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How The Pirates Used Their Financial Advantage To Dominate Day Two Of The 2021 MLB Draft

Image credit: Henry Davis (Photo by Mary DeCicco/Getty)

At the end of the Pirates discussions about who to take with the No. 1 pick in the draft, Ben Cherington said that Henry Davis was the No. 1 player on the team’s board. But he also seemed to hint that there would be a financial component to the pick as well.

On Monday, it became clear what the Pirates were doing.

Pittsburgh selected players with their next three picks who could all have landed in the first round. 

How did they pull that off? Because they had money to spend that other teams did not.

There is a common misconception among fans that teams pick players based on talent and then figure out post-draft whether they can find common ground between the player’s asking price and what the team is willing to pay.

That has it backwards.

A key part of the lead-up to making a pick is figuring out asking prices and signability. So when Kahlil Watson slides to pick No. 16 in the first round as he did on Sunday, it’s not necessarily because the teams picking before him didn’t think he was worthy of being picked at 10, 12 or 15. It’s because the player’s asking price may be richer than the team is willing to spend. A team picking later, especially one with extra picks later on, will have the financial means to meet that price within their bonus slot allotments.

If the Pirates can sign Davis for significantly less than the $8,415,300 slot value, they can roll those savings into paying above-slot prices for players later in the draft.

To explain this more clearly for readers who aren’t as immersed in the draft and it’s many arcane rules, teams have slot allotments for each pick. The Pirates have a total allotment of $14,394,000 for 2021’s draft. That means that the bonuses for the Pirates top 10 round picks, plus any bonus amount of over $125,000 for any 11-20th round pick must add up to that amount. Teams technically can go up to 4.9% above that amount by paying a financial penalty. But a team that exceeds their bonus allotment by more than 5% would lose future draft picks as penalties. No team has done that since this format was adopted for the 2012 draft.

But the only way in which that slot value for a particular pick matters is if the player selected doesn’t sign.

So if the Pirates drafted Davis at 1-1 and didn’t sign him, $8,415,300 would be subtracted from their total bonus pool of $14,394,000. The Pirates would receive a compensatory pick (pick No. 2 overall) in the 2022 draft, but their plans for the 2021 draft would largely be blown apart.

But other than that, the slot allotments are only a slice of the total pie. A team is under no restrictions on what it can spend on any one player. If they wanted, the Pirates could give Davis $14,374,000 and split the remaining $20,000 between their other 20 picks. Or they could decide to give their 10th-round pick a bonus twice that of their first round pick. The only restriction is that the total amount remains within the total bonus pool allotment.

So the Pirates, who have the largest bonus allotment of any team in 2021, flexed that financial muscle with their early Day 2 picks.

With the 37th pick, they selected LHP Anthony Solometo from Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken, N.J. Solometo was 28th on the BA 500.

With the 64th pick in the supplemental second round, the Pirates selected Malvern (Pa.) Prep OF Lonnie White Jr. White was rated at No. 32 on the BA 500, but was seen as a potentially expensive player to sign because of his commitment to play football at Penn State.

The same was true of the Pirates’ third-round pick Bubba Chandler. Chandler, ranked 20th on the BA 500, lasted until pick No. 72. Chandler was seen as a legitimate prospect as both a shortstop and as a righthanded pitcher. He also had a commitment to play football at Clemson as a quarterback, in addition to being committed to the Tigers’ baseball team.

That meant that when other teams called to assess the signability of White and Chandler, they likely found their asking prices were beyond what the teams were willing, and in many cases able, to pay. That wasn’t a problem for the Pirates. This is an example of how where a player is selected in the MLB draft can often be thought of more as a blend of signability and talent rather than just talent. Chandler was seen as a first-round talent by many teams. But those teams knew they could not afford to draft and sign him without going well below slot on many other picks. The Pirates did not have that problem.

It did mean that Pittsburgh began drafting college seniors earlier than most teams. The team’s fifth (Jackson Glenn), sixth (Mike Jarvis) and seventh-round picks (Wyatt Hendrie) were all older college players who have less negotiating leverage. It’s likely their bonuses will free up more money that will be used to pay Solometo, White and Chandler.

But it’s not often a team can land four first or fringe of the first-round talents in one draft. If Pittsburgh can sign all four of their top picks they will have managed to pull off quite a draft.


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