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Matt Garza could be the next victim of free-agent compensation rules

Cub starting pitcher Matt Garzworks first inning as Chicago Cubs take PhiladelphiPhillies Tuesday May 16 2012 Wrigley Field. | TOM

Cub starting pitcher Matt Garza works in the first inning as the Chicago Cubs take on the Philadelphia Phillies Tuesday May 16, 2012 at Wrigley Field. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 22, 2013 7:15AM

MILWAUKEE — Brewers pitcher Kyle Lohse didn’t want to talk about specific players being “the next Kyle Lohse” in baseball’s new world order of free agency.

But the former union rep knows firsthand what could be coming for the Cubs’ Matt Garza if the draft-pick compensation rules aren’t changed.

Lohse doesn’t want anybody else to go through the winterlong limbo he endured this past offseason.

When asked about Garza, he wouldn’t comment specifically but said, “You see how it’s playing out. It changes the market. The free-agent market’s not so free. There’s a lot more different avenues for teams to keep players, suppress the value, things like that. From a player’s perspective, you’re obviously not going to think that’s a very good idea.”

Especially when you’re one of the top free-agent starting pitchers on the market — as Lohse was last winter — but find yourself with scant interest from other teams. That’s because the St. Louis Cardinals tagged him with a “qualifying offer,” making Lohse, under new rules, one of nine free agents subject to the costliest compensation in the 30-plus-year history of major-league free agency.

Michael Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said the union hopes to go into the existing collective-bargaining agreement to change the rules to fix the “unintended consequences” and is in the early stages of talking to MLB about that.

Meanwhile, Garza is looking more like one of the next potential victims of the existing rule with every week his return from the disabled list is pushed back.

Under that rule, a team can claim draft-pick compensation for a lost free agent (and only one who has been on the team the full season) only by making a qualifying offer to him. Last year, that was determined to be $13.3 million; this year, it could be a little more than $14 million.

If that player signs with another team, the new team forfeits its first-round pick and the strict MLB-allotted signing-bonus allowance for the pick (with top-10 picks exempt, but second-round picks and money forfeited in the cases of those teams).

“Almost half the teams right out of the gate weren’t even going to look at me, regardless, because they didn’t want to give up the first- rounder,” said Lohse, who became the last of the “qualifying-offer” free agents to sign when the Brewers got him the last week of spring training for a suppressed-market price of $33 million for three years.

“It changed [my] value.”

Enter Garza.

The Cubs’ best pitcher was nearly traded for prospects last July before he hurt his elbow, and the Cubs are expected to look into trading him again this summer, assuming Garza pitches well after returning in a few weeks from the lat strain that wiped out his spring training.

But if his value isn’t quite high enough to get the return they seek at that point? And he finishes the season strong? Garza could wind up slapped with a qualifying offer, which might be no higher than his market value anyway.

And that would put him in the unenviable position of playing on a one-year contract for the eighth consecutive season or risking the Lohse treatment on the free-agent market.

It’s one of several scenarios involving Garza already discussed among front-office officials.

Asked whether he’d like to see the rule change before he has a chance to get that far, Garza said, “I’d like to see me pitch before anything else. Those decisions will come when I have to face them head-on. But if I don’t pitch, I’m not going to be dealing with that. I’ll be looking for another occupation.”

The perceived advantages for the union at the time of the agreement showed up in the dramatically reduced number of free agents subject to draft-pick compensation, Weiner said.

But “I don’t think either side necessarily thought the consequences would be what they were,” he said. “I don’t think either the clubs’ side or the players’ side thought through fully what the combination of losing a pick and losing the money associated with a pick would mean in certain circumstances.

“We’re going to try to see if we can get something resolved before we get to the next basic agreement. . . . I think both sides show an interest in there being a free free-agent market.”

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