It's just after Christmas, and for four of last year's better players and this winter's top free agents, the holiday was distressingly white -- that is, blank. Empty. They would've much preferred green, or perhaps Dodger blue.
But Kyle Lohse, Michael Bourn, Adam LaRoche and Rafael Soriano remain unsigned, and for good reason as far as MLB clubs are concerned: Signing any of them to a contract would require the team to give up its first-round pick in the 2013 entry-level draft unless that pick happens to be one of the top 10 picks overall, in which case the team would lose its second-round pick in the same position (unless that pick has already been given up, as the Cleveland Indians did when they signed Nick Swisher, in which case the team loses its third-round pick). Under MLB's new collective bargaining agreement, this has somewhat extreme penalties due to the introduction of the "draft pool:" Each pick in the draft has a certain dollar value assigned to it, and the aggregate value of all the team's picks is the amount of money it's allowed to spend on prospects without getting hit with draconian fines, or in excessive cases, losing picks from future drafts altogether. A draft pick surrendered to sign a free agent is just that: surrendered. Its value no longer counts toward the draft pool a team has to sign its picks. There's no value whatsoever in losing that first- or second-rounder.
(The team that's losing the outgoing free agent does not get that exact pick in return - as before, it gets a pick in a supplementary round of drafting that takes place after the round in which the team that signed said free agent surrendered its pick. However, under the new CBA, directly following both the first and second rounds is a six-pick Competitive Balance Lottery round; the supplementary rounds proceed immediately following.)
This is all a lot of words to say that guys like these -- players good enough for clubs to tender them qualifying offers that they declined to test the market, but not good enough to warrant a surrender of a top draft pick to sign -- are caught in a bit of an awkward position. It used to be that the top 15 picks were protected, not just the top 10, and this year's Nos. 11-15 are the New York Mets, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Diamondbacks -- a slate of teams that all are (or in the Mariners' and Pirates' cases, at least think they are) two or three pieces away from having a decent shot at a wild-card berth. That's exactly the sort of role guys like LaRoche, Bourn, Lohse and Soriano should be filling -- not tentpoles of the franchise but certainly players with a certain known positive value who can help turn a mediocre team into something to get concerned about going into the last weeks of the season.
Nick Swisher was also in this category, and he'd almost certainly be a Mariner and not an Indian if not for the new rules. The Indians, however, pick fifth overall, not 12th, so they have to surrender only a second-rounder, and losing the No. 12 overall draft pick was too tough a pill even for embattled general manager Jack Zduriencik to swallow.
The major way around this, of course, would be the sign-and-trade, which would work something like this: LaRoche (or Bourn, or Lohse, or Soriano) negotiates a deal with the Rangers (or the Mariners, or the Dodgers, or the Yankees). Then he signs that deal -- not with that team, but instead with someone who has a protected pick, such as the aforementioned Indians - especially the Indians actually, since they've already lost their second-round pick and would thereby be surrendering their third-rounder. Cleveland then trades the newly-signed player to the team that actually wants to pay him that money for those years in exchange for something slightly more valuable than a second-round (or third-round) pick; a lottery ticket-type prospect in A-ball, perhaps, or if the receiving team is in one of the Competitive Balance Lottery rounds, perhaps that pick gets dealt. (Competitive Balance Lottery picks are the only ones eligible to be traded by MLB rule.)
The major question looming over this strategy is whether or not it constitutes collusion, and whether or not that would cause the commissioner's office to put a stop to it. As to the first part, of course it's collusion. MLB teams collude all the time, both inside league rules and outside of them - well, that or every front office in baseball decided at the same time that Barry Bonds wasn't even worth a look at DH in 2008 independently because they were all so moral and in love with the game that they couldn't bear the thought of him tarnishing their colors. I know what my money's on.
But sign-and-trades aren't even the sort of collusion that should be prohibited -- that is, the kind where two or more parties conspire to hurt a third. In the scenario above, no one's getting hurt. The player gets the money he wants and plays for the team he wants to play for, the team acquiring him in the deal gets the player it wants and keeps its draft pick, and the team signing him does so with full knowledge that it will be trading him and getting something as or more valuable than its surrendered draft pick in return. Players signed this offseason cannot be traded before June 18 without their express written consent, so there's no chance that Lohse expects to go to the Dodgers but gets hoodwinked and shipped off to the Marlins or something. The player explicitly signs off on the deal.
Sign-and-trade is not a new concept, either. It's something that's been done in not only every major professional sport but in MLB as well, and as recently as the winter of 2009 with none other than the very same Rafael Soriano who remains unsigned and available right now. That offseason, the Braves offered Soriano arbitration thinking he'd decline and test the market, and they'd get a draft pick from whomever signed him; instead, Soriano took the Braves up on it -- an object lesson on the dangers of offering something only because you think the other guy will turn it down. Instead, the Braves wound up signing Soriano to a one-year, $7.25 million deal they had no intention of paying out to him and then sending him to the Tampa Bay Rays. After the 2010 season the Rays offered him arbitration as well, but this time Soriano declined and went to New York to pitch for the Yankees, making $21 million over two years.
Baseball isn't jurisprudence, and MLB is under no real obligation to be consistent in its rulings unless Congress says otherwise, but there's no way signing and trading Rafael Soriano in 2012 or 2013 is collusion if it wasn't in 2009. All four of these guys should find pretty comfortable homes by the time spring training rolls around next February, and no one should be surprised if it takes some fancy maneuvering to get them there.