Teams Still Finding Ways To Sign Top Preps

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CHICAGO—When Major League Baseball initially announced major changes to the draft rules as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement last November, most teams were aghast. Assigned bonus pools for the first 10 rounds meant clubs no longer could spend as much as they saw fit and had them fearing that many blue-chip high school prospects would opt for college.

Severe penalties for exceeding bonus pools, including the loss of a first-round pick if a team surpasses it by more than 5 percent, meant harsh new realities for teams such as the Nationals, Pirates and Royals, who have tried to rebuild with aggressive draft spending.

Washington, which paid out $17.6 million in bonuses and salaries in the 2011 draft, had to make do with $4.4 million in the top 10 rounds. Fresh off setting a draft record with $17 million in straight bonuses, Pittsburgh got sliced to $6.6 million. Kansas City's pool was $6.1 million, less than the $7.5 million it used to lure Bubba Starling away from Nebraska football and less than half its $14.1 million total of bonus expenditures a year ago.

While clubs no longer can spend to their heart's content, their second fear has proven unfounded. The industry's draft spending won't approach last year's record $236.1 million, but most of the best high school players have continued to choose professional baseball over college.

In 2011, 45 prepsters ranked among Baseball America's Top 100 draft prospects and 41 of them turned pro. This year, 53 high schoolers cracked our Top 100. Thirty-nine of them had signed pro contracts in the first month after the draft, and another half-dozen or so should do so by the July 13 deadline.

Even with the rules changes, this year's crop is getting compensated handsomely. Last year's Top 100 prospects from high school who signed averaged $1,794,920 in bonuses. The 2012 crop has averaged $1,685,656.

The next tier of prep talent has continued to opt for pro ball as well. Among high schoolers ranked 101-200 on BA's prospect list, 22 of 44 turned pro in 2011 (average bonus: $767,866) and 22 of 51 have so far this summer (average bonus: $592,905).

Lucrative Bonuses Everywhere

The best high school players continue to sign for two reasons. Many of them want to begin their pro careers now instead of waiting for three more years. And teams crave young talent and will do whatever they must to acquire it.

The Astros leveraged shortstop Carlos Correa into a $4.8 million deal as the No. 1 overall pick—a legitimate choice based on his ability—which saved them $2.4 million against their bonus pool. That allowed them to spend $2.5 million on supplemental first-rounder Lance McCullers Jr. and $1.85 million on fourth-rounder Rio Ruiz. McCullers had mid-first-round talent but dropped amid signability concerns, while Ruiz was a potential first-rounder before having surgery to remove a blood clot in his neck in March.

The Blue Jays moved enough money around to give $2 million to sandwich pick Matt Smoral, a likely mid-first-rounder until he broke a bone in his foot and only made one official start this spring. Toronto also found enough cash to exceed allocated pick values and pay $1 million to supplemental first-rounder Mitch Nay, $860,000 to second-rounder Chase DeJong and $750,000 to third-rounder Anthony Alford. The Jays will allow Alford to follow through on his football commitment to Southern Mississsippi, essentially giving him early second-round money for a summer job.

Assuming Albert Almora (Cubs) and Lucas Giolito (Nationals) sign as expected, there will be more bonuses of $2 million or more paid to high schoolers in the first round this year (11) than there were in 2011 (10). Correa, Byron Buxton ($6 million, Twins), Max Fried ($3 million, Padres), Almora and Giolito all will top $3 million.

Along with the Astros (McCullers), the Rangers (Joey Gallo, $2.25 million) and Padres (Walker Weickel, $2 million) broke the $2 million barrier for prepsters in the supplemental first round. The Mariners (Joe DeCarlo, $1.3 million), Rockies (Max White, $1 million), Cardinals (Carson Kelly, $1.6 million) and Yankees (Austin Aune, $1 million) found ways to pay high schoolers seven-figure bonuses in the second round. The Astros (Ruiz) and Red Sox (Ty Buttrey, $1.3 million) did so in the fourth.

None of the teams that opened their wallets for high school talent projects to outspend the assigned bonus pools by more than 5 percent, so none of them will forfeit a future first-rounder. Only a handful of these clubs will exceed their pool at all, subjecting them to a 75 percent tax on the overage.

CBA-mandated free-agent compensation changes drastically will reduce the number of supplemental first-round selections going forward, making it more difficult for teams to stockpile extra choices like San Diego and Toronto did in 2012. But if the first year of the new draft landscape showed us anything, it's that teams will find ways to bring the best high school players into pro ball.