Red Sox sign Stephen Drew, and the compensation system is still absurd

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox just got better, signing a player who was more of a "nice to have" than a need. Why was he still on the market?

And on May 20, the Red Sox ended up with the best shortstop on the free-agent market, re-signing Stephen Drew to a one-year deal. Drew was still on the market because he would have cost another team their first-round draft pick. He would have cost a pick because small-market teams need help keeping their free agents. Thus, the small-market Red Sox strike again.

(Note: The Red Sox aren't really a small-market team.)

Compensatory draft picks were ostensibly invented as a consolation prize. Back 31 years ago when the Angels got a compensatory draft pick from the Yankees for losing Don Baylor, the system wasn't supposed to drive the price of free agents down. It was borne out of a silly sense of equity. Instead of "We employed a player for six years, and all we got were these lousy, unsold t-shirts," the team got a pick. In the early days of free agency, it limited the grumbling, but wasn't enough deterrent for the Yankees to forgo signing Steve Kemp, Bob Shirley, and Baylor before the '83 season.

Over the years, as scouting became more chemistry than alchemy, and as teams became better at sifting through amateur players and coming up with useful professionals on the other side (and veteran players became crazy expensive to retain), the draft picks became as valuable as the players, at least in the eyes of the beholders. There was a tipping point about two or three years ago, and the contracts for non-stars attached to draft-pick compensation fell into the toilet. Ubaldo Jimenez had to wait until March; Ervin Santana had to wait until someone else's ligament tore. Drew had to wait until the Red Sox felt like it.

(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

What an absurd system. Everyone likes to point to the Cardinals getting Michael Wacha in a semi-trade for Albert Pujols, but the exchange of talent is rarely that symmetrical. Not only did the Royals lose Raul Ibanez and Michael Tucker in 2003, but their reward was to pay $2 million for prospects who didn't work out. That isn't to say that the teams shouldn't want the compensatory picks, but that prescription comes with the side effects that a narrator whispers gravely at the end of the commercial. They aren't a cure. They're just a weird rider attached to a bill that no one's read the whole way through.

The pendulum has swung so far in the direction of the draft picks and prospects that the small-market teams are the ones crushed by draft-pick compensation now. There probably isn't a team in baseball that could have used Drew more than the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their incumbent shortstop was Jordy Mercer, a bat-first shortstop whose bat-first qualifications were suspect, considering his career .730 OPS in the minors.

There was no way the Pirates could have signed Drew, though, just no way. That first-round pick is the preferred currency of a small-market team like the Pirates. If they hit on the keno ticket, they get a player under team control for six or seven years at far lower prices than what they'd spend on the equivalent free agent. The Reds were in a similar position. They would have loved Drew the player, perhaps. They weren't willing to trade a notional prospect for him. Neither was Detroit. Other teams could have used him at second. No one was willing to give up the millions and a pick.

The Red Sox don't get a compensatory pick now (and almost certainly weren't going to get one given how unlikely it was that Drew would sign elsewhere before the draft), but they don't lose anything, either. They get a valuable piece in a taut division. Drew isn't exactly a jetpack the Sox can ride to the top of the standings, but he's good at what he does. The team can move Xander Bogaerts to third and start Drew, or they can use Drew as a super-sub all around the diamond. Because why not? It's not like it cost them anything but money, and they certainly have a lot of that lying around.

Tsk tsk. You know those small-market teams. Always using money to get their way.

Now that the role of compensatory picks is warped, it's here to stay. The system is absurd, the Red Sox are better, and nothing's going to change because look at all of that cash Stephen Drew lost. It sure worked out for the owners. Drew will still get millions, so it's hard to feel for him as a kind of proletariat stand-in for an unjust system. What bugs me is that teams that wanted to get better through free agency -- small- and big-market alike -- decided against it because of rules, not baseball.

Let teams get better through free agency if they want. If you want to keep the idea of consolation prizes, invent more picks at the back end of the first round. Baseball did it with the Competitive Balance part of the draft, which gives help to beleaguered teams like the Cardinals. Taking away the picks as a punishment, though, artificially deflates salaries without doing anything else.

Which is why it's never going away. Sorry, Pirates. If you want a shortstop, you'll have to develop one yourself. With a draft pick, preferably. So make sure you never give up that chance, even if you could really, really use a shortstop right now.

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