The reports are that the Mets are lobbying baseball to reconsider language that would leave their pick -- formerly the protected number ten pick in the draft -- unprotected in the case that they sign a prominent free agent. How that request is characterized is important.
Whether or not the Mets win their fight to keep their once-number-ten pick in the draft protected, the argument surrounding the issue has brought up an important issue regarding the new draft rules in the CBA, and their aim.
To recap, here's the rule from the CBA concerning the top draft pick of a team signing a free agent that refused a qualifying offer from his original team:
(c) Signing Club.
i. A Club that signs one Qualified Free Agent who is subject to compensation shall forfeit its highest available selection in the next Rule 4 Draft. A Club that signs more than one Qualified Free Agent subject to compensation shall forfeit its highest remaining selection in the next Rule 4 Draft for each additional Qualified Free Agent it signs. Notwithstanding the above, 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.
So, the Mets had the tenth pick in the draft this year. But then Mark Appel didn't sign with the Pirates, and they received a top pick in this year's draft as compensation. This bumped the Mets to 11th, and left their pick unprotected. They'd like to sign Michael Bourn (or maybe they wouldn't), but they won't do so if it requires their pick.
Now there's a bit of a virtual standoff -- baseball is reported to be waiting on a deal in order to make a ruling on the pick, and the Mets won't make a move without knowing about the pick. Despite the evidence that speedy players age better -- found by both Tom Tango and Jeff Zimmerman -- the Mets might think they are far away from competing and need the pick more than the player. Despite the fact that there is no real true defensive center fielder on the roster or in the upper minors, they may feel like they can fake it with the personnel they have. That's defensible.
But there are characterizations of this debate that are unfair to the Mets. My boss in another setting, Dave Cameron, titled his post on the subject "Should the Mets Get an Exception to the Rules?" for example. Phrased that way, both the inevitable outcome and the right outcome should be:
Any exception would just create a sense of collusion between old buddies. The Mets don't need pity or exceptions, that doesn't make sense.
But the actual copy in Cameron's piece doesn't quite phrase it as an exception:
But, if the idea behind the compensation system was actually to promote competitive balance, then perhaps MLB should immunize the Mets from having to sacrifice their first round pick to sign Michael Bourn. Changing the rules in the middle of an off-season doesn’t seem fair, but the change would be narrow enough that no other team would be affected by the change, as the Mets were the only franchise pushed out of the top 10 by the Pirates failure to sign Appel. No other franchise could claim that the agreed upon rules had a material affect on whether or not their first round pick should be considered their "highest available selection".
See that doesn't really sound like an exception. That's more of a codification or clarification: "Here's what happens in this exact case, a case that wasn't covered in the most recent CBA agreement." A clarification of the rules can really happen at any time when the MLBPA and MLB agree upon it, and as Cameron put it, such a clarification would speak to the intent of the rule.
Except that the removal of such language between the last CBA and this one suggests that the intent was to leave the these sort of 'bumped' picks unprotected. See Craig Calcaterra on the subject:
Indeed, the last CBA specifically protected top 15 picks from compensation and specifically exempted draft compensation picks — like the one the Pirates got for not signing Appel — from counting. The new CBA changes that to the top 10 picks and makes no mention of draft compensation picks. This is not merely a matter of "rules are rules." It’s about the fact that MLB and the union actively removed protection for the Appel-pick situation. They saw it there in the last version, had someone highlight the text and hit "delete." They knew exactly what they were doing.
It's not looking good for the Mets. Exceptions don't happen, and there might be no need for a clarification of the rules. This situation was taken out of the new CBA on purpose.
But this also looks bad for baseball. As Cameron points out, the reasoning for not protecting a legitimate claim at a top ten pick seems to suggest the draft is about suppressing salaries. These new free agent rules therefore become a way to do so on the free agent market as well as in the actual draft.
So if baseball wants to instead make an argument that this is about competitive balance, then perhaps a codification is in order. Not an exception -- no team should get handouts. Not a clarification -- the rules seem clear. Instead an admission that the removal of these rules affected competitive balance in a new way, and that therefore rule B (4) c) should be amended to protect picks bumped from the top ten.
That might be a fine thing to do. Don't hold your breath though -- we've seen that rule changes aren't easy.