Draft : : Story
Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Old ideas implemented in new CBA

David Rawnsley        
Photo: Perfect Game

Sometimes ideas take longer to develop than prospects.

The idea of each team having a pre-determined “budget” to sign players, as that’s what it amounts to in the new CBA, was discussed in scouting director meetings as long ago as the mid-1990’s. Like most ideas bounced around in those meeting and in informal talks between scouts, those ideas were debated and vetted out but never acted on.

In fact, the tone of the scouting director meetings I’ve attended or talked to scouting directors about was always, “It really doesn’t matter what we recommend, it will get negotiated out when they get down to the really big issues.” At least that was the tone until recently.

Only with relations between Major League Baseball and the Players Union on historically solid ground and professional baseball hemorrhaging money amidst record franchise values, there really weren’t many “big issues” to negotiate. So the smaller issues of the draft and international signings, long swept aside, were able to be addressed.

The owners have spoken very loudly on the subject. They want cost certainty when it comes how talent enters professional baseball. And they want that cost to be lower than what it has escalated to in recent years.

And they have the undeniable right to want and execute those things.

The new CBA doesn’t contain a “hard cap” in defining exactly what teams can spend on amateur free agents, both domestically and internationally. But they’ve made the “Tax” (read “penalty”) for exceeding one’s budget punitive and excessive enough to dissuade even the most deep pocketed owner from entering those waters without significant forethought.

For the complete new CBA, including the detailed draft changes, click here.

The irony is that when the budget/cap idea was originally discussed way back when, the purpose was to level the playing field in order to keep the big spending teams from simply overwhelming the small market teams in acquiring amateur talent. The realization in today’s baseball market is that the draft and international baseball are the true ways that a small market franchise can effectively compete with the Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies, etc. who can buy up all the big bucks ML free agents. Organizations such as the Royals and the Blue Jays, among others, have made huge investments in recent years in the draft and international baseball.

So when you hear the initial reaction of analysts (Twitter is burning up as I write this), it’s all overwhelmingly negative. It’s hurting the small market teams, they say, the teams that finally (after 45+ years of the draft) figured out how to use the system to fight back against the big wallets. It’s also supposedly going to keep young players out of the game, especially the talented dual sport athletes. I’m surprised I haven’t read “It’s un-American!!” yet….although the day is still early.

Personally, I’m not buying into that, even a little bit.

Yes, I believe that the small market teams have finally figured it out, that they can use their resources more effectively competing in the still relatively inexpensive (but escalating) draft/international market than for established Major League players. Top prospects are invaluable trade chips and they come much more cheaply than a guaranteed 5-year big league contract.

But the level playing field of the signing bonus budget will reward one primary group; the scouts and minor league instructors who can really do their jobs well. And thus it will reward the organizations who employ those people.

That’s what this boils down to for me, as a 20+ year veteran of this side of the industry. The scouts who do the best job, the scouting directors who make the best decisions and the work of the best minor league instructors will reap the benefits. The teams that employee them will shift to producing the most talent.

And why should developing talent be any different than watching anything from a Major League Baseball season? As fans, all we can ask for is that every team, and especially our team, has a fair chance to win. The 162 game Major League season certainly does that. It weeds out the best teams from non-contenders very effectively, but everyone is on a level playing field. Ask Tampa Bay about the value of that. They have made the best true baseball decisions in the industry recently and they’ve been rewarded for it on the field.

The good scouts and the good instructors should be tipping a glass to the new CBA and saying to themselves, “OK, now I can go out there and Really do some good work for my team.” Because that work has a much better chance of being rewarded than in the past.

We all need to be applauding this….the idea that those people who do their jobs the best will be rewarded. I bet we’re going to see an era in the game where scout/coach’s salaries go up, as their perceived value goes up as well. Although I can imagine friends in the industry reading this and saying “yeah, right…..”

And I’m not buying into the idea that professional baseball is committing a big mistake by removing the mechanism that we can bribe kids into playing baseball instead of college football. If Zach Lee or Bubba Starling might end up playing both sports in college instead of being paid huge signing bonuses, then so be it. There are a whole lot of other talented players out there. The baseball youth of today (i.e. the top prospects) have been given the mindset that they are owed the opportunity to play professional baseball and if it isn’t worth their while, they’ll wait until it is. We need to get rid of that collective mindset, as we collectively in baseball have given it to the kids entering the game.

