The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 24, 2014

Thoma column: The 'Compensation Five' misjudged the market


The Mankato Free Press

---- — Now there are three — three prime free agents unable to find a seat in baseball’s game of roster musical chairs.

Two of the Compensation Five (so dubbed because signing them will cost their new team a prime draft pick in compensation to their former team) settled within the past week for less than they imagined when they turned down the $14 million qualifying offer.

Ubaldo Jiminez, who pitched last year for Cleveland, at least landed a multi-year deal with Baltimore (four years, $50 million), so it worked for him, if more slowly and at a lower level than he would have preferred. Outfielder Nelson Cruz, however, wound up with just a one-year deal worth between $8 million and $9 million, also from the Orioles, well short of the qualifying offer.

Still hanging out there: shortstop Stephen Drew, first baseman-DH Kendrys Morales and pitcher Ervin Santana.

It’s easy to blame the compensation system for their teamless status, and without a doubt the increased value teams now place on draft picks (and the signing bonus allotment that accompanies them) is a significant factor.

But there are other reasons few teams have pursued these players. Morales is a slugger-only, with no defensive value. Santana has run hot and cold throughout his career. Drew has played 100 games just once in the past three seasons.

At the start of the free agent season, I list four players on my blog who I thought might do well to take the qualifying offer. I missed on two of them, Curtis Granderson and Carlos Beltran; they both signed new deals rather quickly. Morales and Jiminez were on my list.

Cruz and Drew really should have been. I thought Santana would find a market.

Drew was fuming publicly last week about the lack of interest, blaming it completely on the draft pick issue. He described himself as a “top-five” shortstop, which made me snort aloud.

Truth: Were Drew still with Boston, he might not be the fifth-best shortstop in the division. I’d put him behind J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado of Baltimore, Xavier Bogearts of Boston (the reason the Red Sox are willing to part ways), Jose Reyes of Toronto and Yunel Escobar of Tampa Bay.

In an era when prospect gurus are giddy over the wave of young shortstop talent, few teams want to make a multi-year investment in an aging, injury-prone shortstop.

Drew’s agent, Scott Boras, is recycling a line he used last year when client Kyle Lohse was teamless as spring training was going on: “It doesn’t matter what time dinner is when you’re the steak.” If Drew’s the steak, however, he’s being sold in a restaurant that caters to vegetarians.

The conventional wisdom among players, and certainly with Boras’ clients, is that once you get to free agency, you should explore it. I believe this has emboldened some teams to make qualifying offers to players they really prefer to see leave — as with Cruz and Drew.

That pattern will continue until somebody takes that qualifying offer. Cruz has about 6 million reasons to wish he had.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.