Should the Blue Jays Tamper?

December 4, 2009

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Earlier this week, the Red Sox signed shortstop Marco Scutaro. Scutaro (who has a wicked awesome name) was a “type A” free agent who was formerly with the Toronto Blue Jays. As compensation for losing him, the Blue Jays are entitled to the Red Sox’s 2010 first round draft pick, as well as a sandwich pick between the first and second round (sandwich picks are mysteriously invented and inserted into the draft – very strange).

There is, of course, a twist. If the Red Sox sign a type A free agent with a higher Elias rating than Scutaro, the team losing the higher ranked player would get the first round pick (and a sandwich) and the Blue Jays would get the Red Sox’s second round pick and a sandwich. And if the Red Sox signed TWO higher ranked players, the Blue Jays would get Boston’s third round pick and the sandwich.

Something similar happened to the Blue Jays last year. They lost type A free agent A.J. Burnett to the Yankees, but got their compensatory pick pushed back to the third round when the Yankees signed higher rated players Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia.

In my opinion, the Scutaro signing is the tip of the iceberg for Boston. I think they will go after Matt Holliday very strongly. This would mean that the Cardinals would get their first round pick, and that Toronto would get their second round pick as compensation for Scutaro. Sacrificing a first round pick for a player of Scutaro’s ability seems to be overpaying for the talent. Sacrificing a second rounder seems like a fairer price. Not only that, but Boston would be able to boast a stronger team when they try to woo Holliday.

Clearly, Toronto doesn’t want Boston to sign Holliday, since this would decrease their compensation for Scutaro. In fact, it would be in their best interest to attempt to steer Holliday (and other players rated higher than Scutaro) away from Boston and onto the rosters of other teams.

How would they do this? One thought would be to engage Holliday (or, more likely, his agent, Scott Boras) in discussions, perhaps by making an offer that is not exactly a lowball, but not at the level it will take to sign him either. When the talks reach their inevitable impasse, direct the conversation to topics that make the Red Sox look bad and other suitors look good. Alternately, Toronto could simply leak disturbing rumors to sources in the press.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Blue Jays actually will use these tactics. I really don’t think they will. But the fact of the matter is that the current system would reward them if they were somehow able to sabotage Boston’s signings.

I don’t know what the solution is. Allowing each team to sign only one type A free agent doesn’t seem feasible. Nor would pushing back a compensatory pick into the future (for example, giving Toronto Boston’s 2011 first round pick for Scutaro if they signed Holliday).

Quite honestly, the entire system of compensatory picks is flawed and in need of a serious overhaul. Some of the statistics used in the Elias ratings are problematic.  For example, fielding percentage is one of the stats used to rank catchers.  Catchers are credited with a putout when a pitcher strikes out a batter.  This means that catchers on teams with high strikeout pitchers will have a better fielding percentage than a comparable catcher on a team with groundball pitchers – simply because they have a higher number of “chances”.  Perhaps a worse flaw is that the rating system does not adjust for age. In reality, a 27 year old has more value than a 39 year old with the same stats.

The system is starting to catch a few players who are unrealistically rated as type A. After they decline arbitration, they realize that no team wants to sign them because while they happen to be a fine baseball player, they aren’t worth a first round pick. The current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2011 – perhaps that would be a good time to tear down the current system and build a new one in its place.

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