Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees - Game Two

A lot was made yesterday over the unwelcome realization that the Yankees and Red Sox, by virtue of their raft of potential free agents, stand to earn a whole lot of compensatory draft picks. This hardly seems like the intended consequence of the new C.B.A. Rather than compensate smaller market teams unable to retain the services of the their free agents, we see the same old rich clubs nabbing extra picks.

Firstly, anyone who reads the qualifying offer arrangement as anything other than a mid-level salary tax is wholly misguided. Stripping signing teams of a draft pick doesn’t change the way top free agents are valued but it certainly gives concerned teams pause when it comes to more middling players.

Which brings us back to the Red Sox and Yankees, apparently reaping added benefits from the latest CBA. To just throw up our hands and blame the East Coast bias or claim the league is in the cahoots with the Yankees. It is a symptom of long-held factors that existed long before the current CBA.

Yes, the qualifying offers largely went to the Yankees and Red Sox. Consider the six recipients of QO’s from these two teams:

Of those six players, two are homegrown within their own organizations. Three signed as free agents, Drew and Napoli signing last season after they did not receive qualifying offers from their previous clubs. Hiroki Kuroda re-signed with the Yankees after receiving a qualifying offer after the 2012 season. Prior to the Yankees signing Kuroda as a free agent, the Dodgers did not offer the Type B free agent arbitration, the equivalent of not extending a qualifying offer under the old system.

Curtis Granderson came to the Yankees after a 2010 trade with the Tigers. The Yankees sent Austin Jackson and Ian Kennedy out in the three-way trade, assuming the remaining three years plus an option on the Tigers’ deal to buy out most of Granderson’s arbitration years.

It is this process of team building that nets the Yankees and Red Sox so many players who end up as top free agents. These two teams take on players as their arbitration costs escalate. The Yankees specifically send away their own young, cost-controlled talent as other teams look to operate a leaner business. The Tigers dumped Granderson’s deal in exchange for a comparable player making a fraction of the salary, freeing up some extra dollars to pursue free agents like Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter and some other guy named Prince.

The two teams with the highest payroll in the American League are inevitably going to hold more players approaching free agency. A constant cycle of winning causes the Yankees to take on players as they get closer to free agency. The deep pockets and friendly hitting environments give the Yankees and Red Sox first right of refusal when players like Stephen Drew go looking for pillow contracts.

Should the latest CBA addressed these market shortcomings, further tilting the playing field in favor of the highest spending teams? We could easily make that argument. But the growing trend of teams signing their players to longer, option-heavy deals that control costs and keep players with the team that developed them is a good thing for baseball.

Andrew McCutchen will not hit the free agency market until after 2017 at the earliest. Troy Tulowitzki could finished his career with the same team that drafted him. Evan Longoria likely wears just one uniform for as long as he plays in the big leagues. After losing Albert Pujols, the Cardinals drafted Michael Wacha. I don’t want to flatly say “the system works” but power and influence of The free agent market is an increasingly fallow field, full of nice short-term fixes but not the franchise gamechanger once envisioned.

As Jack Moore wrote about here just yesterday, the only positions generally available for upgrade via free agency are corner outfielders, first baseman and starting pitchers. Up the middle strength is still built from within or by trade.

Gifting the Red Sox and Yankees more draft picks won’t change the dynamic as it exists. More budget conscious teams are still going to trade their controllable talent for more than a measly comp pick as they approach their free agent years.

The system still needs tweaking. The market reaction to the defacto salary tax is interesting to watch as it unfolds. What kind of workaround will they develop to counteract the loss of draft picks in a world where draft spending already slanted the value of each pick? Baseball’s recent history doesn’t lie. Some smart front office might jerry rig something but the key pillars of player development and talent acquisition will always win out over market fluctuations chasing wins on the free agent market.