As Patrick noted the other day, the Nationals were taking their sweet time in deciding what to do about Adam LaRoche, and by extension with Mike Morse. The wait ended yesterday when LaRoche finally accepted a two-year deal to re-sign with his old club.
There was a good reason for that: the Nationals held all the cards. Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, probably for only this one season, appears to have created a group of upper-middle-class free agents (all four of them) who are lost at sea. LaRoche was one of them, and because of that the Nationals had a huge advantage in re-signing him. There was no reason for them to do anything but wait.
Nine players were made "qualifying offers" in this offseason, which this year meant a one-year, $13.3 million contract. All nine turned them down. One, David Ortiz, signed a two-year deal (with a just slightly lower average annual value) with the Red Sox shortly thereafter, and another, Hiroki Kuroda, returned to the Yankees a couple weeks later on a one-year deal. The rest were Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher, LaRoche, Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, and Rafael Soriano. Any team, other than the player’s most recent team, that signed one of those seven players would forfeit a pick between the 11th pick of the first round and the second round, along with the money they were permitted to spend on that pick.
Hamilton, of course, signed for quite a bit with the Angels, Upton for a little less with the Braves. These were marquee free agents, and while the lost pick likely cut into their value, they’re valuable enough that it wasn’t going to be a major sticking point. Swisher was a trickier case, which is probably why it took him until about a week ago to sign, but he has averaged a 124 OPS+ and about three wins above replacement over the last four years, ultimately worth enough to net him a fairly large contract despite Cleveland’s having to give up a pick as well.
That left the aforementioned quartet of untouchables: LaRoche, Bourn, Lohse and Soriano. All thought (or their agents did) they were worth more than one year and $13.3 million; all had huge question marks that might lead teams to believe they’re not worth that plus a high draft pick.
Take LaRoche: He’s coming off a career high in games played, home runs, and RBI, but ultimately, he’s roughly an average player, with a 113 OPS+ over the last four seasons; in 2012, the average MLB first baseman put up a 114 OPS+. After the year he had, you can’t blame the Nationals for deciding he’d be worth a one-year, $13.3 million deal, especially considering the pick they’d be getting if (as he was likely to) he did turn down the proffer.
It’s easy to understand LaRoche’s point of view as well. Given that he was a 33-year-old coming off his best season, it’s hard to blame him for thinking he was worth a lot more than that, and what’s more that this was probably his last chance to get a large payout (in baseball terms) and some job security. What was missing amidst all this understanding was a rationale as to why another team would value him more highly than the Nats did, or, to put it another way, as highly as LaRoche valued himself. Why offer more than one year and a first-round pick for a lottery ticket like LaRoche whose maximum payout isn’t all that high? After all, if his value is higher than the qualifying offer, it’s just a little bit higher -- probably not that plus the value of the draft pick.
It’s a similar story with the other remaining "qualifying offer" free agents. Bourn is awfully good, but he’s a 30-year-old who relies almost entirely on his speed, and almost every team for which he made sense found its center fielder pretty early on. Lohse has had a very good last two seasons, but he’ll be 34 and doesn’t strike anybody out. Soriano is just a reliever, albeit a good one, and seems pretty unpopular with the Yankees.
LaRoche, as well as the remaining three, would probably have received better deals than the qualifying offer in a truly free market: maybe it would involve slightly less money per year, but more years. One or more of them might still end up doing better than that Ken Davidoff notes that Bourn, Lohse, and Soriano are each clients of Scott Boras, a notorious waiter-outer). It wouldn’t make much sense for any team, but in the world of baseball free-agent contracts, not making sense doesn’t typically stop things from happening.
Right now it looks like LaRoche and the three LaRoche-ettes were victims of an unfamiliar new system. LaRoche only made sense for the Nationals because they were the only team who wouldn’t forfeit a high draft pick for him; as such, they could lowball him and still very likely pay him more than any other team would have been willing to. In the future (and we’ve got four more offseasons of this; the CBA runs through 2016), I suspect that we’ll see a lot more of these more borderline free agents accept the qualifying offer, or do what Ortiz did and try for a quick negotiation with the team that offered it.
Now that LaRoche is back with the Nats, it remains to be seen what happens to the other three. The Braves are reportedly willing to reconsider Bourn. The Cardinals are deep enough in pitching that Loshe can’t go home again, and as for Soriano, the Yankees have apparently slammed the door. There seems a very real chance that Lohse and Soriano will be stuck taking bargain-basement deals – giving up a first-rounder isn’t so bad if it means you get Kyle Lohse for, say, $7 million – and serve as sobering lessons for the upper-middle-class of 2014 and beyond.