For a lower mid-market team such as the Orioles, adding talent (and the hope is to eventually build the core of a good team with said talent) through the Rule 4 Draft is essential in order to field a competitive ballclub. Ever since Kevin Brown broke the 9-figure salary threshold in 1999 building a team through free agency has become exceedingly expensive. Even the much hated Yankees managed to build the core of their club through the draft (as well as international signings) before flexing their financial might in order to retain those core players through mountains of moola.
But let's face reality: the Orioles are not likely to be a contender for a top-notch free agent in the future. In spite of the Oriole name being bandied about over the past few off seasons in conjunction with the likes of Teixeira, or Fielder, or Hamilton, or Greinke, etc...by the rumor mongers in the national media, it appears the Warehouse is either uninterested or unable to sign such players at the salaries they ultimately end up commanding. So it's imperative for the O's to find talent in other ways. One of those ways is the Rule 4 Draft.
In the 2013 draft the Orioles will have an extra pick for the first time since 2006 when the club lost B.J. Ryan to the Blue Jays (the O's selected Pedro Beato with the pick). This pick is the result of the new Competitive Draft Lottery, which aims to award additional draft picks to clubs in either the 10 smallest markets or with the 10 lowest revenues. This pick (which should slot in around the mid 30s overall) along with the club's regular selection (currently at pick #22 overall) will allow the O's the opportunity to acquire two Top 50 talents in the Draft. Of course, it will then be up to the player development side of the organization to turn that talent into realized production on the field. But the thrust of this article is concerned with a failure of the Orioles organization to take advantage of a certain aspect of the draft in years past. Specifically, compensation picks between the years 2007 and 2012.
Thanks to the current Collective Bargining Agreement the 2012-13 offseason was the first devoid of the old 'Type A' & 'Type B' free agent classifications. It was through these labels (applied via Elias Sports Bureau rankings) that compensation selections in the following year's draft were created. If a team lost a ranked free agent to another club, the player's previous team would be awarded a compensation pick.
From 2007 through 2012 there were 141 free agent compensation picks created, and average of 23.5 per year. These picks were slotted into the draft between the end of the 1st round and the beginning of the 2nd round (hence why they are sometimes referred to as 'sandwich picks'). So, drafts typically would see 30 1st Round selections followed by the 'Sandwich Round', followed by the 2nd Round. This would mean that clubs that managed to acquire a 'Sandwich Round' pick would typically have the opportunity to draft a Top 50 talent. Pretty sweet deal, especially when one looks at some of the names of players who's free agency returned draft pick compensation.
But, you may ask, just what kind of talent was drafted at those points in those drafts? Well, here's a brief list of names (Prospect ranks are via MLB.com): Travis D'Arnaud (2007. 6th overall prospect in 2013), Jake Odorizzi ('08. 45th overall prospect in '13), Wade Miley ('08. 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting in '12), Tyler Skaggs ('09. 10th overall prospect in '13). The 2010 Comp Round was particularly chock-full of talent: Aaron Sanchez (35th overall), Noah Syndergaard (29th overall), Taijuan Walker (5th overall), Nick Castellanos (21st overall), Mike Olt (22nd overall). And that's just a sample. Plus, it's still too early to tell just what will become of players drafted in 2011 or '12.
The point being, of the 141 players selected with Compensation Round picks roughly 1/3rd of them held some manner of name recognition as a prospect at some point or have already managed to ascend to the big leagues. And that's with two of the drafts ('11 & '12) still being too recent to draw much in the way of conclusions from. So that 1/3 number could rise to 40% or perhaps even 50% over time. Pretty decent success rate.
And during that time frame the Orioles had a grand total of ZERO Compensation Round selections. Now, in fairness, they weren't the only club with zero picks during that time frame. The Indians and Marlins also failed to net any comp. picks. Good company to keep...sigh...And, it is true that the O's didn't have much in the way of good players who could land the club compensation picks once they left. But that didn't stop some organizations from finding a way to exploit the system.
