The Brewers stand to save millions in signing bonuses, but their opportunity to stockpile top-tier talent for the future is greatly diminished. The Sabathia trade last July, which cost the Brewers four top prospects, showed the value of keeping a strong stable of young players.
"We didn't see this coming, so in that sense there is some disappointment," said new Brewers scouting director Bruce Seid, who was promoted from within the organization in November. "But the fact is that we still have six of the first 102 picks, and my scouts and myself are going to be diligent to make every selection count."
Understanding the Brewers' disappointment requires a primer on Draft-pick compensation. Free agents are assigned point values and letter classifications based on a system developed nearly three decades ago by the Elias Sports Bureau that considers players' performance over the prior two seasons.
Sabathia and Sheets both qualified as "Type A" free agents, and such players come at an extra price. Their new team must forfeit a first- or second-round Draft pick to the player's former team as compensation, based on the new team's selection in the upcoming First-Year Player Draft. Generally, if the player's new team finished in the top half of the standings in the previous season and thus selects in the bottom half of the first round of the Draft, that selection goes to the player's former club. If the new team selects in the top half of the first round, its first-round selection is protected but it must instead forfeit a second-round pick.
Teams that lose top-tier free agencts also get a "sandwich pick" between the first- and second rounds of the draft for each Type-A player who departs.
There's a catch. In order to qualify for Draft compensation, a Type A player must first be offered arbitration by his former team and decline that offer in order to reach the free-agent market. The Brewers extended such offers to both Sabathia and Sheets, and both players declined.
(As a side note, the Brewers also offered arbitration to Type B free agent Brian Shouse, who also declined. In the case of Type B players, the former team only gets a sandwich pick as compensation. As of Friday, Shouse had yet to finalize his two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, but when he does, the Brewers will officially net that extra selection.)
When Sabathia spurned Milwaukee's offer for a seven-year, $161 million contract with the Yankees, the Brewers were still on their way to Draft-pick heaven. Sabathia would net New York's first-round pick -- No. 26 overall -- and would give the Brewers, who already own the 27th overall pick based on their 90-72 season, consecutive selections near the end of the first round.
But the first bit of bad news came on Dec. 23, when the Yankees' continued their spending spree by agreeing to terms with former Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira. Like Sabathia, Teixeira was a Type A free agent, and since his Elias ranking was ever so slightly higher (98.889, to Sabathia's 98.110), the Angels suddenly were in line to receive New York's first-round pick and the Brewers were pushed to the second round.
That development may have ended Milwaukee's pursuit of free-agent reliever Juan Cruz, another Type A player who could have fit nicely in Milwaukee's rebuilt bullpen. General manager Doug Melvin confirmed he was interested, but he was unwilling to part with the Brewers' own first-round selection to get Cruz if the compensation for Sabathia was only a sandwich pick and a second-rounder.
How's this for bad luck: Teixeira was the only free agent with a higher numerical ranking than Sabathia. In fact, only one other non-free agent owned a higher number, outfielder Matt Holliday, at 98.125.
"The Elias rankings are flawed," Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash said the day New York locked up Teixeira. "Nobody is happy about them. But it is the system we have, and you have to just live with it."
Seid said he and other Brewers officials have kicked around alternative systems, but he declined to make his ideas public.
"I don't want to say anything to rock the boat, but it's disappointing when you receive a second-round pick for a player like Sabathia," said Seid. "He was the best pitcher in baseball last year."
Six weeks later, Seid and the Brewers would be disappointed again. Sheets was on the verge of signing a two-year deal with the Texas Rangers but a physical exam revealed lingering elbow problems. Sheets' agent confirmed Thursday that the pitcher intends to have surgery for a torn flexor tendon, with hopes of returning during the second half of the '09 season.
That would not help the Brewers. If Sheets does not sign with another team by June 9 -- Day 1 of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft -- the Brewers will not receive Draft-pick compensation for him.
"There are still some months left until the time that we actually lose those picks, so you never know," Seid said. "Some team may decide that they really want [Sheets] and they pick him up between now and then. In the meantime we feel we're just going to move forward with what we do have."
Had Sheets' deal gone through with Texas, the Brewers would have received a "sandwich pick" between the first and second rounds of the Draft, plus Texas' second-round pick. The Rangers have the 14th overall selection and would not have been forced to forfeit that pick.
"We're not going to use anything as a crutch," Seid said. "You move on with what you have."