I have two motivations for writing this article.
One is simply the realization that money is the driving force over draft position. This goes for both players and teams. Signability has become so much a part of the June draft that the best players are no longer chosen in order of ability.
New Jersey high school lefty Evan DeLuca was the 1,335th player chosen, yet he received a $500,000 bonus from the New York Yankees. What is more indicative of the Yankees’ investment and DeLuca’s perceived talent? The fact that he was the 1,335th player chosen or that he was given the 98th highest bonus in the draft? Does it make a difference whether DeLuca got paid in the 44th round or the second?
My second motivation for this article is to see how effective Major League Baseball’s slotting system truly was in our last draft.
In recent years, MLB has taken it upon itself to keep signing bonuses in check for the Rule IV First Year Player Draft. MLB has gone as far as issuing recommended bonuses for each pick through the first 10 rounds, in essence defining what “slot money” is.
It’s not enough to compare the 25th slot suggestion to what the 25th overall pick received. I believe it is much more apt to compare the 25th slot to the 25th highest bonus received; the distinction is subtle but intrinsic to what Major League Baseball is trying to accomplish.
It goes back to the old adage of a ton of feathers versus a ton of bricks; they both weigh the same and are just as difficult to carry. By the same token, spending a million dollars in the 10th round is no different from spending it in the first.
With this perspective, it seems that MLB’s definition of slot money was rendered truly irrelevant in 2009. Not only did players get bigger money in the early rounds, but many more struck gold late.
A quick perusal of the 2009 signing bonuses reveals a number of outliers, of players in later rounds who received six- and seven-figure bonuses compared to the slotted four and five figures of their round-mates. There were teams that exceeded slot so many times that if they received even a slap on the wrist for each violation, their hands would still be red today.
In the table below, I’ve accumulated information on players given bonuses of more than $450,000 regardless of where they were drafted. I chose $450,000 as the cutoff because that is what the last pick of the second round was reportedly slotted for by MLB. The Los Angeles Angels owned that pick, the 80th overall, and were able to sign Chipola JC lefty Pat Corbin for the suggested slot money.
There were five players drafted before Corbin who did not sign. So if slotting were effective, it would follow that only 75 players should have made $450,000 or more on their signing bonus. As it turned out, there were 112. There were 37 additional players, taken outside the first two rounds, who were given first two-round money. That is nearly a 50% increase over MLB’s proposed limitation.
How about the first round?
MLB reportedly slotted the final pick in the true first round, 32nd overall, for $900,000, which is exactly what Sacramento State outfielder Tim Wheeler received from the Colorado Rockies. But in the end, a whopping 54 players ended up getting at least as much as Wheeler. Keep in mind that two first-rounders didn’t sign, so only 30 players “should” have been paid $900,000 or more. That means 24 extra players, an additional 80%, received “first-round” money.
So another question begs: Was 2009 an unusually strong draft where 54 players had first-round talent instead of the usual 30? Where 112 players had second-round talent instead of 75?
I personally don’t believe that unusually high talent explains the increased expenditure. Time will tell, 10 years down the road when we see how many of these athletes become productive major league players. But I for one am very doubtful it will turn out significantly better than other drafts. It wasn’t talent that drove the market, it was the market itself.
In light of the bonuses, it is apparent that MLB’s regulation has been ignored by their constituent organizations. Even with the Aug. 17 signing deadline and compensation measures instituted in 2007, clubs have gradually allowed fiscal restraint to slip out of their fingers to a point where it’s less controlled than ever before.
In the table below, I’ve listed the 112 players who received first two-round money, the equivalent of a $450,000 bonus or better. It represents not only the “true” order of the draft in terms of perceived talent, but also the reality of what each pick ended up receiving. As the table shows, what the 10th pick in the draft signs for is not necessarily what is given to the 10th best player in the draft.
2009 DRAFT ORDERED BY SIGNING BONUS
THE “REAL” SLOTS
If you take the data literally, the entire first round (the top 33 picks) for the upcoming 2010 draft would necessitate bonuses exceeding $1.2 million without accounting for inflation. This is not what MLB wants to hear, but it is exactly what happened to the best 33 players in 2009. The end of the second round in 2010 (with the overall pick number still to be determined) will correspond to more than $600,000, well above the 450,000 slotted for in 2009.
Though MLB was hoping for only 10 players to get bonuses exceeding $2 million, they ended up with 16. One of the Two Million Dollar Babies (prep catcher Wil Myers, Kansas City Royals) was taken in the third round.
A number of players were rewarded for holding out. Many waited until Aug. 17 to sign and were offered bonuses well over the recommended slot. One could hardly expect holdouts to decrease in 2010, given that MLB clubs have allowed the precedent to be set.
It will be interesting to see where Commissioner Bud Selig goes with slotting in 2010. MLB has never significantly hiked the slot recommendations and has actually decreased them twice, in 2007 as well as 2009. If Selig is conservative with slotting again in 2010, it runs the risk of becoming completely irrelevant and immaterial in the eyes of the teams, the players and ultimately the agents.
More interesting will be what happens in 2011 when the Basic Agreement comes to a close. MLB has failed to institute an automatic slotting system thus far, but with the recent expenditures and the slotting success of the NFL and NBA, there seems to be much more momentum for bonus reform today than there was the last time MLB addressed the issue in 2006. Another wild draft in 2010 will only further the movement.