Clubs mixed on 'slotting system'
Questions exist on how to ensure fairness in signing draftees
As one of the teams that most benefits from Major League Baseball's revenue-sharing system, the Kansas City Royals would appear to be one of the teams most likely to adhere to MLB's Draft "slotting system."
Royals general manager Dayton Moore, however, points to semantics by way of explaining that as much as individual clubs want to play by the rules, there really isn't a slotting "rule" to be broken.
"There is no ... 'system,'" Moore said this week. "It's a misnomer. There are 'recommendations.'"
Like revenue sharing, the so-called slotting system was implemented to promote parity. In an effort to increase the likelihood that the worst teams would be able to select and sign the best players in the annual First-Year Player Draft, the league assigns a suggested bonus amount for each pick through the first five rounds.
Slotting has been in the spotlight this week as teams scramble to meet Friday's midnight ET deadline for coming to terms with unsigned Draft picks, but in essence, it was a response to a trend that started in the mid-'90s and quickly picked up steam.
Through high-powered agents serving as their pre-Draft "advisors," an increasing number of top-tier prospects made it clear that they'd be asking for bonuses that the teams picking at the top of the Draft -- typically small-market or lower-revenue clubs -- wouldn't be able to afford. That forced those teams to pass on the top talent in favor of more affordable options, leaving the literal rich to get figuratively richer by landing better players later in the Draft.
"Slotting tries to set a value on what the player is worth based on where he's drafted, and I like it," said Mariners personnel director Benny Looper. "It gives you some type of value that you think is right and fair for that pick. I know players and agents don't care for it, but there has to be a number that's fair and equitable."
"It's good to have guidelines, and that's what this system really is -- a series of guidelines to help create some sense of equity," said Giants director of player development Bobby Evans.
But as much as many executives like and respect the notion of slotting, several of them have gone "above slot" to sign their Draft picks. On and off the record, several said they'll continue to do so as long as the slotting system remains based on recommendations, as opposed to punishable mandates or something hard-and-fast, a la the National Basketball Association's rookie pay scale.
"If you're a little kid and your mom says, 'Don't you dare take any cookies out of the cookie jar,' you're going to test her to see what happens, right?" said a top American League executive. "Well, let's say you take a cookie and mom catches you red-handed, but she doesn't do anything to you but say, 'Bad boy!' That's going to stop you from going for another cookie in 10 minutes? I don't think so.
"Same principal here. Oversimplified, of course, but certainly applicable."
"It's up to each individual organization to decide what they're willing to pay the players that they Draft," Moore said. "So at the end of the day, [Royals owners] Dave and Dan Glass will decide what our budget is to sign players, and it's up to our baseball operations department to get those players signed within that budget."
The Royals are among the teams that have gone over slot. Last year, they drafted shortstop Mike Moustakas at No. 2 overall and gave him a $4 million bonus, which Moore conceded was "above what the recommendation was."
|"A hard slot is the ideal. If it's hard, it's hard. Teams can't even be tempted to go over slot. The slot is the slot, and the player takes it or pumps gas. But that probably won't ever fly with the [players'] union, so at least punish the teams for going over slot."|
|-- NL scout|
Asked what the "recommendation" was, Moore replied: "I want to say it was the low $3 [million]. I don't know exactly what it was. I don't think it was quite $3.5. ... Maybe $3.2, $3.25 maybe."
That said, Moore made it clear that he supports the recommendation system.
"I think the bonus money, the financial packages that clubs have available to them to sign players, should be more than enough to entice a player to sign a professional contract," he said. "I think the money is good enough now."
Looper noted that the Mariners have gone above slot to pay for a pick, too. But he said they got permission to do so.
"A lot of clubs go outside the slotting, and so have we on occasion, but you have to ask for permission from ownership and MLB to do that," Looper explained. "We went above the slotting price for [2004 third-rounder Matt] Tuisosopo and just did the same thing with our 14th-round pick, [Luke] Burnett. He was projected to be a second- or third-round choice, but he had tendinitis going into the Draft, so we went above the slotting amount.
"You always try to be fair with all of your Draft picks."
Some teams cried foul, however, when the Tigers went above slot to secure the services of pitcher Rick Porcello last summer.
Touted as one of the top high school talents in years, Porcello -- a 6-foot-5, 200-pound power righty -- likely would have been a top-three pick if, according to a National League executive, advisor Scott Boras hadn't let it be known that Porcello's price was sky high.
"If we had the NBA rookie thing, he'd have gone one, two or three, no question about it," said the executive. "But how high can you go financially? Obviously, 26 teams decided they couldn't go as high as the Tigers went."
Detroit drafted Porcello at No. 27 overall and signed him to a four-year Major League deal worth more than $7 million -- the largest contract for a prep player in history.
"There are many individual cases," Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said. "When we talk about recommended slots, we adhere to that, but there are cases we think are special talents and circumstances where you make a decision that you think is best for our organization. I think our first responsibility is to try to put a winning product on the field. You're always concerned about your own [team].
"We drafted who we thought were the best players available at the time in which we selected. ... It was not for any reason other than those were the best guys that we thought at the time that we were selecting. What other clubs do is kind of all up to them. ... Our philosophy is to take the best player available at the time. Of course, when I say that, you also weigh in if you think somebody's asking for exorbitantly more money than what you would think he's worth. That does weigh into it, too. But that's what our philosophy is."
Is a "hard" slotting system the answer, then?
"Well, that's more of a Major League Baseball question, I think," Dombrowski said. "Really, at this time, as I've said all along, they've been guidelines. That's different than slotting. If you have mandatory slotting, that's a whole different system."
Ironically enough, one of the people primarily responsible for maintaining the so-called slotting system for MLB might on Friday have to go over slot to get his man.
Before being named president of the Pirates last September, Frank Coonelly was the chief of labor relations in the MLB offices and was in charge of getting teams to offer slot money. Now he's in charge of signing Pedro Alvarez, a slugger from Vanderbilt whom the Pirates selected No. 2 overall.
By most accounts, Alvarez's advisor -- Boras -- is asking the Bucs for big bucks.
"We are extraordinarily interested in signing Pedro Alvarez," Coonelly said. "But we're not going to take every dollar that this club has at its disposal this year and will next year. As we look to build this team and secure some of these pieces for as long as we can keep them in Pittsburgh, we're not going to give all that money to a player who has yet to take a swing in professional baseball.
"Given the discussions with his representative, the thought is that the best deal is going to come in those final minutes before the deadline. But at some point, we are going to have to make a decision regarding where our money is best spent."
An NL scout thinks he has a solution that might work for everyone.
"A hard slot is the ideal," he said. "If it's hard, it's hard. Teams can't even be tempted to go over slot. The slot is the slot, and the player takes it or pumps gas. But that probably won't ever fly with the [players'] union, so at least punish the teams for going over slot.
"You really want this kid that bad? Knock yourself out. But we're going to either tax your butt off or take a pick away from you in the first three rounds next June. That probably won't fly with the union, either, but it would at least cut down on some of this nonsense and get these kids to sign and get their careers started.
"If you're as good as your advisor is saying you are, you'll get your money down the road."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.