As a fan, free agent compensation draft picks can feel like an extra slap in the face from Major League Baseball.
"You're losing one of your key players. But here, take a guy who can't help you for three or four years, and probably won't help you at all." The just-concluded draft included Mike Wacha to the Cardinals for losing Albert Pujols, Clint Coulter to the Brewers for losing Prince Fielder, and Brian Johnson to the Red Sox for losing Jonathan Papelbon. Cold comfort, at least for now.
But the free agent compensation draft pick can be more than just a consolation prize taken home from a game show you didn't win. At its best, those picks can turn into important contributors. The Mets drafted David Wright, for instance, as a compensation pick for losing Mike Hampton via free agency, a loss they'd gladly experience again.
Usually, it works the other way around. In December 1983, Darrell Evans signed with the Detroit Tigers, after eight productive seasons with the San Francisco Giants. His contribution to San Francisco had been immense — consistent power and defense at third base. He was worth 19.8 wins above replacement (WAR) during his time with the Giants.
When he signed with Detroit, San Francisco got the 24th pick in the 1984 draft, (under a much different compensation system) and selected Terry Mulholland. While Mulholland only pitched in fits and starts from the time he debuted in 1986, he got packaged with third baseman Charlie Hayes and pitcher Dennis Cook in a deal that netted the Giants Steve Bedrosian, their closer in the pennant-winning season of 1989. Mulholland, alas, was worth -0.6 WAR to the Giants over three seasons, so the Evans-Mullholland duo checks in at just 19.2 WAR, total.
For my money, the baseball universe is best when a player contributes for a team, then leaves a compensation pick that also turns into a key contributor. It feels like the departing free agent has planted a tree. Let's take a look at the finest twofers baseball teams have received from this rule.
Things worked out far better on both ends for the Tigers when catcher Lance Parrish signed with the Phillies in March of 1987. Parrish had been worth 28.1 WAR in ten seasons with Detroit. And the compensation pick they received became Travis Fryman. By 1990, as Parrish was bouncing around the league, Fryman was debuting, and impressing, for the Tigers. He'd go on to play eight years in Detroit, providing the Tigers with another 25.5 WAR before Detroit traded him to Arizona after the 1997 season. This tag team value of 53.6, evenly distributed, is compensation pick magic at its best.
The Indians got in on the magic act a year later, when Brett Butler, their leadoff hitter and sparkplug for four seasons, signed with the Giants. Butler had been worth 16.4 WAR over those four seasons. But the 17th pick in the 1988 draft, Charles Nagy, proved to be plenty of consolation. He pitched 13 years with the Indians, made three All-Star teams, and appeared for the Indians in five different postseasons. His WAR of 22.6 gives the Butler-Nagy tag team a solid showing of 39 WAR.
Skipping past marginal successes like the Astros getting Todd Jones for losing Nolan Ryan and the Mets nabbing Bobby Jones for losing Darryl Strawberry, we arrive at the great Rafael Palmeiro/Brian Roberts caper. The Orioles signed Palmeiro in December 1993, and Palmeiro was extremely effective for Baltimore over five seasons. He finished in the top-20 in MVP voting in all five seasons, won a pair of Gold Gloves at first base, and was worth 21.9 WAR over five years.
When Palmeiro signed with the Texas Rangers following the 1998 season, the Orioles received the 50th overall pick in 1999, and drafted Roberts. By 2001, Roberts was with the Major League club. By 2003, he became the team's regular second baseman. And he's still with the Orioles today, having produced 27.4 WAR. The Palmeiro/Roberts total of 49.3 is going to be tough for any duo to top.
The years since have seen some other, more marginal successes. Joe Blanton, compensation to Oakland for Jason Giambi, gave Oakland another 7.5 WAR atop Giambi's 26.6. Phil Hughes, compensation to the Yankees for losing Andy Pettitte, has given New York 4.9 WAR above the 32.7 Pettitte gave the Yankees. Better yet for New York, both totals are again climbing, with Pettitte having returned to the Yankees.
So the odds are against it, of course. But Kevin Plawecki, drafted by the Mets after losing Jose Reyes, could come to the big leagues, best Reyes's 27 WAR in New York, and make the duo the finest compensation tag team of all time.