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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Labor deal could thwart Mets' pursuit of Bourn

Labor deal could thwart Mets' pursuit of Bourn play video for Labor deal could thwart Mets' pursuit of Bourn
Baseball's owners succeeded in getting some cost certainty in their First-Year Player Draft budgets. They were happy about this. Meanwhile, players got the number of free agents requiring Draft pick compensation reduced. They were happy about that.

There you go. A nice deal. Both sides made concessions. Both sides also got things they considered important. Now, 14 months later, baseball's 2011 labor agreement is being scrutinized for a section that didn't seem significant at the time.

The New York Mets have no interest in signing free-agent outfielder Michael Bourn if it means surrendering their top 2013 Draft pick, the 11th overall. If you're wondering why a rebuilding team would invest big bucks in a 30-year-old outfielder regardless of the compensation, that's a question plenty of people inside the industry are asking.

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It's also beside the point. We may never know how interested the Mets ever were in signing Bourn. All we know for now is that they have zero interest if it means losing their top Draft pick. And unless something changes, that's exactly what would happen.

The Major League Baseball Players Association may file a grievance to see if an arbitrator would agree to change the current compensation rule. It seems unlikely to happen since both sides knew exactly what they were agreeing to. It could be tweaked in the years ahead, but to change it now for the benefit of one club seems like a long shot unless the arbitrator sides with a "spirit of the rule" argument.

That one tiny part of the large, complex agreement could cost Bourn a chance to negotiate with the Mets -- that's negotiate with the Mets, which isn't the same as signing with the Mets -- is the last thing anyone expected when it was signed in November 2011.

Here's how it came to be:

As Draft costs skyrocketed, owners wanted a mechanism for controlling costs. Players agreed to such a change. Rather than making each Draft a free-for-all for larger and larger bonuses, the two sides agreed to a pool system in which each club was given a set amount of money depending on the quality of picks and overall number of picks.

For instance, in 2012, the money ranged from $1.7 million for the Angels to $12.4 million for the Twins for the first 10 rounds. Owners stressed they were not looking to roll back Draft spending, and that was the case as 2012 spending ($190 million) was only slightly less than 2011 spending ($192 million).

In return, players wanted to reduce the number of free agents who would cost teams Draft choices. In the 2012 Draft, there were 33 compensatory picks in all, and for middle relievers -- and indeed for many players not considered stars -- the compensation probably hurt their marketability.

So the two sides simplified the system: If a team made one of its free agents a qualifying offer -- the average of the top 125 salaries in the game -- there would be a compensatory Draft pick awarded if the player signed elsewhere. For this offseason, that average was $13.3 million.

Only 10 players were extended qualifying offers. All 10 rejected the offer, making them the only players whose signing included a Draft pick.

When the Atlanta Braves signed B.J. Upton, they lost their first-round pick and the Rays picked up an extra pick after the first round. Likewise for the Rangers when Josh Hamilton signed with the Angels, etc.

But the teams agreed to protect the top 10 picks. If a team had a top 10 pick, it could keep that pick and sign whatever free agents it wanted. It was believed this would allow the worst teams a chance to improve more quickly.

And there was one other addendum to the rule. If a team failed to sign its 2012 first-round pick, it would be awarded an equivalent No. 1 pick in 2013.

When the Pirates were unable to sign Stanford right-hander Mark Appel -- the eighth pick of the 2012 Draft -- they were rewarded with the ninth pick of the 2013 Draft, thereby bumping every team after No. 8 down one slot.

The Mets finished with baseball's 10th-worst record in 2012. But they got only the 11th pick because the Pirates got the compensation pick for not signing Appel.

The Mets, therefore, would like an exception. Since they had the 10th-worst record, they would like to have their top pick (11th) protected. MLB officials say the 11th pick is the 11th pick, not the 10th pick, thus it's not eligible for protection.

The MLBPA is siding with Bourn and his agent, Scott Boras. The Mets? They are saying they're not going to surrender the 11th pick to sign Bourn. They seem willing to negotiate if they could keep the pick, but the story hasn't gotten that far.

In an odd twist, the changes in compensation and the Draft were designed to give the worst teams the best chance of improving. Players who had previously demanded big money might no longer slip out of the first round and into the waiting arms of a big-revenue team. If a player had first-round talent, he would almost certainly go in the first round. And teams with top 10 picks could sign free agents and keep their players.

It's unclear how this story will play out. The Mets seem dead set not to sign Bourn if it is going to cost them their top pick. Would an arbitrator change the rule? Even if that did happen, would it come quickly enough to get Bourn into Spring Training with the Mets? Or should he continue shopping elsewhere for a new team? Stay tuned.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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