Two of the most successful teams to utilize the free agent compensation system in order to garner additional draft picks were the O's A.L. East competitors the Rays and Blue Jays. The Rays added 8 picks during the '07-'12 drafts and the Jays added the most in all of baseball with a whopping 14 compensation picks! Each club was particularly adept at trading for players who, nearing free agency, would be likely to qualify for draft pick compensation. Such players included Rafael Soriano, Frank Francisco, Chad Qualls, and Miguel Olivo. The Rays or Jays would then offer the player, usually a low salaried catcher or relief pitcher, arbitration on a one year deal and happily collect a draft pick when the player left in search of a long-term contract or more money. In fact, the Jays traded cash to the Rockies for Olivo on November 4th, 2010. Olivo was then granted free agency on...November 4th, 2010 and the Jays happily collected an extra draft pick. The Rays pulled a similar move with Brad Hawpe, who had been released by the Rockies in August of 2010. The Rays signed him for the month of September, where he played all of 15 games for them, and collected a comp. pick once he walked at the end of the season. Pretty poor roster management by the Rockies in 2010. It certainly would have behooved the Warehouse brain trust to have engaged in some creative thinking and visualization such as the front offices of the Rays and Jays were doing at the time.
One such player the O's could have targeted was Jeremy Affeldt, who was a member of the Reds in 2008. The O's traded catcher Ramon Hernandez to the Reds in exchange for Brandon Waring, Ryan Freel, and Justin Turner. Waring has never played to his potential. Freel was not a good fit in Baltimore and was quickly traded to the Cubs for Joey Gathright. And Turner was lost to the Mets via waiver claim in 2010. Meanwhile, Affeldt left the Reds after the '08 season and netted them a comp. pick in the 2009 draft (#43 overall), which they used on Brad Boxberger, a promising late inning relief pitcher whom they eventually traded to the Padres as part of the Mat Latos deal. And there were a number of other players of note who could have been selected with that pick, including: Billy Hamilton (#57 overall), Nolan Arenado (#59 overall), and Jason Kipnis (#63 overall). Of course, any of those players could have been selected with the O's 2nd Round pick (Mychal Givens, #54 overall). But with a comp pick in addition to the 2nd Round pick, the O's could have had two bites at the proverbial apple. And there is value in that, especially when compared to the value the O's ended up extracting from Freel/Gathright and Turner, the sort of throw-in parts of the Hernandez deal. Ramon himself would go on to become a free agent after the 2010 season, and though he would have assuredly qualified for free agent compensation at that time, he re-signed with the Reds for 1 year. He still managed to return a compensation pick in the 2012 draft when he left after the 2011 season.
The most damning example though, comes in 2009 when the O's traded Gregg Zaun to the Rays. In return, the O's received Rhyne Hughes, a 25 year old 1Bman of not much consequence as a future prospect; only garnering so much as a mention in the 'Others' category on John Sickles' Rays Prospect List for 2009. Zaun played in 29 games for the Rays before walking via free agency at season's end. The Rays received a compensation pick for his services, #42 overall in the 2010 draft. With the pick they selected outfielder Drew Vettleson, currently their #10 overall prospect. Not bad. This could have been the O's draft selection if they had just held onto Zaun and offered him arbitration at the end of the year. But wait, it gets worse. The next two picks after Vettleson? Taijuan Walker (currently the #5 overall prospect in baseball) and Nick Castellanos, the #21 overall prospect per MLB.com. Oh, and Mike Olt (#22 overall prospect) was taken a few picks later. How much better do you suppose the O's farm system would look right now if any of those players were a part of it?
The above examples stand as testament to the missed opportunities the O's had to possibly acquire impact or highly regarded talent through the draft via the previous system of free agent compensation. Of course, there's no guarantee that a draft pick will pan out. But, as demonstrated above, there was ample opportunity to acquire talent that has proven itself already. And the fact is that O's failed to give themselves even one shot at drafting such talent.