When Sunday, June 2, turns to Monday, June 3, the 30 Major League Baseball teams that declined to sign 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and seven-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel as free agents last winter will simultaneously lose their last and best remaining excuse for not doing so. Thanks to recently tweaked free agency compensation rules, which were altered to make free agents more appealing to sign, any team that added a restricted free agent like Keuchel or Kimbrel would lose a draft pick as a result. The CBA also specifies that any player signed within 24 hours of the MLB Draft, which begins on June 3, would not have those penalties attached. It wasn’t lovely to look at or pleasant to consider or in any way dignified for anyone involved, but MLB teams are less than a week away from having successfully waited out two big-ticket free agents, for reasons that those teams still can’t quite bring themselves to articulate publicly.
As the other, variously insulting reasons for this spiteful miniature capital strike have fallen away, those draft picks have become the justification of choice when it comes to explaining why the entire league opted not to pursue two of the more accomplished free agent pitchers in last year’s class. It’s a tidy and telling irony that teams can’t strictly say that they’d rather have draft picks than these free agents—as Craig Edwards noted at FanGraphs, “‘we are unwilling to forfeit a draft selection to sign Player X’ is actually a prohibited phrase under the CBA, whether on or off the record.” By this point there’s no real need to say it out loud anyway.
The league and the owners have always insisted that this was not the case—that they in fact wanted very much to win, but had their own secret proprietary reasons for not employing these two particular players to that end. This all always felt wrong and smelled off, and it quite predictably looked worse when Keuchel and Kimbrel were left to stay in shape by throwing simulated games while actual MLB teams threw out endless waves of extravagantly crispy retreads in real, non-simulated games. On every day of this season, including Opening Day, someone far inferior to Keuchel has been tasked with starting a game, and someone much worse at the job than Kimbrel has been asked to finish one. That will be true right up until some team, having exhausted every other option and sufficiently proved whatever point they were trying to prove, breaks down and pays one of these All-Stars.
Next week, with the hindrance represented by those lost draft picks out of the picture, and with something like one-third of a regular season that has been haunted in numerous ways by these two stars’ absence gone, this two-man free agent market will get a second chance. Think of the little market that will be created on June 3 as the result of unplugging a malfunctioning piece of old electronics and then plugging it back in, if you’d like. Or as a collection of teams that engaged in a soft, hedged, plausibly deniable form of collusion getting another shot to demonstrate how serious they are or are not about improving the team they put on the field every day. It’s a matter of taste, really. Either way, we won’t have to think about it in an abstract way for much longer.
For now, let’s think of it in the way that Major League teams insist that they are thinking about it. That Keuchel and Kimbrel are unsigned and almost certainly will remain so until sometime after June 2 “just shows you how teams value draft picks,” Scott Boras told MLB Radio Network’s “Power Alley” on Tuesday. (Boras represents Keuchel, but not Kimbrel.) “It’s something that’s very important to [teams], they’re worth a lot of money. And if they’re worth a lot of money to the teams, then the players... should be receiving bonuses that are proportionate to the demand for the draft pick.”
Because of the rules and contingencies governing free agency, the value of the picks these teams prized so highly varies, sometimes greatly, from one team to another. Every big league team has demonstrated through pure sniffy inaction that they value those picks, which land in a Gaussian distribution between the Diamondbacks (who would lose the 33rd pick) and the Red Sox (who would lose the 138th), more than they value the wins that a couple months of Keuchel and/or Kimbrel might have secured for their teams.
A draft pick will be worth more to a team that’s trying to compete two or three or five years from now than it will be to one aiming to raise a flag this October. The opportunity to underpay a young player for the better part of a decade some years down the line could well be spun—to owners, and also to the sort of fans inclined to see things from the owners’ perspective—as being worth more than three notably more expensive years of service from a high-quality big-leaguer who can start next week. The argument isn’t terribly compelling on its own, mostly because accepting it as valid presupposes a limitation on resources that doesn’t exist for pretty much any MLB owner, especially in a league without either a salary cap or even a terribly onerous luxury tax. But the owners are the only ones whose opinions really matter here, and also that sort of argument generally enough to convince the sort of fans that want to be convinced. Tweet about this and you will find them, or they will find you.
