Once upon a time, the draft was just half the battle.
Then came the hard part—signing the players.
Just read Allan Simpson’s epic Ultimate Draft Book (which you can buy here). It’s six pounds worth of stories about the draft, and roughly three of those pounds seem to detail stories of difficult signings of draft picks.
That’s no longer the case. Just as every draft since 2012 has had a signing deadline, this year’s draft has one, too—and this year it’s earlier than ever, today, July 7. That was just after our magazine went to press, and in the past, we would have stopped the presses, held the issue up a day or two and made sure to get all the signings in print.
What we do know is the signings drama this year came down to how much No. 2 overall pick Hunter Greene would get, and if he would become the third $7 million signee of this class, joining No. 4 overall pick Brendan McKay (Rays) and No. 5 pick Kyle Wright (Braves).
Now, we know that all the signings are available at baseballamerica.com/draftdb. And these days, the draft signings drama really happens before and during the draft, when teams negotiate with players and their agents to make sure they will sign—within parameters set in the Collective Bargaining Agreement—before the players are drafted.
Last year, just two players in the first 10 rounds failed to sign, and signs point to a similar result in 2017. However, there was late drama when the Rays failed to sign supplemental first-rounder Drew Rasmussen, taken 31st overall out of Oregon State. It was unclear at press time if Rasmussen would be declared a free agent; the Rays had time to offer him the minimum 60 percent of slot to get a compensation pick in the 2018 draft.
In general, though, the process has been streamlined and less acrimonious. Gone are the days of players signing so late that they don’t play until the following season. Now we’re in an era where players can be drafted in June and get in two or more months of actual playing time, speeding their acclimation to pro ball.
However, nothing about the draft in its 53 years has changed more than the money, which was deemed to be out of control in 1964 thanks to the $205,000 bonus that Rick Reichardt received as an amateur free agent. That deal—about twice what the highest-paid big leaguers made—helped prompt Major League Baseball to institute its first draft.
As the first No. 1 overall pick in 1965, Rick Monday signed for $100,000. Fast forward to 1987, when Ken Griffey Jr. got $160,000 as his bonus, and one can see why MLB loved the draft. Bonuses were more than under control; for top players, they had essentially stayed flat over 23 years.
For much of the next 30 years, signing bonuses went up, and dramatically so. Scott Boras and other agents pushed the limits of the system, realizing that teams needed talent and would pay to get it. In 1990, Boras pushed for prep righthander Todd Van Poppel, ranked as the top prospect in the draft, to get paid like it, and the Athletics obliged with a major league contract worth $1.2 million after he fell to the 14th overall pick.
The next year, No. 1 overall pick Brien Taylor got $1.55 million from the Yankees, and bonuses never looked back. Taylor shattered the bonus record, even though the prep lefthander would join 1966 No. 1 pick Steve Chilcott as the only No. 1 overall picks to never reach the majors. Two recent No. 1 overall picks, both selected by the Astros, were in danger of joining Chilcott and Taylor. Mark Appel (2013) has reached Triple-A since being traded to the Phillies, while unsigned 2014 pick Brady Aiken is struggling mightily in low Class A after being picked by Cleveland in 2015.
Signing bonuses and major league contracts for elite draft prospects peaked from 2009-11, thanks to a confluence of factors. The game was healthy, having avoided work stoppages. Those three drafts had superstar talents, from Stephen Strasburg at the top of 2009 (and Mike Trout 24 picks later), to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in 2010 to a loaded 2011 class that included the likes of Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy and Anthony Rendon.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time included signing bonus slots but still had no mechanism for enforcing penalties if teams went over slot. And teams that were rebuilding, such as the Nationals, Pirates and Royals, started to realize that high draft picks presented incredible value potential. Though risky, elite amateur talent was much more affordable than major league free agents. That prompted teams to spend whatever it took to sign the top players.
And so Strasburg signed a big league contract that guaranteed him more than $15 million, with a $7.5 million bonus, while Harper the next year signed a big league deal guaranteeing nearly $10 million. In 2011, Cole got a record $8 million straight bonus, and the industry spent more than $236 million in total on the draft.
That total has gone up under the most recent CBA, with nearly $250 million spent in 2015 and a record $267.95 million in 2016. Now, those numbers are cooked into the CBA by ownership and the union, with each team knowing its overall spending pools. Notably, no team has yet gone over its bonus pool since hard caps were introduced with the 2012 draft.
No player has been deemed worthy of going over the pool by more than 5 percent, which triggers the loss of a draft pick; teams will spend extra money and pay overage taxes, but they aren’t losing future assets.
For 25 years, from 1987-2011, it seemed like every rule MLB set up to rein in draft bonuses wound up creating unintended consequences that drove bonuses up. But the current capped bonus era has yet to spring a leak. Almost every player in the first 10 rounds signs, and Cole’s $8 million bonus record has held up.
This is the system MLB wanted—a combination of cost certainty, talent distribution and little drama.
It just took more than 50 years to get it.
|TOP 10 DRAFT BONUSES|
Even with Hunter Greene unsigned, the 2017 draft had produced four of the eight highest signing bonuses of all time for drafted players who signed with the team that drafted them.
|Player, Pos.||Club, Year||Bonus|
|Gerrit Cole, RHP||Pirates, 2011||$8,000,000|
|*-Stephen Strasburg, RHP||Nationals, 2009||$7,500,000|
|&-Bubba Starling, OF||Royals, 2011||$7,500,000|
|Brendan McKay, LHP/1B||Rays, 2017||$7,005,000|
|Kyle Wright, RHP||Braves, 2017||$7,000,000|
|Royce Lewis, SS||Twins, 2017||$6,725,000|
|Kris Bryant, 3B||Cubs, 2013||$6,708,000|
|MacKenzie Gore, LHP||Padres, 2017||$6,700,000|
|Carlos Rodon, LHP||White Sox, 2014||$6,582,000|
|Jameson Taillon, RHP||Pirates, 2010||$6,500,000|
|Dansby Swanson, SS||D-backs, 2015||$6,500,000|
|*Signed major league contract; &-Two-sport provision in contract with bonus spread over five years|