Major League Baseball free agency is a yearly gamble for teams, players and agents. With the first month of the 2014 season in the books, it's clear that both Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales lost when forgoing one-year qualifying offers from their former clubs.
Now, with the 2014 First-Year Player Draft rapidly approaching, baseball's most famous unemployed duo have little choice but to wait for the June 5-7 extravaganza to commence. When the draft arrives, neither Drew nor Morales will be subject to draft-pick compensation.
According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, there's growing speculation that Morales will indeed wait until after the draft to sign. Per Heyman's report: "Twenty teams originally stood to lose first-round picks by signing premium free agents, but once the draft is held, a pick would no longer be attached to the signing of a top free agent such as Morales."
When contending teams look to fill major holes during the June and July trading season, it could finally be time for these impact players to find a home for 2014 and beyond. The idea of changing course, taking a team-friendly deal or rushing into an extended spring training program in May now seems very foolish for either of these players.
As the season progresses from April to May, there's very little to gain for either Drew or Morales to sign prior to June. During spring training, the writing was on the wall for a long, embarrassing free-agent plight for the former Red Sox and Mariner contributors, respectively.
When free agents like Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana came off the board, the few teams willing to surrender draft picks for free agents—Baltimore and Atlanta—did so without bringing Drew or Morales aboard.
MLB Network's Chris Russo recently argued (video below) that players inherently want to play and that both of these players deserve fault—along with agent Scott Boras—for allowing this situation to bleed into the regular season.
While Russo is right, it makes little sense to now eschew months of stubborn behavior in order to get back on the field in mid-May or early June. If the draft took place in August, this would be a far different story for each player and any similar situation in the future.
However, it doesn't. One more month may seem long to a professional athlete that only has so many years, games and innings in him, but it's not enough to lose the leverage that can be gained from allowing teams to keep their 2015 draft picks.
Furthermore, teams aren't desperate on May 2. With the exception of disasters in Houston and Arizona, almost every team in the sport has some reason to believe that a contender will emerge over the next five months. By June, some of those teams will be weeded out due to attrition or a lack of high-end talent on the 25-man roster.
The rest will form the backbone of the 2014 pennant chase. When that occurs, two options will be available for any contender in need of a versatile infielder or slugging first baseman: engaging opposing teams in trade negotiations or surrendering a long-term contract for a rare in-season free agent.
Usually, trades are the only way to exponentially improve a roster in June and July. This year, that won't be the case.
For a team like, say, the Milwaukee Brewers, it could make far more sense to offer Morales a two-year deal to fill a hole at first base instead of surrendering prospects for a stopgap. If Milwaukee stays a contender through the summer, they can add Morales to a star-studded and powerful lineup that already includes Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez.
In New York, the Mets entered May with a 15-11 record and a starting pitching staff with a total ERA of 3.37, per ESPN. Yet, despite the early-season success, it's hard to imagine any team continuing to play .577 baseball with a run differential of only plus-5. In order to sustain success and become a surprise contender, the Mets need more offense.
One position that could certainly benefit from an impact performer: shortstop.
Although Ruben Tejada's .588 OPS heading into May is actually an improvement from his 2013 mark of .519, it's nowhere near what a player like Drew can provide. Unlike many teams, the Mets have a farm system stocked with arms to facilitate a trade for an impact up-the-middle performer. But signing Drew would allow the team to hold onto a surplus of pitchers for a franchise-changing trade next offseason.
Plus, the idea of the Mets engaging Drew in talks now is far-fetched, at best. With another month of clarity, New York would have a much better grasp of its chances at a run to October. It's only then that the team would be wise to commit years and money to Drew.
The idea of sitting out another full month has to be a bitter pill to swallow for both of these players, but it's clearly the proper route to take now. When the draft is completed, a market of contenders—without fear of losing a future impact player—could emerge to offer fair deals and starting jobs on teams en route to the postseason.
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