over $1 million. The 75th pick was worth a bit over $760,000. That means the difference between the best draft case scenario for the Cubs (signing Darvish) and the worst (signing Arrieta and Cobb) is likely to be upwards of $1.8 million in available funds for the 2018 draft.
That’s huge. By signing just Darvish, the Cubs would preserve all of their three picks in the 62 to 75ish range, picks that do sometimes turn into pretty good players, but they would also preserve a stash of available draft money that could allow them to go after, for example, a high-ceiling pitcher who fell for health concerns such as Jeremy Estrada (6th round, 2017).
That isn’t to say that the Cubs should make their free agent decisions based entirely on the draft. They shouldn’t. But there are draft-based ramifications here that we shouldn’t ignore. And the biggest impacts may come not from the players taken with those picks, but on the gambles that the Cubs can take later in the draft with the funds that are attached to those picks.