DENVER—With the Stephen Strasburg signing by the Nationals came an outcry to revamp baseball’s draft.
The draft does what it is supposed to do. It gives the teams that have less success on the field a chance to add the better amateur prospects each year.
What it doesn’t do is protect the inept teams from themselves.
When Derek Jeter became the all-time Yankees hits leader in September, it underscored the failures of other teams.
Jeter was no secret. He was not a matter of the Yankees outbidding anybody else. He slipped to the Yankees because four other teams did not understand the value of the investment they could have made in drafting Jeter.
If the late Hal Newhouser, a Hall of Fame pitcher turned scout, had gotten his way, the Yankees would have never had the chance to draft Jeter. Newhouser was an area scout for the Astros in Michigan in 1992, when Jeter was drafted out of high school.
The Astros had the No. 1 pick in the draft. Owner John McMullen set a $700,000 limit on the signing bonus. While the word among scouts was that Jeter, who had a scholarship to Michigan, would take $1 million to sign, Newhouse lobbied for the Astros to draft him and claimed he could sign Jeter for $750,000.
That was $50,000 over the Astros’ self-imposed limit, so they instead drafted Phil Nevin, prompting Newhouser to quit.
Nevin became a solid big league player—though after the Astros essentially gave up on him. No knock on that. But Jeter has evolved into an eventual Hall of Famer, a team leader in addition to an excellent shortstop with offensive ability.
And he would have been an Astro if the organization had been willing to invest in adding the best young players available. Newhouser knew that. Nobody in Houston, however, would listen.
Look What We Found
The Yankees had the sixth pick in the draft that year. Jeter admits his family never gave the Yankees a thought.
The Astros, with Newhouser the contact, and Reds, who picked fifth and had Gene Bennett evaluating and dealing with Jeter, gave every indication in predraft conversations that they would take the young athlete from Kalamazoo if they had the chance. Bennett told Reds officials that Jeter was in the same class as another shortstop the Reds had taken in the first round: Barry Larkin.
But to Jeter’s surprise, he was still there for the Yankees.
The five teams in front of them went for college players, considered safer because they are older. The Astros took Nevin out of Cal State Fullerton. The Indians opted for righthander Paul Shuey from North Carolina. The Orioles went for outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds of Stanford. Next up were the Expos, and first-year scouting director Kevin Malone went for lefthander B.J. Wallace from Mississippi State, even though the consensus of most organizations was that Wallace wasn’t healthy.
That’s when Bennett got shocked. The Reds announced they were drafting outfielder Chad Mottola from Central Florida. Bennett at first thought it was an in-house joke.
That left Jeter for the Yankees, who signed him for $800,000—$100,000 more than Nevin received from the Astros, and $175,000 less than Hammonds received from the Orioles.
So it wasn’t about money. It was about having faith in scouts. It was about trusting the judgment and work ethic of the men who are paid to evaluate and recommend talent.
Slotting Makes Sense
And think about the money, even with a pitcher like Strasburg, who signed a four-year, $15.1 million major league deal with the Nationals. A big investment in an unknown commodity? Most definitely. But it’s more significantly a calculated risk on a potential game-changing player.
The Nationals, after all, are in the midst of a two-year, $20 million deal with Adam Dunn, and a two-year, $16 million deal with Crisitan Guzman. Austin Kearns is in the final year of a three-year, $17.5 million deal and he is not even a regular anymore. And what about Dmitri Young’s two-year, $10 million deal?
Any one of those going to be key factors in a potential championship seasons in the nation’s capital?
Strasburg, however, has that championship potential.
Would the game be better served with a slotting system for bonuses? Probably. It would keep agents from being able to control the show, and would lead to quicker negotiations because a drafted player would know his worth.
Teams wouldn’t twiddle their thumbs until the signing deadline, knowing that if they make an offer before it’s time to make the decision, the agents will consider that a starting point when negotiations resume.
And that’s an adjustment that the owners most likely could negotiate with the union because most major league players resent the bonuses being given unproven amateurs. They see that as money that could go into the big league payroll being spent elsewhere.