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Seattle Mariners And The Qualifying Offer

Conor Jackson
Conor Jackson
Jim Rogash

You might've picked up on the fact that the Seattle Mariners so far this offseason have been linked to free-agent outfielders Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher. We don't know how strongly the Mariners might pursue Hamilton, but last Friday Jack Zduriencik suggested the M's wouldn't make too much of a commitment. Zduriencik might've been being completely honest. He might've instead been trying to throw people off. He might've instead been trying to make people think he was trying to throw people off. He might've instead been trying to actually forget it I could do this for hours. We don't know how strongly the Mariners might pursue Swisher, and though we could guess, who cares about our guesses? Not this guy, that's who.

Every offseason, we think about the Mariners possibly making a big free-agent splash. Most offseasons, they don't do that. But it's early enough in this offseason, and the rumors are there in sufficient quantity, that it's worth talking real quick about the new model of free-agent draft-pick compensation and such.

Both Hamilton and Swisher were extended qualifying offers by the Rangers and Yankees, respectively, and not anti-respectively, because that wouldn't make any sense. Both Hamilton and Swisher declined the qualifying offers, and neither Hamilton nor Swisher is expected to re-sign in the same place. So the Rangers and Yankees stand to gain draft-pick compensation for their losses, and the signing teams stand to pay a draft-pick penalty.

The draft-pick compensation is a sandwich pick after the first round. Whatever, we don't have to care about that. It's not like the Mariners extended a qualifying offer to George Sherrill. What's relevant to us and the Mariners right now is the prospect of a draft-pick penalty. If the Mariners sign Hamilton, or if the Mariners sign Swisher, they lose their highest pick. If they sign Hamilton and Swisher, they lose their highest two picks. Can you imagine! I cannot imagine.

The top ten picks in each draft are protected, which means they cannot be lost. Next year, the Mariners stand to pick 12th, meaning their pick isn't protected, meaning their pick could vanish in the event of such a high-profile signing. That's another change -- the pick just goes away, like it never even existed. It doesn't transfer to another team. Obviously, if one had his druthers, he would keep all of his draft picks. It's good to have all of your draft picks so that you can make the most draft picks. But we should consider how much of a deterrent, or penalty, this actually is.

It's really, really easy to overvalue a first-round draft pick. Don't get me wrong, first-round draft picks are valuable, but as you already know, the most valuable picks are at the very beginning and things drop off in a jiffy. It was weird when the Mariners surrendered a first-round draft pick to sign Greg Colbrunn. That draft pick turned into Conor Jackson. Conor Jackson has, so far, turned into 4.2 WAR. And maybe a lovely adult man, I don't know, I only know Conor Jackson's vitals.

A common problem with prospect analysis is that observers fall into the trap of evaluating players by their peaks. Good prospects don't always turn into good major-league baseball players. With the draft, there's another level. High draft picks don't always turn into good prospects, and good prospects don't always turn into good major-league baseball players, so as should be common knowledge, draft picks are riddled with more question marks than Matthew Lesko. The 12th overall pick could turn into something extraordinary, or it could turn into not anything at all. The latter is more likely than the former, by many folds.

What you have to do is arrive at a valuation. That 12th pick is worth a certain amount of dollars, in millions. It isn't worth several millions of dollars, because of the chance of the draft pick busting. It isn't worth none millions of dollars, because of the chance of the draft pick working out. Let's call it "a few". The 12th overall pick is worth a few millions of dollars. So that's how it ought to be considered. It has a broad range of possible outcomes -- an almost infinite range of possible outcomes -- but you care about the average. Or the median. One of those. I haven't taken a math class least...some...amount of time.

That's what the penalty is. Technically, the penalty is a player, a potentially promising prospect, but every player is ultimately just a money sign and a series of numbers after it. If the Mariners give up their pick to sign Nick Swisher, they won't be giving up, I don't know, the next Taijuan Walker. They'll be giving up maybe the next Taijuan Walker, or maybe the next Matt Dominguez, or maybe the next Joe Borchard. They'll pay $X million to Swisher, and they'll sacrifice $Y million in losing the draft pick. So the commitment will effectively be $X + Y million.

You don't want to just go around throwing away your draft picks all willy-nilly, but losing one pick isn't going to cripple the system. Walker, after all, was selected 43rd. Paxton came in the fourth round. Maurer came in the 23rd round. Some might argue that since the Mariners are still rebuilding, they need to be thinking about their future, and thus they need to put more of an emphasis on their farm system, but what's more important than the distant future is the more immediate future. The more immediate future is more predictable, and you'd be losing a pick to improve the team in that immediate future with an impact free agent. You never want to forget about the long term, but you can't focus on the long term at the expense of the short term. The Mariners will play baseball in 2017, but they'll play baseball in 2013, too.

Now, it will be interesting to see how the CBA might change things a little bit in this regard. Used to be, if you sacrificed an early draft pick, you could try to make up for it by spending more on your remaining draft picks. Now teams have those draft-bonus pools, and if you sacrifice an early draft pick, the pick's slot value is removed from the pool. You can't overspend in the subsequent rounds without facing another, harsher penalty. That's significant, but still, we have to keep the pick valuation in mind. You can't worry about the Mariners potentially giving up an elite-level prospect, because most players drafted in the first round in the unprotected slots fall well short of their ceilings.

The Mariners will be reluctant to lose their first-round pick in 2013. They should be -- they could pick a good player, there. The Mariners appear to be not unwilling to lose their first-round pick in 2013. They shouldn't be -- that would only happen if they signed a big-time outfielder in the present, and you'd usually rather have one apple than five apple seeds. Be aware of the penalty the Mariners might have to pay, but do not live in fear of it. It's only a draft pick. It's only a mid-round draft pick.