Just Say No
Teams should stay away from silly season
CHICAGO—In sports, the term "silly season" most often is applied to NASCAR, referring to the offseason dance of riders, sponsors and crew members looking to hook up with new teams.
It also aptly describes the shenanigans surrounding baseball's draft.
We still haven't seen Scott Boras unveil whatever plans he has to try to make No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg a free agent, but there already has been plenty of silliniess. It started on draft day, like it always does.
The main purpose of any draft—and don't let anyone kid you otherwise—is to keep costs down. The secondary goal is to balance competition by allowing the worst teams to select the best players. That's exactly what happens in the NFL, NBA and NHL drafts.
But not in baseball. After the Nationals, Mariners and Padres kicked off the 2009 draft by taking the best pitcher (Strasburg), hitter (Dustin Ackley) and athlete (Donavan Tate) available, the asking prices for the top players remaining weren't in the same stratosphere as what the Pirates and Orioles wanted to pay at picks No. 4 and 5. The Braves and Reds were determined to not exceed MLB's bonus recommendations for the No. 7 and 8 choices.
As a result, Pittsburgh (Tony Sanchez), Baltimore (Matt Hobgood) and Atlanta (Mike Minor) all took players Baseball America rated 23rd or lower on its final draft board. Meanwhile, several of the best pitchers in the draft went much lower than they should have, solely because of money: Jacob Turner to the Tigers at No. 9, Tyler Matzek to the Rockies at No. 11, Aaron Crow to the Royals at No. 12, Matt Purke to the Rangers at No. 14 and Shelby Miller to the Cardinals at No. 19.
Besides Kansas City, the rest of those clubs are all legitimate playoff contenders this season. On the other hand, the Pirates and Orioles are in last place, while the Reds are sixth and the Braves eighth in the National League wild-card race.
Hypocrisy Of Value
Now that the actual draft is behind us, we're treated to MLB's annual hypocrisy of valuing players. After loosening the reins last year, the commissioner's office once again is leaning hard on teams not to exceed its bonus recommendations, which Bud Selig slashed by 10 percent this year.
At the same time, spending is running wild internationally. MLB finds it perfectly acceptable for the Cardinals to spend $3.1 million on Dominican outfielder Wagner Mateo and the Yankees to drop $3 million on Dominican catcher Gary Sanchez. But if the Pirates had wanted to invest the same money in the No. 4 overall choice, the commissioner's office would have lobbied them hard not to do it and wouldn't have approved the deal until just before the Aug. 17 deadline.
Dollar for dollar, draft prospects are better investments than international prospects. Draftees don't have their prices driven up because they're not on the open market, and they've faced better competition and have been scouted for several years.
MLB struggles to even pinpoint the ages of international prospects. The Indians spent $575,000 on shortstop Jose Ozorio last summer, whom MLB verified as a 16-year-old, and recently learned that he's actually three years older and named Wally Bryan.
The Braves drafted Minor in part because of his signability, but they haven't been able to close a deal because Selig decided that this year's No. 7 pick should be worth 10 percent less than last year's. The last time MLB cut slots, several players held out for the previous draft's value—and got it.
Teams extol players who sign quickly and place importance of not delaying the start of their pro career. Yet the longer a player is willing to wait, the more he'll get paid.
"It simply rewards kids that sit out until the end, thereby hurting them developmentally," one agent says. "However, the bottom line is that the teams are the ones that let it happen."
What's the solution? Teams should stop taking part in this charade.
Signability matters to clubs, but it shouldn't trump ability. The Pirates had interest in Crow and Grant Green, the best shortstop in the draft, though neither wanted the $2.5 million bonus that Sanchez gladly accepted. Yet it's hard to believe that Crow in particular would have passed up $2.5 million at the Aug. 17 signing deadline. Not when the alternative was returning for a second season of independent ball and re-entering the draft for a third straight year, this time as a 23-year-old.
Likewise, Baltimore explored taking Zack Wheeler, who wanted more than the $2.422 million bonus that Hobgood accepted but likely would have taken it at the deadline.
The Royals spent a record $11.1 million on draft bonuses a year ago, and it will cost them in the neighborhood of $7 million to sign their first three picks in the 2009 draft: Crow, Wil Myers and Chris Dwyer. Other clubs think the parameters of those above-slot deals are close to done, but the commissioner's office won't sign off until right before the deadline. If that's true, Kansas City should just finish the contracts now and announce that MLB is costing their players development time.
After years of neglect, the draft looks to be the key issue when baseball's collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2011. But clubs should stand up for themselves now rather than wait for the silliness to end.