To be fair to the front office cosplay community, the potential value of even a middling draft pick, when you figure in how little the collective bargaining agreement allows teams to pay those players over their early careers, can with a little imagination be seen as similar to the guaranteed value of a star player at the back end of his peak. There’s a good chance that any given pick will bust and never help win even one big-league game; most do. There’s also the chance that the player becomes a star, but either way it’s not a terribly expensive gamble. Signing Craig Kimbrel gives a team a one-in-one chance of getting Craig Kimbrel, but also it costs lots more. That’s basically the size of it.
The debate is not the same for every team, because teams have wildly different picks, which vary widely in value. At FanGraphs, Edwards laid out those diverging values and identified which picks each team would stand to lose. (After the season started, Edwards writes, teams reasoned that the absence of Keuchel or Kimbrel’s lost production was effectively a sunk cost; and as we are nearly to the wire now, the value in jumping the deadline has nearly disappeared, as four extra days of these players’ services would not be worth the draft pick it’d cost. But if there is a robust second free agent market for the two, there would be real value in getting a four-day head start on other teams in negotiations.)
While we all wait, we can look at what those precious picks are actually worth. Edwards explains the relative value of those picks in dollars, which is instructive when it comes to understanding how MLB decision-makers view these transactions, but I recommend a significantly more oafish approach: Simply look at the pick that a given team would stand to lose, and then go to Baseball-Reference, plug it in, and see which players those picks have produced since the advent of the Amateur Draft in 1965.
This bit of unscientific booping around will provide a bracing reminder of how difficult it is to identify and develop top-level talent in the draft, especially outside the first few picks. But it is also a nice reminder of what all this decimal-pointed pettifoggery and talk about abstract-o value is obscuring.
So for example: if the New York Mets were to sign Keuchel or Kimbrel, they would surrender the 53rd pick in exchange. In the last 30 years, the best player selected at that spot was Sean Casey, a popular, productive, notably rectangular first baseman who was worth 16.9 Wins Above Replacement over 12 big league seasons; the team that drafted him benefitted from virtually none of Casey’s excellence, because they traded him for Dave Burba after six big-league games. Or say the Braves decided that they’d be willing to give up the 60th pick in exchange for the rights to a few years of Craig Kimbrel. Since 1970, the most successful 60th pick is Ryan Ludwick, who was worth a shade over 11 WAR in parts of a dozen big league seasons. The Milwaukee Brewers would lose the 133rd pick if they added Keuchel to their rotation or Kimbrel to their bullpen; Pat Hentgen, whom the Blue Jays grabbed there in 1986, is the only 133rd pick ever to have been worth more than eight wins above replacement. Only three players picked there in the last two decades have even made the majors.
Again, this isn’t scientific. Even with advances in scouting, the draft is dizzyingly random. The best players picked with the 52nd selection (that’s Toronto’s, for now) are All-Stars: Carl Crawford, Brad Hand, and Blake Snell have been picked there in the last two decades alone. The best player selected with the 51st pick (San Francisco’s, if you were curious) over that same period is uh Anthony Gose, who is currently remaking himself as a pitcher in the Carolina League. Take it all together, though, and it all starts to seem... well, pretty arbitrary.
Maybe it’s all as complicated as the league and its owners would have us believe. Certainly there is a lot that everyone involved, including the people whose jobs it is to know it, does not know about how to turn a draft pick into a player that helps a Major League team win. But it might also be that all this is about what it’s always obviously been about, which is what the league’s most powerful people value above everything else. Cost-certainty and payroll control is a part of that. But it’s the control part—the owners’ right to do whatever they want, up to and including sitting on their money—that matters most. Their dedication to that has gotten them this far, and it should get them through to June 3.