MLB's Amateur Attitude Is Baffling




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CHICAGO—It's easy to dream on Nomar Mazara.

The 16-year-old Dominican outfielder had the best raw power on the Latin American market this summer. He already is 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, and he can put on a show in batting practice.

It's easy to dream on Ronald Guzman, too.

Another 16-year-old Dominican outfielder, Guzman was the most advanced hitter in the international class this year. A 6-foot-4, 195-pounder, he has a mature hitting approach and should have at least solid power once he fills out.

As soon as 16-year-old Latin Americans became eligible to sign on July 2, the Rangers pounced. They gave Guzman $3.5 million, which would have set a new standard for an international amateur position player—if they hadn't also signed Mazara for $4.95 million, eclipsing the international amateur record of $4.25 million the Athletics paid oft-injured righthander Michael Ynoa in 2008.

The commissioner's office didn't say a word.

As exciting and projectable as Mazara and Guzman are, scouts can dream more realistically on the top picks in an unusually deep 2011 draft. Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Bubba Starling and Anthony Rendon—just to name the first six selections—have a much more extensive track record and have proven themselves against much better competition. They're much more polished, and with the possible exception of Starling, they'll reach the major leagues much quicker.

If the teams that drafted Cole and Co. had dared to sign them to record deals immediately after the draft, Major League Baseball would not have sat quietly. Bud Selig would have thrown a tirade that made Earl Weaver or Lou Piniella look tame by comparison.

Double Standard

MLB has a double standard when it comes to signing amateur talent. Though the draft has proven to be a bargain in talent acquisition and the rampant inflation of bonuses has been curtailed, the commissioner's office continues to try to cut costs. At the same time, international bonuses have exploded and MLB lets the international market go unchecked.

Since the commissioner's office introduced an informal system of recommended bonuses for each draft slot in 2000, first-round bonuses have risen by an average of 2.3 percent annually. In the decade before that, they increased by 26.9 percent yearly.

Because the commissioner's office can't control every bonus, it wants to do more. With the current collective bargaining agreement expiring in December, MLB wants a mandated system that will set a limit on each pick. Hard slotting might save clubs an average of $1.5 million, though baseball needs to consider the costs.

To win such a concession from the Players Association, the owners will have to offer something valuable in return. If that happens, baseball shouldn't be shocked to learn that forced slotting will make it more difficult for clubs to sign high school players and for small-revenue teams to compete with their wealthier counterparts.

If a corresponding adjustment isn't also made to international signings, another consequence will be that international bonuses will skyrocket further. Teams that no longer can pour money into the draft will spend on foreign amateurs. There's talk of folding foreign players into the draft, but the logistics of doing so would make balancing the federal budget look like child's play.

While the draft is far from a sure thing, it's a much sounder investment than the worldwide market. Of the 25 international amateurs who received the highest bonuses through 2010, only one became an all-star (Miguel Cabrera) and four others made our most recent Top 100 Prospects list. Of the 27 players who got the biggest bonuses in draft history, seven have turned into all-stars and eight others cracked our last Top 100.

Martin Dazzles

The Rangers, who have harvested the international market as well as any team, now have paid out three of the five highest bonuses in franchise history this year to foreign players. In addition to Mazara and Guzman, they gave Cuban defector Leonys Martin $5 million in May, part of a major league contract worth a guaranteed $15.6 million.

Early returns have been extremely positive. Martin, 23, missed time with a herniated disc in his back, but he has hit .333/.418/.552 with 10 steals in 27 games. Two different scouts gave Martin above-average grades for hitting, speed, center-field defense and arm strength.

"He's a really good player," one scout said. "I compared him to Jose Reyes, who's his idol. I think he's going to hit .300 and have average power. He can do a little bit of everything, and he could survive in the majors right now."

Trying to reduce the wear and tear on Josh Hamilton by using him more in left field, Texas has had a revolving door in center. If his back doesn't flare up again, Martin may be able to provide a spark down the stretch as the Rangers try to defend their 2010 American League West title.