The Cleveland Indians’ 5-4 loss in Game No. 162 was a depressing way to end to the season. The blown lead, the failed comeback, the winning run coming off the bat of Jhonny Peralta—it was a rough game, and because of the loss the Indians missed out on their first .500 season since 2007. The game was of no consequence for anything this year—even in the home field advantage race the Tigers’ victory was rendered meaningless by the Rangers’ win later that night—but it was a disheartening finish for Tribe.
And yet, as the Indians look ahead to what may be a busy offseason, their final loss actually puts them in a much better position as they build for 2012 and beyond.
Entering the final day of the season, the Tribe had an 80-81 record, a half-game ahead of the Washington Nationals (79-81) for 15th-best in baseball. With their loss (and the Nats’ win), the Indians dropped to 16th place in the ML-wide standings.
In doing so, Cleveland moved up to 15th place in the reverse standings. In each round of the 2012 amateur draft, the Indians will get to pick one spot higher than they would have had they not blown their early lead in the season’s final game. It may be an insignificant difference (we’ll never know for sure), but it’s definitely a good thing for the team as it builds for the future.
But that in itself isn’t why the loss could end up being a good thing: much more important than the specific No. 15 draft pick is the protection that comes with it.
When a team signs a Type A free agent who rejected an offer of arbitration from his last employer, it must cede one of its first picks in the coming year’s draft as compensation. Usually, the biggest-ticket free agents latch on with clubs that had finished in the Top 15 in league-wide rank the year before; these franchises are forced to give up their first-round picks as the cost of doing business.
But the first 15 picks in the draft are protected. So if the Indians sign a Type A free agent this offseason, they’ll lose their second-round choice, but they’ll get to keep their first-round pick. You’ll probably be able to take the same guy with #16 that you wanted with #15, but there’s a huge difference between #15 and whatever their second-round pick would end up being (it would be at least #47, but would likely be significantly higher once sandwich-round picks are allocated).
Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder aren’t coming to Cleveland anytime soon, and even if they were, adding a player of that magnitude would pretty well overshadow losing a first-round draft pick. But what about someone like Michael Cuddyer or Matt Capps, both of whom are projected as Type A’s? (Not saying the Indians would or should pursue them—that’s a topic for another day—but they’re at least remotely plausible targets for the Tribe.) In the case of a non-superstar, the draft pick protection could end up making the difference in the front office’s decision to pursue a free agent with compensation attached this winter.
Of course, this isn’t going to make or break the Tribe this year or beyond, and if Cleveland doesn’t sign a Type A free agent this winter, the Indians would have ended up in a better situation had they won their last game and had the pride of being a .500 team. But at least for now, there’s a silver lining for the season ending on a low note.