Ask BA

Has it really been 18 days since the last Ask BA? Blame the draft, which always monopolizes our time at Baseball America. The good news is that I plan on doubling up and giving you two editions of Ask BA this week, with a fresh one on Friday, so get your draft-related questions in. The bad news is that there won’t be one next week, when I’ll be at the College World Series with my two sons.

One piece of business I never got to before the draft was 2006 first-round pick Max Scherzer signing with the Diamondbacks. His major league deal, which included a $3 million bonus, $4.3 million total guarantee and another $1.5 million in easily reachable incentives, was as one-sided as the NBA Finals’"Scherzer’s seven perfect innings in high Class A last night notwithstanding.

Scherzer showed plenty of velocity while pitching for independent Fort Worth this spring, but his inconsistent life, command and slider left a lot of teams thinking that his best long-term role will be as a reliever. They won’t say so publicly, but there are Diamondbacks officials who believe the same thing. Ignoring his signability as a pitcher whom agent Scott Boras billed as one of the two best in the 2006 draft, Scherzer would have gone in the middle of 2007’s first round on pure ability.

Boras and Scherzer wanted no part of the 2007 draft. Scherzer is going to turn 23 in July and he would have had little leverage because clubs knew he couldn’t hold out for an additional year. It’s unlikely he would have commanded even $2 million in slot money, yet Arizona gave him a deal worth three times as much.

I have no problem with any player asking for (or receiving) any amount of money. But the next time Diamondbacks managing general partner Ken Kendrick wants to criticize the spending of the club’s previous regime, I’d love for someone to ask him about Scherzer’s contract.

    I kept hearing during the entire draft that MLB was pushing teams to only take players who would sign for slot money, and that this is the reason some players went much later than expected. It doesn’t make sense to me. Why would a team that has money not spend it on the best player in the draft? Why isn’t this happening more? I don’t really see the punishment involved in going over slot money, unless it’s having to explain in a sitdown with Bud Selig that you value winning and want to build the best farm system you can. I know this is long-winded, but can you please explain to me why the Tigers’ draft strategy is questioned and why the Red Sox and New York teams don’t always draft the best player available regardless of price?

    Andrew Thurmond
    Athens, Ga.

    I keep hearing the MLB is putting pressure on teams to not pay draft picks more than slot money. What kind of pressure can MLB put on teams? Can they be fined? Why are some teams scared enough to avoid drawing the ire of MLB, while teams like the Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees are not?

    Jarrett Ferreira
    Medford, Mass.

The draft remains by far the most cost-efficient way to build a team. The 30 clubs spent roughly $150 million on draft picks (including the last-ever class of draft-and-follows) in 2006, compared to $2.5 billion on major league salaries. That’s right, $2.5 billion.

MLB introduced recommended bonuses for early-round picks in 2000, which has brought bonus inflation to a halt. First-round bonuses rose by an average of 27 percent annually in the 1990s, but have increased by an average of just 1.4 percent this decade. Yet even with baseball’s revenues at an all-time high ($5.2 billion last year), MLB is looking to further clamp down on bonuses.

With changes to the draft rules instituting a drop-dead Aug. 15 signing deadline, improving compensation for unsigned first-round picks and adding compensation for unsigned sandwich- through third-rounders, MLB believes teams have more leverage than ever. As a result, it has reduced the slot recommendations by roughly 10 percent and has been proud to advertise that fact. It also is slashing the slots for fourth-year college juniors, believing they won’t want to return to school.

It certainly appears that anyone asking for more than slot money dropped in this year’s draft. Not just guys like Rick Porcello, the top-rated high school pitcher who reportedly wants the equivalent of Josh Beckett’s $7 million deal in 1999, adjusted for inflation’"and adviser Scott Boras will be happy to calculate that inflation for you. But also guys like Central Michigan righthander Josh Collmenter, who projected as a sixth- to eighth-rounder. Collmenter wanted $150,000, a little rich for that territory, so he plunged until the Diamondbacks took him in the 15th round.

MLB can’t really punish teams for breaking slot. A club has to follow procedure, which means presenting its case to MLB, having MLB almost always say it’s a bad idea and then hoping MLB can’t talk its owner into holding the line. If a team doesn’t go through that process and pays more than slot money, it’s subject to a fine.

Clubs that exceed the slot recommendation won’t receive any goodwill from MLB. A small-revenue club that needs discretionary-fund money or other subsidies, loans or an All-Star Game in its ballpark won’t want to irk the commissioner. But most teams aren’t dependent on handouts.

So to get to the heart of the question, there’s no reason for large-revenue teams to buy into slotting. In fact, slotting works to their benefit by making it child’s play to drive an elite prospect to a team that will pay the most for his talent. All the agent has to do is throw out a huge bonus demand and almost every club will get out of the way, allowing the player to go a team that isn’t afraid to spend.

It’s no coincidence that the three teams that spent the most on the 2006 draft’"the Red Sox, Braves and Yankees’"appear to have gotten more out of the draft than any other clubs. New York (an estimated $100 million in 2006) and Boston (an estimated $55 million) give away more money in luxury taxes and revenue sharing than any other teams and they have plenty of cash to spend on amateur talent. So why should they worry about keeping draft prices down? If they somehow could drive them up, a spurious claim, they’re already giving back to baseball enough to pay for all of the signing bonuses in the entire draft.

If a team doubled its draft budget from the average $5 million to $10 million, it could land the equivalent of four extra first-round picks. And $5 million is a pittance for a big league club. Teams often can’t compete with the Yankees and Red Sox for major league free agents, but there’s no reason why they should allow them to grab more than their share of amateur talent. It will be very interesting to see if the rest of baseball stands by if New York and Boston are aggressive signing draftees this summer.

    Can you give a scouting report (or two) on Pat Venditte, the ambidextrous pitcher from Creighton?

    Kevin Hoffmann
    Des Moines, Iowa

If they had a Walk-on of the Year award, Venditte would have won it hands down. He pitched in 38 games (10 starts), went 8-2, 1.88 with four saves and won MVP honors at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament after helping Creighton win the title. He had a 43 2/3-inning scoreless streak and set school records for single-season and career (2.61) ERA.

Venditte, who’s 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, is more conventional from the right side. His fastball usually sits in the high 80s and touches 91 mph, and he backs it up with a 12-to-6 curveball. He relies more on deception as a lefthander, dropping down to a low arm slot and working at 81-85 mph with his fastball and mixing in a sweeping slider.

Though he’s by far the best prospect ever among the handful of ambidextrous pitchers who have popped up in college in recent years, his stuff from either side is pedestrian by pro standards. The combination from both sides does make him intriguing, and he might have been drafted in the 15th-25th round if he hadn’t told teams that he wanted to return for his senior year and finish his college education. The Yankees took him in the 45th round and will evaluate him this summer in the Northwoods League.

    Which draft would you prefer to have? The Devil Rays, with the No. 1 overall choice but no extra picks, or, say, the Mets or Athletics, with no early pick but extra choices for free-agent compensation?

    Bob Wagner
    Alameda, Calif.

If these are my choices, I’d take Door No. 1. Numerous draft studies have shown that the value of top-five choices is so much better than other first-rounders, and that the value of the No. 1 overall pick is clearly superior to other top-five selections. I’d much rather have the best player in the draft than extra early-round picks.

However, if I had to pick between the No. 10 choice but no extra choices versus no first-rounder but three sandwich picks, I’d take the latter. After the cream gets skimmed off the top, I don’t think there’s a significant difference between the middle and end of the first round, and I’d rather have the extra sandwich-rounders.

" May 26 Ask BA