Draft : : Story
Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Fallout, New Draft Rules

Allan Simpson        
Photo: Perfect Game

Through 15 Rounds, Hard to Make a Case That New Draft Rules Achieving Intended Goal

With signing bonuses rising at an exponential rate, and the elite talent often ending up with teams with the deepest pockets, baseball’s first-year player draft was irretrievably broken in the minds of many and in need of a significant overhaul.

That supposedly occurred with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association, effective with the current draft. The new deal contained the most-radical fundamental changes to the draft in its 47-year history, and was aimed at cost containment, leveling the playing field by more equitably distributing talent and drafting players in a more orderly, systematic manner.

It may not be known until July 13—the new deadline to sign players—or for years to come whether all the new draft rules enacted will achieve their intended consequence, but one thing is certain already, after just 15 rounds: players are not being drafted in an orderly, more systematic manner.

That became evident Tuesday when almost every team began to strategically select players on the basis of manipulating the new system, rather than just draft the most-talented players available. In fact, a clear case can be made that players drafted in the block from Rounds 11 to 15 were much more talented than players selected in the five-round block from Rounds 6 to 10.

In the 10
th round alone, 20 college seniors were drafted; in the 11th round, none were taken. College seniors are traditionally treated as the ugly step sisters in any draft because they have little or no negotiating leverage, and are often drafted earlier than where their talent warrants, as a budget saver. But major-league teams took the drafting of college seniors to a whole new level Tuesday with the selection of 62 such players in the first 10 rounds. In 2011, the corresponding total was 23; in 2010, it was 19.

New draft rules limit the amount major-league teams can spend on bonuses in the first 10 rounds, without being penalized. Each draft slot from No. 1 ($7.2 million) to No. 338 ($125,000), the last spot in the 10
th round, is assigned a draft value, and the accumulated amount that each team can spend in that range obviously varies according to the team’s spot in the draft rotation and the number of picks overall that it has through 10 rounds.

The Minnesota Twins, with 13 selections and picking second in each round, have the largest draft-pool value at $12,368,200, while the Los Angeles Angels, with only eight picks (none in the first two rounds), have just $1,645,700 to work with. If a team exceeds its assigned upper limit, it is subject to a punitive tax and even the loss of future draft picks, depending on how flagrant the overage is.

Teams have the latitude to spread their draft pool value among picks in the first 10 rounds in any way they choose, so long as they remain under their total allotment. At the same time, a team forfeits its assigned value for any draft pick in the first 10 rounds if it fails to sign one those selections.

Effectively, college seniors became pawns Tuesday as teams sought to stay within the new bonus limitations—even if ignoring the spirit of the draft changes. They went overboard in drafting seniors, ostensibly to sign them for the lowest value possible, likely a token $1,000 in many cases, in order to utilize the savings on other players with a higher price tag than their assigned draft value.

Provided a team has not exceeded its bonus pool value in the first 10 rounds, the potential savings may even apply to players drafted after the 10
th round. Every player drafted beyond the 10th round has a maximum bonus value of $100,000, but a team can exceed that limit, without penalty, if it has funds available. And the best way to assure that circumstance happening was by drafting an abundance of low-budget college seniors.

No team may have manipulated the draft this year to its advantage more than the Houston Astros, who had an assigned bonus pool value of $11,177,700, most of that amount coming from the $7.2 million figure assigned to the first pick.

The Astros ended up taking Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa with that selection, but in all probability took the player among the five they had targeted for the No. 1 selection that was most-amenable to accepting the lowest bonus value the Astros wanted to pay, obviously a figure much less than $7.2 million. The Astros could then take the difference and apply it to another draft pick with a higher price tag than his assigned draft value.

Predictably, the Astros drafted Florida prep righthander Lance McCullers (easily the highest-rated player still on the board) with its selection in the sandwich round (41
st overall) that they were awarded as compensation in the off-season for losing shortstop Clint Barmes as a free agent to Pittsburgh. That 41st pick has an assigned value of $1,258,700, and if the Astros are to spend, say $5.2 million on Correa, they would then be able to apply the $2 million saving to McCullers, and theoretically have $3,258,700 to spend on him, which is about the amount it might have taken to sign the highly-rated McCullers in the first place to sway him from attending the University of Florida.

The Astros could even sweeten that pot by signing the two college seniors they took in the first 10 rounds—Florida outfielder Preston Tucker and Bradley lefthander Joe Bircher—for amounts significantly below their assigned draft values. Tucker, a seventh-rounder, has an assigned draft value of $151,400, while Bircher, a 10
th-rounder, has an assigned value of $125,000.

The Astros cushioned themselves, in the event that they don’t sign McCullers, by drafting two top-rated California high-school players, third baseman Rio Ruiz in the fourth round and lefthander Hunter Virant in the 11
th round. In the case of Virant, especially, he would be unsignable at his assigned value of $100,000 if no additional bonus money was freed up to sign him. A UCLA recruit, he was the highest-ranked player (No. 50) still left on Perfect Game’s list of the draft’s Top 500 at the conclusion of 10 rounds, and it was only too predictable that he would be the first player taken once the 11th round began.

No team may have exploited the new draft rules, relating to bonus pool value, more than the Toronto Blue Jays, who took two high-reward/high-risk players in the early rounds in Ohio prep lefthander Matt Smoral (a potential top 10 talent overall, before missing most of the 2012 season with a foot injury) in the supplemental first round, and Mississippi high-school outfielder Anthony Alford (a top-rated quarterback with a college commitment to Southern Mississippi).

At their assigned draft values, the Blue Jays would have almost no chance to sign Smoral ($1 million) or Alford ($424,400), but by drafting six college seniors and a fourth-year junior from Rounds 4-10, they may free up enough room in their overall bonus pool of $8,830,000 to sign at least one, if not both of those players. The Jays also drafted lefthander Ryan Kellogg, the highest-rated Canadian, in the 12
th round, and could conceivably sign him to a bonus well in excess of $100,000, too. Kellogg was projected to be drafted as early as the third or fourth rounds, where the allotted bonus money is in the $300,000-$500,000 range.

There was a definite push throughout the game to rein in signing bonuses after the 2011 draft obliterated numerous bonus records, and return the draft to some sense of normalcy, to select players in an orderly manner, with talent as the primary consideration.

But it is already apparent—with just 15 rounds in the books—that the new system is flawed, that almost every team has openly dismissed the spirit of the revised draft rules to manipulate the draft for their own self interests in their never-ending thirst to acquire talent.

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