It’s surprising to me how little attention the new free agent compensation system has gotten. Marc Normandin has a nice overview of it here, Jeff Sullivan here; essentially, there’s no more Type A and Type B. Instead, any departing free agent will bring back a draft pick (only the one, a sandwich pick) for the team that loses him — and cost an unprotected first-rounder for the team that gets him — as long as his old team is willing to make a “qualifying offer,” a one-year deal worth the average of the top 125 big-league salaries (this year, $13.3 million). It’s really quite different from what we’re used to, and I don’t think anyone really knows how it’s going to affect things yet, but it certainly could change things substantially.
And Yankees’ reliever Rafael Soriano, who is represented by Scott Boras and played a big role in exposing the developing flaws in the old system when he accepted arbitration with the Braves in 2009, may be the first to really put the system to the test. Yesterday, Soriano opted out of the final year of his contract.
This was not a surprise. It’s barely even news. Parkes covered it here over a month ago, saying Soriano had “nothing to lose.” And that’s probably true.
The Yankees will probably make a qualifying offer, which would guarantee Soriano no worse than an $800,000 raise for 2013. That’s what they’re expected to do, and it makes sense: if he accepts, you’ve got an excellent reliever at a price just a tick above what you’d previously committed to pay him; if he doesn’t and goes elsewhere, you’ve got a draft pick. And for all Boras’ noise about seeking a hefty three- or four-year deal, I have to think Soriano will probably accept the qualifying offer. If that happens, there’s something to be said for the fact that Boras managed to use the new system to wheedle an extra $800K out of a team in the first few days of the system’s existence…but it’s pretty boring.
I want more than that. I want chaos. I want to see one of the two scenarios in which Soriano really does have something to lose, or at least something to get a bit scared about — not out of any ill will toward Soriano, of course, but just because I want to see how it plays out.
First, the Yankees could simply fail to make a qualifying offer by tomorrow, November 2. It wouldn’t be stupid. The Soriano contract was roundly criticized when it was signed, and in 2011, GM Brian Cashman admitted that he “didn’t think [signing Soriano] was an efficient way to allocate our remaining resources,” but that the contract had been forced on him by ownership. Top-shelf relievers are extremely useful things, but I still have a hard time believing any modern reliever but one is ever worth $13.3 million in a season. As, apparently, does Cashman. Mariano (that one exception) could decide within the next day or two that he’s coming back, at which point Soriano becomes a thing that’s nice to have, but not nearly worth $13.3 million. They could determine that they don’t want him at that price, that he’s not likely to get a better offer that would net the team a draft pick, and that the best course could simply be to let things drop and walk away. There’d be some fun drama there, Boras might actually sweat a bit without the guarantee, and we’d get a solid idea of how baseball (or one team, anyway) values an excellent reliever coming off an excellent year with no draft picks attached.
Second – and a lot of people don’t seem to have grasped this part yet — if the Yankees do make a qualifying offer, Soriano has only seven days, until November 9, to decide whether or not to accept it. It takes a lot longer than that for a market for any one position to develop; every offseason, players sign contracts in November or early December that, come Spring Training, look well above or below what they would later have proved to be “worth” on the market. So the other way this gets interesting is if the Yankees make a qualifying offer, Soriano declines it, and suddenly no one wants to pay a relief pitcher a lot of money plus give up a draft pick for him. The most likely suitors just gave a big three-year contract to Brandon League for some reason, and it’s no secret that front offices are becoming increasingly more conscious of sabermetric-type stats and more fixed ideas of value, so who knows? Soriano could stand to lose a lot of money and end up signing a Brandon League type of deal (or worse) with another team, and the Yankees will still get their draft pick.
Again, I don’t think any of this is going to happen. It’s not often Boras takes “risks” that, given what he knows, are actually risky, and it’s exceedingly likely that Boras makes decisions like this already knowing that the Yankees will make a qualifying offer, and either already planning to accept or knowing that another team will come up with a big multi-year deal. Most likely, he’ll get his $800,000 raise, and it will be terribly boring. But this new system is going to make things very interesting, very soon.