In the column we get the why but we don't get the nitty-gritty. It's easy enough to say "draft pick compensation" is the reason, because it is, but does that reason even make sense?
The equation - as far as performance on the field - is simple. What will Ian Desmond bring to the team and when versus what a draft pick will bring to a team and when? The projections aren't kind to Ian, given how terrible he was last year. Let's look at what is probably the low-end and give him a projection that has him giving a team ~6 WAR over the next 4 years. That's not very good. Clearly a draft pick would be better than that, right?
Even looking at high draft picks and that low a bar your chances of getting better production from a draft pick than from Ian is worse than a coin flip. For those at the bottom of the first round it's hardly better than a roll of the dice. Don't believe me?
Here are the drafts. Figure a few years to get to the majors so let's start in 2012 and go back five years.... 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.
There's a lot more nothing in these things than even average MLB players. So there's a better than even chance the player you draft ends up giving you nothing and hey - even if they do give you something it's at least a good 3 years away. NOTHING on the field says a draft pick is better than signing Ian for anyone competing today or tomorrow really.
Well that's Ian's problem #1. A lot of teams, like half the National League really, are not competing for today or tomorrow, they are competing for some time down the road. They have no use for a player like Ian because they don't care about production for the next few years. But that's not all the teams - what is it about for the rest of them? Money.
Let's say you hate Ian and you project him to give you that 1.5 WAR a year for four years. Let's say you also have a draft pick 16-20 and you project on average for him to give you .5 WAR a year. That's worse. But Ian costs you 10 million dollars for each of those four years, and the draft pick costs you maybe 500K each. 40 million for 6 WAR vs 2 million for 2? It's not even close what is the better deal.
In theory the better deal can help you spend more money on better players down the road, but it's not about the hypothetical. It's about the reality. Draft picks are excellent bargains when they pan out. So much so that if what you care about is value than it is silly to give them up for a FA signing unless you can get a good deal, or perhaps you plan to sign multiple FAs (you lose another draft pick but 2nd round picks have garbage chances at being good helping spread that lost value among more deals)
Wait though - didn't the other QO decliners all get signed? Well yes. But...
- Three players (Gordon, Iwakuma, Kendrick) re-signed with original teams meaning no draft pick loss.
- Three teams signed more than one (O's, Tigers, Cubs), spreading out the value loss among seven players.
- Two teams (Tigers and Marlins) had protected first round picks that couldn't be lost and it cost them a 2nd round pick instead.
- The Cubs pick was so low, 28th, to be more comparable to a 2nd round pick.
Normally it may be enough to only have a handful of teams (these four teams, D-Backs, Royals, Giants and the Nationals, and let's add the O's, Tigers, and Cubs) ready to spend money on FAs but this was a particularly deep class that highlighted the compensation issue that had been only touched on before.
It was supposed to work out because some teams were supposed to put winning ahead of value. But the system is suffering because too many teams in a given year make value the driving factor in their business model. That sounds like a good idea. Rebuild smartly, get good young players, compete and when ready sign a few good free agents. Except... aren't all those other teams not competing this year doing that? And it's not like the teams that aren't giving up on 2016 are going to fade away to nothing. This isn't any smarter strategy for winning than what was done before. It's a smarter strategy for not losing a lot of money when you don't win.
Where does this leave Ian? A player that can help you win today but costs a lot and worse yet loses you that potential value down the road? Waiting for the clock to run out on that value question hanging around his neck or hoping for a team that has already made a signing to just go ahead and pick him up. Come on O's... you know you want to.