And maybe professional baseball needs to do a better job of selling the idea of playing professional baseball first, than making that decision on college football after you’ve learned if you can hit a slider or throw an offspeed pitch for a strike. Brandon Weeden, Chris Weinke, Mark Farris and many others would be qualified spokesmen. The idea works really well in reverse without the bribe.

Enough on that. Count me as a big fan of the new rules, just as I was 15-plus years ago. The mantra here is “Let the better scout/instructor/organization win!”

Comments on some of the other parts of the agreement (see the link above, again, for the actual CBA wording).

There is no dollar value attached to the projected draft budget for each team, just that each pick will be assigned a value for the first 10 rounds (with limitations on picks after the 10
th round) and that that value will go up with baseball revenues. Can we assume that those numbers will be related to the infamous “recommendations” that the Commissioner’s Office has been giving the teams in recent years? Higher? Lower? Until we see those numbers, we really don’t know the potential impact on signing high school players in particular. But I am obviously encouraged by the mention of $100K as the top level for players 10th round and later before it applies to the Tax. There will be plenty of money in the system.

I don’t like the funky lottery system for the small market/small revenue teams for giving them additional picks. This is a negotiating chip for those teams to get them on board and complicates the process. Let’s just play straight poker, no wild cards or funky rules.

I wish they had specifically said when in June (it just says “June”) the draft will be held. This was conspicuously absent for me. Does it mean early June as it is now, or mid to late June in order for MLB to hold some sort of Combine-type event to drug testing, physicals and player performance measurements? This is a variable that could impact many different things.

Colleges are obviously thrilled at the earlier signing deadline. It’s a great change that will benefit everyone. All negotiations need to be effective in a real deadline, not a dead period before real negotiations begin. But everyone should be happy about the deadline, from players to scouts to agents.

On the same point, let’s all be happy for the colleges, the college coaches and the college players. Major League Baseball does not own the sport lock, stock and barrel. If a player decides to go to Florida or LSU or South Carolina, or Winthrop or UC Davis for that matter, who are we to react negatively to that? Don’t we want our own kids to go to college??? College is a wonderful thing, especially when someone else is helping pay the bill; to react with an attitude towards someone actually wanting to go to college is just not right.

The one type of player who is hurt by the signing deadline is the ‘Summer Follow’, the player who a scout wants to watch for a couple more months to see if he gets stronger or healthier or just better before making up his mind. We’ve gone from the draft and follow process, where teams could follow a player at a JC for a whole year, down to a 4-6 week window. It hurts the best scouts but is probably better for the process.

As a former very active player in the international market, I hate the idea of an international draft and always have. As long as there is a corresponding budget cap in line with the draft cap, let the teams go out there and compete! If an organization wants to be hyper aggressive and build a big complex and higher a full staff of scouts, let them benefit from it! There is no place in baseball where the best are able to shine more than in international scouting. An international draft just takes away from that. But that is clearly the direction that everything is heading.

Drafted players may only sign Minor League contracts.” Love it and it’s obviously necessary to separate the draft/bonus money from the value of a Major League contract. I wonder if this applies to international players as well. I didn’t see anything in the CBA that separated a Darvish/Cepedes type talent who is in their mid-20’s from a 16 year old Dominican, but maybe that comes later.

I don’t want to sound like a cynic but this is going to happen. Prospect A’s dad is a high school coach, part-time scout, a former pro who runs a batting school, something like that. Team A drafts Prospect A and gives dad a nice fat job in the organization with a 4 year guaranteed contract, but only pays him a reasonable and “in-line” signing bonus.

Agents don’t really care about this stuff in my opinion, aside from the buscones in the Dominican and perhaps the mid to “aspiring” level agents who will lose money and opportunity. The new CBA puts more money into big league salaries, where the big agents make their reputations and their money. They will still get enough revenue from the draft to justify paying the people who recruit the young players and the new system will probably serve to thin out the field of competitors a bit.

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