Does Draft system need reform?
Bonuses too high; pure slotting system has pros and cons
PITTSBURGH -- The old adage is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." By now, most people agree the First-Year Player Draft system is broke. But can it be fixed?
After a Draft signing period that came to a dramatic end late on Monday night with record-breaking deals -- the most notable one being top pick Stephen Strasburg's $15 million-plus deal -- being signed, a desire to address some of the Draft's inequities appeared to be felt by people across baseball's spectrum. It might not be until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated in 2011, but it's safe to assume that while the Draft might not be the centerpiece, it will most definitely be on the table when the two sides sit down.
"This will be a topic in the 2011 negotiations," said Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources. "We're not at the point where I know what it is the clubs will want to propose. We're looking at the issues. Where you start if you have a job like mine, you look at what other sports do. There are things embedded in the NFL and NBA that might be helpful, but we're not at a point that we know yet."
Both the NBA and NHL have a pure slotting system, meaning there are mandated amounts a team is allowed to offer and pay to any given Draft pick each year. The NFL has a looser system, with a cap on what teams can spend on their draft, but some feel it is headed to a stricter system as well.
MLB's slotting system is far less hard-and-fast. Each year, the Commissioner's Office sends clubs recommended slot figures for each selection. While these figures are not made public, it was widely known that a 10 percent cut in bonuses compared with last year's figures was strongly suggested. Some followed suit, with a dozen of June's 32 first-rounders signing at or below the 2009 recommended slot. That, of course, meant 17 of the 29 signed first-rounders went above slot, meaning that the trend of ignoring the Commissioner's Office's suggestions -- some just to the 2008 level and some much more egregiously -- continued, despite the pleas to be more frugal.
"While the recommendation system was implemented in an effort to give clubs some education on the history of Draft signings and some information, it is something that obviously is a voluntary system," said Frank Coonelly, who before becoming the president of the Pittsburgh Pirates served as the senior VP and general counsel of labor for Major League Baseball where he, among many things, oversaw the slotting system. "You're still going to have players who believe they should be paid outside of the recommendations. As a result of that, you continue to have signability selections as opposed to pure talent selections. To the extent that signability is driving the decisions in terms of selections and signings, it's not performing its major purpose of trying to balance [the game]."
Recently, teams have been willing to take the chance on tough signs, going way above slot to bring in elite talent. Coonelly's Pirates took Pedro Alvarez with the second pick in the 2008 Draft and eventually signed the third baseman. The Kansas City Royals have ignored slot recommendations for their top picks over the past few seasons.
That's not to say it's a dead issue. In 2007, the Pirates passed on Matt Wieters, and Rick Porcello dropped to the bottom of the first round, with bonus demands playing a large role in both situations. In this year's Draft, Tyler Matzek fell to No. 11, Matt Purke slid to No. 14 and Shelby Miller plummeted all the way down to the 19th selection all because of signability.
The last time the CBA was negotiated, in 2002, slotting was discussed. All that was agreed upon was giving teams compensation -- a commensurate pick in the following year's Draft -- to hopefully embolden them to hold firm on an offer to a draftee. While there have been some unsigned players as a result -- the Rangers did not come to terms with Purke, for example -- more often than not, the trend of teams blinking and upping offers to sign players has continued.
"Is it broken?" Coonelly asked. "It certainly needs to be adjusted in my view in a manner that not only helps clubs in giving them the ability and capacity to select the best player, but also helps Major League players, because every dollar that's spent in the Draft is not spent on Major League players."
If there wasn't a resounding "Amen" from the players choir on that last point, there at least seemed to be some interest in hearing more. Players, both past and current, were more willing to publicly talk about the exploding bonuses. On MLB Network, players-turned-analysts like Harold Reynolds took umbrage over how down the free-agent market for established veterans was (see Abreu, Bobby) while Draft bonuses continued to climb.
|Do these numbers merit a change to the system?|
Bonus (in millions)
|3||San Diego||Donavan Tate||$6.25|
|6||San Francisco||Zack Wheeler||$3.30|
|12||Kansas City||Aaron Crow||Unsigned|
|19||St. Louis||Shelby Miller||$2.875|
|23||Chicago (AL)||Jared Mitchell||$1.200|
|24||Los Angeles (AL)||Randal Grichuk||$1.242|
|25||Los Angeles (AL)||Mike Trout||$1.215|
|29||New York (AL)||Slade Heathcott||$2.200|
|31||Chicago (NL)||Brett Jackson||$972,000|
"Your premise would be correct, except that it would be tough to suggest that just because money wouldn't be spent in one area, it would be spent in another," said recently retired Tony Clark, a former associate player representative on the Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Board and now an analyst with MLB Network. "It's an interesting proposition. If it was simply that cut and dry, then I think there would be an opportunity to discuss things moving forward. It never is that simple. Every group is connected."
