Compensatory Draft Picks and Oakland's Offseason Moves

Jason Miller

Time for my annual post...2012...2011

It's fun (or painful) to look back at old threads and remember how our community of passionate people in the moment the A's made a big move. It's also fascinating to see how long it takes to truly evaluate an MLB front-office decision, especially a trade.

Remember how you felt the day the A's traded away Rich Harden?

It's fun to read that news article and not see Josh Donaldson's name mentioned until 500 words in. Fans were sad to see Harden go, then excited to see Matt Murton get a chance to be an everyday regular, then pissed at Murton's poor performance in an A's uniform, then excited for Gallagher's debut, then annoyed with Gallagher's health and inconsistency. At some point in 2011 or 2012, many serious A's fans were ready to call that Harden trade a major bust, as Donaldson was moved off catcher and struggled mightily against big-league pitching.

Then 2013 happened, and five years after that trade, the guy who wasn't mentioned until 500 words into that 2008 article was clearly one of the most valuable players in the American League. Donaldson made just under $500K last year, and he still has less than two years of service time.

It took five years to declare that trade a phenomenal, runaway success for the A's. It took Donaldson changing positions, struggling at both AAA and the big-league level, getting sent down and called back up, Scott Sizemore tearing an ACL twice to create a window of opportunity.

To me it's a good reminder to take the long view in assessing an off-season, a trade, a free-agent signing, and the A's decision-making in general.

Which brings me to the thrust of my post:

I think compensatory draft picks are influencing the A's offseason moves.

In two other threads, this community has already debated the merits of Scott Kazmir vs. Barton Colon, and Jim Johnson vs. Grant Balfour, but a factor that I believe to be crucial that wasn't mentioned is compensatory draft pick potential the A's have during the next two offseasons.

If Scott Kazmir has two good, healthy seasons, he is absolutely a candidate to receive a qualifying offer from the A's in the neighborhood of $14.5-$15M. He'd a 31-year-old, healthy left-handed pitcher with good stuff with strong recent performance; as such he'd be in line to receive a 3-4 deal for at least double the money of the qualifying offer. Conversely, Bartolo Colon has virtually zero chance of receiving a qualifying offer at age 43 in two years

Virtually the same holds true with Johnson vs. Balfour. In a buyer's market for closers, Balfour very likely would've accepted a qualifying offer for $14.1M this offseason, given his age (35), his late-season struggles, and the fact that he was already burned once by having compensation attached to him (remember, the A's lost a draft pick to sign him to a below-FA-market deal). Whereas Jim Johnson could conceivably enter next offseason as a 32-year-old coming off his third-straight 50-save season, entering free agency for the first time. The same loose principle that applied to Kazmir would apply here - if Johnson and his agent projected that he could get double the amount of guaranteed money in free agency over multiple years, that's very likely better to them than accepting a QO, especially given everyone's awareness of reliever volatility and injury. Jim Johnson coming off a third straight 50-save season* very likely gets three years and at least $29M in free agency, so I'd imagine he rejects the ~$14.5M qualifying offer. (*That save statistic doesn't mean much to us, but it only has to matter to one team/GM/owner to get Johnson his long-term money).

I could see both Jed Lowrie and Jim Johnson getting qualifying offers next year, and potentially Kazmir and Yoenis Cespedes getting qualifying offers from the A's the following offseason. Now, almost everything has to break right for all four of those guys in terms of performance and health, but it's definitely possible.

And why are those compensatory draft picks so important? Look no further than the anecdote at the beginning of this post - Josh Donaldson, compensatory first rounder (no. 48 overall) back in 2007). You might lament the decision to sign Scott Kazmir over Bartolo Colon today, but who knows? In eight years, maybe the A's have a cost-controlled, 5-win player that they picked in the 2016 MLB draft as a result of losing Kazmir in free agency. It's just too early to definitively love or hate the decision.

I have a theory that, as scouting is becoming more scientific and every front office is using analytics, we can expect that every front office is basically hovering around the same 100 amateurs, every year. If you were a fly on the wall staring at every team's Big Board in early June, you'd see 50-75 common names out of the top 100 - they're just ranked differently. More and more, I believe the next great group of players in every draft class will be coming from that elite group. Having 4-6 picks in that range simply improves your chances of winning that lottery.

And if you've looked at our community prospect list, yeesh - the A's need some more of those high-end lottery tickets in the pipeline. They've graduated a lot of talent to the big leagues, but they need that next bumper crop ready. And I would expect that the team continues to treat those high picks as the lottery tickets they are - an opportunity to acquire high ceiling, low-floor guys like Addison Russell and Michael Ynoa.

I think the A's will continue to use free agency to acquire relievers, fourth outfielders, utility infielders, and other assets that they can outbid teams on (like injured guys who perform well when healthy). But hitting on those high draft picks (or international signings, in Ynoa/Cespedes' cases) with an impact starting pitcher, or an up-the-middle-defensive talent, is critical, because the A's can't afford to buy top tier free agent talent in those spots.

Those high-draft pick lottery tickets are a small part of what potentially makes Jim Johnson and Scott Kazmir more desirable than Grant Balfour and Bartolo Colon.

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