New Draft Rules Create Good, Bad Side Effects
CHICAGO—Commissioner Bud Selig can talk all he wants about competitive balance, but the main reason that baseball introduced a draft in 1965 and dramatically altered its rules last offseason was to keep costs down.
Sure, MLB would like to see the worst teams get the best draftees. What it really wants is to avoid a repeat of 2011, when the first seven picks received a combined $46.9 million in bonuses and salaries and the industry as a whole spent $236.1 million on the draft.
That was MLB's primary mission when negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. It got what it desired with a system that prescribes bonus pools for the first 10 rounds—the average team gets $6.3 million—and stiff draft-pick penalties for any club that exceeds its allotment by 5 percent.
As long as draft expenditures decrease, MLB will stomach any unintended consequences. And there are always unintended consequences when baseball changes its draft rules.
The biggest this year was the parade of college seniors that dominated rounds 7-10. The easiest way to shift money within a bonus pool was to select players with next to no leverage. While that strategy was obvious, the degree to which clubs employed it was stunning.
Rounds 7-10 mattered less about talent than about whether a player would swallow a low bonus. Forty-two of the 120 choices had exhausted their college eligibility. Twenty-seven of them signed for $10,000 or less within two weeks of the draft.
Teams had no difficulty locating a college senior willing to jump at an opportunity to play pro ball. It was just as easy to find a scout who hated the way those rounds played out.
"Day two of the draft was the worst day of my career," one scout said. "I hated the process, with the number of times we called guys with a number, got an answer and never called them back. We left players hanging."
Another scout said he felt like a goon after contacting a player he wanted and getting him to agree to sign for next to nothing, only to have his team go in a different direction.
"The new system turned rounds 6-10 into a joke," a third scout said. "It's too bad it's at the expense of having a draft that functions as it should, and potentially at the expense of scouting, because they certainly didn't build a system that accomplishes the proper way a draft should unfold."
Now For The Good News
While day two of the draft may have left a bad taste in many mouths, no one—teams, players, agents—is complaining about another side effect. Draftees are signing faster than anyone realized they would.
Two weeks after the draft started, 19 of the 31 first-round picks and 23 of the 29 supplemental first-rounders had officially signed or agreed to terms. By comparison, only 12 of the top 60 selections in 2011 did so as quickly.
The Astros landed Carlos Correa with a $4.8 million bonus three days after selecting him No. 1 overall, making him the quickest top choice to sign since Matt Bush in 2004. Houston needed just two weeks to work out a $2.5 million bonus with sandwich pick Lance McCullers Jr., who slid out of the first round amid signability concerns.
"A lot of us didn't know what to expect with the new agreement in place," Astros scouting director Bobby Heck said. "With less hurdles in place, we're able to get guys out playing. Carlos was in the lineup for Opening Day in the Gulf Coast League. Lance is only going to miss the first week of the GCL instead of reporting for the last week of the GCL."
Under the new rules, teams insisted on cost certainty. They wanted to avoid penalties and to create room to maneuver with their bonus pools, so most of them didn't select a player unless he agreed to a specific bonus figure beforehand. That's a violation of MLB rules, of course, though the commissioner's office will look the other way as long as spending stays in line.
Clubs detested MLB's draft-support program, which served as a clearinghouse for offers while the commissioner's office recommended well below-market bonuses for every pick. Deals that surpassed those guidelines had to remain unannounced until shortly before the signing deadline in mid-August, meaning that most of the best draftees wouldn't begin their pro careers until the following season. Last year, teams spent $139 million on deadline day alone.
Now the draft-support program and the slotting system have gone by the wayside, and players are signing in droves. In the first 10 rounds, 255 of the 338 picks had turned pro within two weeks of the draft. That number would be even higher if another 30 of those players weren't participating in the College World Series.
MLB is getting what it wants with reduced draft spending. Teams are thrilled to be signing players more quickly and cheaply than in the past. If the bastardization of rounds 7-10 is part of making that happen, both groups are willing to live with that.