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New rule that negatively impacted some of best free agents needs to go

VIERA, Fla. – First baseman Adam LaRoche, who had a terrific season in helping lead the Nationals to the best record in baseball, had to settle for a two-year, $26-million contract as a free agent.

Meanwhile, Shane Victorino, who turned in a disappointing year by almost any measure for not one but two teams, received a three-year deal for the same annual pay. And he received an even higher offer than the $39-million, three-year deal he signed with the Red Sox, as he reportedly could have gone to Cleveland for $44 million.

Something seems amiss in the system.

The new rule whereby teams that signed a free agent who had received and rejected a qualifying offer from their original team lost a first-round draft pick (and importantly, the ability to spend the slot money that went with it) wound up curtailing the free-agent value of some of the top available players, including LaRoche, Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse, who remains a free agent to this day.

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Teams that held a top-10 pick were exempt, but that didn't help every free agent. The rule also may have limited their choices to losing teams, or at least teams that were losers last year

“The fact is, if I would have had a worse year, it would have worked out better,'' LaRoche said. “Hopefully, they can get it resolved.''

LaRoche, who was sixth in National League MVP voting in 2012, is probably correct there. Had he not nearly done as well, the Nationals would not have made the qualifying offer, thereby opening up LaRoche's free-agent field.

Teams were given the option of offering a $13.3-million qualifying offer to free agents. Nine players received one, and all nine rejected the offer.

The new system certainly had its quirks, and one of them is that traded players couldn't receive qualifying offers, exempting those players from having a draft pick attached to their free agency and thus making them more attractive. Of course, players such as LaRoche, Bourn and Lohse, who had very good to excellent seasons (excellent in the case of LaRoche and Lohse) for playoff teams, weren't traded because their teams needed them to win.

Meanwhile, Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez benefited by starting their seasons with non-contending teams, and they capitalized with free-agent deals of $147 million over six years and $80 million over five, respectively. Edwin Jackson benefited by having a so-so season, leading to the Nationals declining to make him the $13.3-million qualifying offer and helping him garner a $52-million, four-year deal.

“The system needs to be re-evaluated when you see a player who had a career year, has 100 RBI, 30 home runs and plays excellent defense do less well than a player who did not have a good year,'' said Scott Boras, the agent for Bourn and Lohse (bot not LaRoche). “A system that does not reward performance is not good for baseball.''

Union people see the issue and will debate and discuss its impact this winter as they weigh whether to go to MLB and seek a remedy. They are evaluating the impact of the new rule, though in a few cases, its effect was apparent. LaRoche had interest from the Red Sox, Orioles and quite possibly others, but those teams didn't want to lose the draft choice.

The effect may be greater on players who are over 30. LaRoche is 32, Lohse 34.

“There's no doubt in my mind that it was a factor in Adam LaRoche's free agency,'' one union official said. “I want to see what happens in Kyle's situation. We want to talk to players and agents that were involved.''

The effect on Bourn was obvious in that the Mets made only a conditional offer. Their bid was contingent on them being able to retain their first-round draft choice. The Mets sought to have a ruling on whether they'd have to give up their pick (they were the 10th worst team but hold only the 11th pick due to the Pirates failing to sign pick No. 8 last year), but when the team was told a grievance might take a couple weeks Bourn took the Indians' $48-million, four-year offer that could become $60 million for five. It was a record deal for a player who's never had double digits in home runs or a .400 slugging percentage, but one wonders whether he would have done even better without a draft pick attached to him.

Victorino, meanwhile, got his big deal after a rough half year in Philadelphia followed by a rougher half year in Los Angeles. He had as many as seven or eight three-year offers.

Josh Hamilton may not have been affected much as a superstar quality player, while Nick Swisher seemed to do fine ($56 million for four years) by signing with the Indians. But if the field might have been limited to losing teams for certain free agents, and that shouldn't be their reward for a fine free-agent year.

LaRoche, who had 33 home runs and 100 RBI, spent a long time last winter unsure it would work out in Washington, which didn't lose a draft pick signing its own player.

“It's good to be back, especially with the progress we made, and especially the way it ended,'' LaRoche said. “I ended up where I wanted to be, and got to do it for a couple years. It wasn't the end of the world, but it could have been [bad]. I think it's something in the agreement that probably got overlooked.''

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