Clark's point is that how draftees get paid impacts how Minor Leaguers get paid and on up to established veterans in a trickle-up manner. Putting a cap on Draft bonuses,he feels, could lead to changes in the entire salary structure for professional players.
"It has been fought for decades in our game, affording our players an opportunity to maximize their earning potential in as free a market as possible," Clark explained. "If you look at a lot of the other sports leagues, they each have a 'slotting system' in place and they also have rookie caps and veteran caps and team caps, assuming one decision has led to another based on what I mentioned.
"I think everyone sitting at the table is willing to listen, but I'm not smart enough to know what can be done taking all those things into account."
Coonelly, who's been at the negotiating table a time or two, had a quick retort for Clark's claims, both on how the interconnectedness of the issues makes it more difficult to address and also not being sure where the money would go if it wasn't spent on the Draft.
"We certainly heard that reluctance, but that's an argument that would prevent you from reaching agreement on almost any topic," Coonelly responded to the first claim. "I don't think it justifies taking that position with respect to a very discreet area of player acquisition in Major League Baseball."
On Clark's first point about knowing how the money would be spent, Coonelly added, "Then negotiate a floor. I'm all for it. Negotiate a floor and negotiate a cap. If you want to guarantee money's going to be spent somewhere, negotiate that at the CBA. Clubs have been willing to do that for a long time."
They might still be willing to do that. While most on the management side will likely support a pure slotting system, the concept of a slightly looser structure similar to what the NFL currently has is an alternative that could provide a middle ground. Whether that leads to any changes made, obviously, remains to be seen. Signability could still be an issue, albeit to a lesser degree.
"When we think about it, the purpose of the Draft is to make sure that the best player goes to the team that had the worst year the prior year," Manfred said. "Number one on our list, do signability concerns result in teams passing on players who might otherwise been selected? We do believe that happens.
"Number two: The yield out of the Draft, on a percentage basis, is not great. We sign a lot of players who never spend a day in the Major Leagues. To the extent that the prices go way up and you apply that low percentage that make it, we get concerned about that."
These problems won't be solved only by fixing the slotting system, but it's clearly the first logical step. While pure slotting might take away some of the strategy that can be used when deciding how to allocate those funds, Coonelly suggests the ability to trade picks to encourage more "outside the box" thinking.
Some thought should also be given to the timing of the signing deadline. August 15 was agreed on as a time before college classes began, a point important to the clubs because players had used the "Classes start tomorrow" line to force what was then an artificial deadline. August 1 was proposed initially, but the union wanted it moved to Aug. 15 to provide more time for negotiations.
In truth, though, most of the big negotiations don't take place until right before the deadline hits. It's an arbitrary wall, one that could just as easily be on July 1 as it is currently placed. Moving it up would enable any signed player to still get two months of work in with his new organization. Even if he didn't pitch, imagine how ahead of the game Strasburg would be having that time to work out with his new instructors. "It does make sense. I don't see the downside to it," Coonelly agreed. "It doesn't take time to negotiate these contracts, so there's no reason it can't be as early as July 1 and the players would have the opportunity to play somewhat sooner."
These issues will be studied closely by a committee headed by former Braves general manager John Schuerholz, now Atlanta's president. Neither Schuerholz nor Manfred would comment on the actions of an internal committee, but rest assured their findings will be a big part of the discussions when the Draft comes up during the next CBA negotiations. And while the presence of a lightning rod like Strasburg has heightened interest in the Draft all around baseball, this movement has been a long time in coming.
"The Draft was an issue in 2006; a worldwide Draft was a big issue in 2002," Manfred said. "This has been an issue for the clubs for a long time. This isn't some big change based on the fact Stephen Strasburg was out there.
"If you look at the age of players on MLB rosters, the age has come down pretty steadily. As that has happened, they have been focused a little more on the issue."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.