First-Round Playing Time Drops In '07

When Major League Baseball announced a new Aug. 15 signing deadline for draft picks, the league's intention was to curtail escalating signing bonuses.

In the process, however, came a consequence that could have an effect on player development.

An analysis of the last 10 years of the draft shows that 2007 first-round picks saw less playing time than ever before on a per player basis. Plate appearances per hitter were at an all-time low, as were innings per pitcher. Prior to 2007, there was no discernible trend regarding playing time for first-rounders; it generally fluctuated based on how quickly the players signed.

Compared to the average first-rounders from 1998-2006, first-round hitters had 33 percent fewer plate appearances in 2007, while their pitching counterparts threw 54 percent fewer innings. That amounts to 60 plate appearances per hitter and 14 2⁄3 innings per pitcher.

While it's possible the drop is a one-year fluke, baseball's new signing deadline appears to be the culprit, and both front-office personnel and agents agree that the new deadline has affected how long players will take to sign.

"There were some guys who were definitely going to sign but waited until the last minute to try to get as much money as they could," Royals scouting director Deric Ladnier said. "It's a trickle-down effect."

Getting On The Field

While teams can still get players into their instructional leagues to start their development, that first minor league exposure can expedite a player's development and help teams get a better gauge of the his abilities against professional competition.

"If a kid comes out to instructional league after missing two and a half months because he held out, how valuable is that going to really be?" asked one scouting director. "Talent rises to the top, but all those at-bats add up.

"What if a guy shows up to instructs, and the team finds out he's hurt and needs surgery? It pushes his development back another three months."

The impact of the reduction in playing time may not be tremendous in the long term, but getting players on the field sooner can help a team realize a draft pick's value more quickly. From the player's perspective, he has to weigh the value of holding out for a larger bonus against the possibility and benefits of reaching the major leagues faster.

One example of a player who benefited from getting significant at-bats the year he signed is Billy Butler. A Royals first-rounder out of high school in 2004, Butler hit .373/.488/.596 in 324 plate appearances for Rookie-level Idaho Falls. His performance prompted the Royals to jump him up to high Class A High Desert as a 19-year-old, and Butler ended up in the major leagues this season.

"Signing quickly puts them in a position to go to a higher classification if they perform well," Ladnier said. "It allows them to progress through an organization and get to the big leagues more quickly. When you think about it, how much money are you holding out for versus how much more can you make by reaching the big leagues more quickly?"

The Indians quickly signed Beau Mills, who had the most plate appearances of all 2007 first-rounders.

"He played a ton of games between pro ball and college—because they play more in NAIA—and I'm pretty happy that he did," Indians scouting director John Mirabelli said. "He had a shoulder impingement and had surgery (in 2006), and we wanted to get his arm assessed and see if we could help it out to see if he can play third base."

Beneficial Rest

One possible exception to the developmental advantage to getting on the field quickly might be pitchers, particularly college pitchers who pile up high pitch counts.

"If there's a college pitcher, someone who's thrown a lot of innings and maybe even pitched in the regionals and the (College) World Series, that would be a situation where you would be more cautious," Ladnier said. "But because of aluminum bats, pitchers (in college) are taught to throw breaking balls to miss bats. The first thing we teach is fastball command. Make your pitch and be able to pitch inside. We teach them how to pitch to contact; it's important to get them in that mindset as early as possible."

So what should teams expect in the 2008 draft? Several agents with potential first-round picks already have told clubs that their players will not sign until Aug. 15.

"Nobody really knows what to expect after just one year," one scouting director said. "All I know is that it's never a good idea for a kid to sit out."