With Spring Training only two and a half weeks away, most of the prime free agents have been signed. Shaun Marcum fell off the board today, leaving Michael Bourn as pretty much the only prominent free agent without a new home. Some have hoped that the Mariners, with a question mark in center field and room in the budget, would pull the trigger on Bourn, particularly after failing to land their targets earlier in the winter.
If the M's are interested in Bourn, they might have indirectly caught a bit of a break. The New York Mets are also reportedly pursuing Bourn, with some outlets saying that the Mets (along with the Mariners) are among the favorites for the outfielder's services. Like the Mariners, the Mets have recently pushed some money off the books, and are looking to bolster a roster without a clear option in center field.
The hitch from New York's point of view is the compensatory draft pick they'd have to forfeit if they sign Bourn. Under the rules of the new CBA, any free agent who rejected a qualifying offer* from his previous team (which Bourn did) would cost his new club their first round pick the following year. Given that the Mets have the 11th pick, they'd be forced to forfeit the selection if they sign Bourn.
*- This will soon become a larger part of the sport's vernacular, but for now, a qualifying offer is a one year contract offer worth the average of the top 125 MLB players' salary. In 2012, that equates to $13.3 million. If a player accepts a qualifying other (which no player did in 2012) then he stays with his old team for one year at that salary. If he rejects it, he becomes a free agent, and his old team earns a compensatory draft selection.
The one exception to this rule is if a team with one of the first ten picks signs one of these free agents, they would keep their first rounder and instead forfeit their next selection. On this issue, the CBA reads: "... A Club shall not be required to forfeit a selection in the top ten of the first round of the Rule 4 Draft, and its highest available selection shall be deemed its first selection following the tenth selection of the first round."
The complicating factor in all of this is that in a typical year, the Mets would be picking tenth, not eleventh. But because Pittsburgh was unable to come to terms with their first round selection, Mark Appel, the Pirates were awarded the ninth pick of this draft, pushing every team behind them one slot back and knocking the Mets from the tenth overall pick to the eleventh.
The upshot as far as the Mets are concerned is that they feel, by the spirit of the rule, they shouldn't have to lose their first round pick if they sign Bourn. From their perspective, the top ten picks are protected to foster competitive balance, and losing the pick because of an unrelated situation in Pittsburgh both fails to achieve that objective and is just generally ridiculous.
It's an important issue because of how spending pools in the draft are allocated. Using figures from last year's draft, losing their first round pick would cost the Mets about $1.5 million more than if they forfeited their second, a huge difference considering the tight budgetary restrictions the CBA now requires. For rebuilding teams like the Mets, such restrictions already hamper the competitive balance MLB alleges it desires, and forfeiting a first round pick on a technicality represents a tangible blow to the franchise. Consequently, losing the pick would make them less likely to covet Bourn.
For the Mariners, this is something to keep an eye on. I'd argue that, for the right price, Bourn is more than worth losing a mid-first round selection (the Mariners pick 12th), but if the Mets value their pick strongly, he might not find a contract to his liking in Queens. And while I haven't been pulling hard for the Mariners to grab Bourn this winter, his market might have cratered to the point that he's a real bargain.
Personally, I think that MLB should make an exception for the Mets and subsequently re-work the CBA to allow the bottom ten teams from the previous year to sign free agents without risking their first round pick, a clause that would align better with the rule's intent. Unless the Players Association presses MLB on the issue though, and there isn't yet an indication that they will try (much less succeed), it appears as if the Mets would be forced to follow the letter of the law. It's an issue to monitor and it could tilt the odds that Bourn signs with the Mariners a bit in Seattle's favor.