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Does MLB free agent compensation help the rich get richer?

The idea of compensating teams when they lose players to free agency is sold as a way to help smaller market teams. But that's not the real impact of the system.

Robinson Cano heads the list of baseball's free agents
Robinson Cano heads the list of baseball's free agents
Mike Stobe

The deadline for major league clubs to make qualifying offers, this year equal to a salary of $ 14.1 million for one season, has come and gone. 13 qualifying offers were made to some of baseball's most elite free agent players. If those players decline the offers, as most of them will, and sign with other teams, then their former clubs will receive a supplemental first round draft selection in the June, 2014 amateur player draft as compensation

The Detroit Tigers did not make any qualifying offers to their free agents, simply because none of those players is worth a salary of $ 14.1 million, or really anything close to that amount. Three Tiger free agents, Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta, and Joaquin Benoit, might be worth a salary of $ 7 to 8 million, each for a couple of seasons.

As a result of the Tigers' decision, which Tiger President and General Manager Dave Dombrowski announced on Sunday, the Tigers will not receive any compensation should those three, or any of their other four free agents sign with other teams. This does not mean, by any means, that the Tigers won't sign their own free agents, just that they won't be paying them that much.

Infante has to be considered among the winners of Monday's decision day, since they've escaped the albatross of draft pick compensation that might scare off potential suitors. The fact that Robinson Cano received a qualifying offer from the Yankees leaves Infante as the best available free agent second baseman without compensation attached, while Benoit stands in a crowded field of closers, none of whom received qualifying offers.

There are some general managers who might gamble and make a qualifying offer to a player even if they don't really want them back on their team for another season, hoping that the player will decline the offer and seek a multi year contract on the open market. Pretty much every player in that price range would like to sign a multi year deal (except Hiroki Kuroda, who hasn't decided when he'd like to go back to Japan just yet).

The new collective bargaining agreement was in effect for signing free agent players for the first time last off season. Just nine players received qualifying offers, and all nine declined the offers. However, three of those signed with their former teams, so six compensation picks were given at the end of the first round of the draft.

A look at which teams got those six extra picks, which wound up being the 28th through 33rd picks, is very telling. They weren't struggling small market teams who have trouble competing. The Yankees got two extra picks, while the Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, and St Louis Cardinals got the others. All strong contenders in the previous season.

In order to be willing to make an qualifying offer, a club has to know that it can afford to pay the player if the offer is accepted. The financial reality in MLB today is that smaller market teams don't allow their premium players to reach free agency. They either lock them up a few seasons earlier, or they trade them rather than let them walk away.

Clubs who have free agent players worthy of that kind of dough tend to be the large market clubs who have been able to afford the players as they near free agency and go through three or four seasons of arbitration and increasing salaries along the way.

So check out the 13 players who received qualifying offers on Monday. Six of them, almost half, were on the Red Sox or the Yankees. That's potentially six additional late first round draft picks for ESPN's two favorite sons. Only two of the other seven players received offers from teams that did not qualify for the playoffs.

Most of the baker's dozen will again decline the qualifying offers, because they're coming off good seasons and want to cash in with multi year deals. But as we saw last year, some of those will struggle to find teams willing to give up their first round draft pick plus pay megabucks for their services.

There is one way that the current system helps teams at the bottom of the heap. The fact that the top ten picks, belonging to the ten teams with the worst records, are protected, gives those clubs an advantage in that they don't have to give up their first round pick to sing an elite free agent. Last year, the Cleveland Indians did just that by signing Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, giving up a second and third rounder. But then, a team that has already lost it's first pick can't lose it again, and can sign another stud at the cost of a second round selection.

The payment of draft compensation was never intended by the MLB owners to level the playing field, or to compensate smaller market teams for losing a player that they've developed. They could still award the supplemental picks to teams that lose a free agent player, even though they tend to be playoff teams as we've described. But the payment of compensation is intended to suppress salaries. It's something that the player's association should be trying to get rid of before Bud Selig gets his long coveted international draft.

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