Living in Cleveland since 2006, I’ve been casually following the local NBA team, the Cavaliers, since my arrival. First, we had Lebron, and it was pretty cool. Then, all of a sudden, we had no Lebron, which wasn’t fun. Now we have Lebron again! It’s wild.
Wilder still, although the Cavs had the 9th worst record in the NBA last year, through the magic of the NBA draft lottery, they defied the odds and landed the 1st pick in this year’s draft. In the NBA, any team that doesn’t make the playoffs has a chance to win the #1 overall pick, and the Cavs lucked out, despite having less than a 2% chance of winning the lottery.
In MLB, there is no lottery, but there’s something almost as important. Teams who finish with the 10 worst records have their 1st round draft picks protected in the following year’s draft. That means those teams can sign a free agent who has received a qualifying offer from their current team without losing their first round draft pick. They’ll still forfeit a draft pick, but it will be a much less valuable 2nd round pick.
How much less valuable is a 2nd round pick? This year, the Padres paid their 1st round pick, Trea Turner, and over-slot bonus of $2.9 million. They also gave their 2nd round pick, Michael Gettys, an over-slot bonus, but of just $1.3 million. The gap only widens as you near the top of the draft, as top 10 picks in this year’s draft received bonuses up to $6.582 million, while no 2nd rounder got more than $1.8 million, and the highest slot value in the 2nd round was only $1.35 million.
So yeah, 1st round picks are super valuable. So the opportunity to sign a top free agent, adding value to your team without giving up a 1st round pick, is super duper valuable.
I know what you’re thinking. This is a Padres blog, and the Padres don’t sign free agents. They’ve never spent more than $15.5 million on a free agent signing, and that was last year on a reliever who they might trade in the next few days, meaning they’d only end up paying about $5 million of his total contract.
This is a great point, and while I have no way of knowing, I am hopeful that the change at GM will inspire a change in franchise strategy in terms of free agency. None of the GM candidates being considered are products of small-market franchises. You would think they would want to act like a normal franchise, and normal franchises at least occasionally sign free agents to decently-sized contracts.
Adding to that, the Padres, if they plan to at least maintain payroll in the $90 million range, will likely have to add at least $20 million in payroll in the off-season. If they end up trading Ian Kennedy and Joaquin Benoit this week, that number could be more like $40 million. While it’s certainly possible to add all that payroll through trades, it makes a lot more sense to do so mostly through free agency.
And so we have the Padres, currently 46-58, squarely out of the playoff picture and with nothing to play for but pride and individual statistics. If the season ended today, the Padres would finish with the 7th worst record in baseball and pick 8th in next year’s draft. As much as I’d like to watch fun baseball on TV, and as much as I’d like to see players improve and succeed, the team needs to keep losing.
The Padres are 5.5 games away from the worst record in baseball and the #1 overall pick. More importantly, they are 4 games away from the 11th worst record. I don’t care where they land in the bottom 10, I just want to make sure they land somewhere in there, earning them one of those protected draft picks.
The Padres have been bad at this. The last two seasons they ended up drafting 13th, squarely out of the playoffs and decidedly unprotected. Of course, why would Josh Byrnes care? He wasn’t going to be signing a quality free agent anyway. But things are different now, or at least I hope they will be.
What if things aren’t different? What if the new GM isn’t given the flexibility to sign quality free agents? What if ownership decides not to at least maintain payroll? That would be a clear statement by ownership that they have no intention of being any different than past ownership, and they should sell the team, the new GM should quit, and we should all quit following the Padres because they would have proven themselves hopeless.
But for now I have hope, and that means more losing. I’m ready. Let’s do it. Let’s use protection.