In the likely scenario, Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo will return to their 2016 teams. That's the safe move, the one we're all comfortbale with. Bautista is strongly identified with the Blue Jays, and Toronto is the one market where his act is not vilified but celebrated. In fact, the two sides seemed to be approaching a deal as of Sunday night.
Trumbo just hit a Major League-leading 47 home runs for the Orioles -- 48, if you count the AL Wild Card Game -- and so Baltimore has proven to be a good fit for him.
Oh, and both of these teams just so happen to still have a need for these particular players.
Well, not really -- especially when Draft pick compensation is involved.
And so, merely for the sake of discussion, we're going to use this space to think about something that wouldn't be easy for either of these players:
Sitting out the first two-plus months of the 2017 season.
To be abundantly clear, we're not suggesting it would be a good idea. When Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew went down this road in 2014, the rust was evident and the statistical regression was steep.
Furthermore, though there has been some speculation that Bautista could wait until after the Draft to sign, neither player is legitimately considering this scenario at present. The aforementioned "likely" scenario is still alive. Sunday night's news about Bautista seem to indicate the Blue Jays have strong interest in bringing him back, and, while Orioles general manager Dan Duquette has done some public posturing that insists the Orioles are ready, willing and able to move on from Trumbo, he admits the club has not totally closed the door on bringing him back.
And that's before we even get to the other teams that might benefit from landing Bautista or Trumbo right now.
But there is no doubt the Draft pick compensation issue has clouded these two players' markets, and the only way to get past that issue is, well, to get past the Draft itself.
If Trumbo or Bautista were to sit out until mid-June (the Draft is held June 12-14), he would be clear of that cloud and able to go to the highest bidder, perhaps in a market amplified by in-season competitive urges and/or injury issues involving corner outfield/first base/DH types.
The problem Bautista and Trumbo face is they are literally the last remnants of a flawed system in which free-agent values have, in all but the most elite of cases, been compromised by compensation. To sign Bautista or Trumbo, a team must give up its highest unprotected Draft pick in 2017. Teams picking in the top 10 of the Draft have those particular selections protected, but all the rest are fair game. A year from now, all teams will have their highest pick protected, and those that receive revenue sharing will have their top two picks protected.
So what we have now, in this late stage of free agency, is the usual hemming and hawing associated with the surrender of a prominent pick compounded by this dramatic and pending upheaval -- to the point that the Blue Jays and Orioles do have some incentive to hope somebody else signs Bautista or Trumbo so that they can recoup a pick.
"The value of that Draft pick has been enhanced with the negotiations of the new basic agreement," Duquette recently explained on MLB Network Radio. "In other words, that's about the last time you can acquire that level of pick for a compensation free agent. The level is diluted after this year.
Ultimately, the price points for Bautista and Trumbo will probably get to a level where teams can more easily hop that mental hurdle.
The Twins, Rays, A's and Phillies are all teams with protected first-rounders that have been at least speculatively linked to one or both of these players. The Indians and Rockies have already surrendered a first-rounder, so signing Bautista or Trumbo would only cost them a second-round pick. The Rangers, who currently have a pick at No. 26 overall, had already reported to Spring Training last year when they opted to surrender a pick in the teens to sign Ian Desmond, so it's not at all out of the realm of possibility for Texas or another team to suddenly opt to part with a pick.
And hey, even if the Blue Jays re-sign Bautista and give up the possibility of that would-be compensation pick, they'd still have two of the top 28 picks as a function of losing Edwin Encarnacion.
But right now, any contract offer to Bautista or Trumbo is influenced by the opportunity cost associated with the pick. Every team has its own means of assessing that cost, though one 2014 study estimated picks in the 11-20 range to be worth north of $20 million and picks in the 20s to be worth north of $16 million.
This seems especially pertinent to Bautista, whose age and 2016 downturn could very well limit him to a one-year deal (the increasing industry expectation is that Bautista will end up signing a one-year deal to try to rebuild his value). If a team is giving up a Draft pick for only one year of control, the salary is going to be substantially affected. This is what happened to Desmond when he turned down a $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Nationals and wound up making roughly half as much ($8 million) for one year with the Rangers.
If pride or price were to prevent Bautista or Trumbo from going back to their old clubs or landing with a new one prior to Opening Day, who knows what in-season scenarios might unfold?
A few not-totally-unrealistic suggestions:
What if the Red Sox come to realize they miss David Ortiz even more than they imagined? They've upgraded their rotation with Chris Sale, of course, but Mitch Moreland's arrival, a full season of Andrew Benintendi and a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval might not be enough to prevent what was the AL's top-performing offense from enduring a steep downturn in run production.
What if the Rangers discover that Joey Gallo's power stroke is still struggling with the transition to the big leagues (Gallo has a .649 OPS in a limited, 153 plate appearance Major League sample, to date) and/or that Shin-Soo Choo's body can simply no longer withstand the rigors of the 162-game schedule?
What if the Mariners, in their bid to end the game's longest October drought, see team-wide strides in the AL West standings but just aren't getting the production they need at first base from Danny Valencia and Dan Vogelbach or in right field from prospect Mitch Haniger?
What if the Indians, who are obviously all-in after the AL pennant and the stunning Encarnacion signing, encounter another shoulder-sullied season for star outfielder Michael Brantley and realize they need another bat?
What if Ryan Zimmerman, who has averaged just 90 games played over the last three years, goes down again and the win-now Nationals need a savior?
Those are merely some of the plausible scenarios, and they don't even begin to address the sort of implausibility that is such a baseball specialty. Teams made an unexpected rise and find themselves in the market for an in-season upgrade, or guys get hurt or go backward. When the Mets lost Lucas Duda to injury last summer, the best the open market had to offer was James Loney. The mere specter of a white knight like Bautista or Trumbo waiting in the wings -- and creating a mid-June bidding war -- is a fun and fascinating thought.
Alas, the reality is that in-season budgets aren't typically flexible enough to allow such a bidding war to escalate beyond the terms Bautista or Trumbo could already command right now. The smart money's on two-plus months of play pulling more teams out of the running than adding teams in. Bautista or Trumbo would encounter a limited market, and they'd have a limited amount of time to shake off the rust and perform at a level that ensures their fate the following offseason is a far more lucrative one.
So with all that said, let's just go back to the likely scenario: Bautista back to the Blue Jays, Trumbo back to the Orioles, and the 2017 Draft order unaffected.