Although hardcore baseball fans often mock the worldwide leader in sports, ESPN's decision to have guest authors fill in for Buster Oleny while he was on vacation last week churned out some great articles, including one from super-agent Scott Boras on fixing the annual Rule 4 draft. For the uninitiated, Scott Boras is widely regarded as the top agent in the game, and in recent seasons he has advised top draft picks Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Mark Appel among others. Considering these players represent a portion of Boras' annual income there is no question that he has a vested interested in "fixing" the draft, but would his suggestions changes actually make the draft better for teams and players?
His contention with the draft as it is currently structured stems from the bonus pools and slotting system created by the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement which covers the 2012-2016 seasons. If you are unfamiliar with the new rules, our own Ken Woolums wrote up everything you need to know about the draft in June. Basically, teams have a bonus pool that they can spend on players selected in the first ten rounds, and teams that surpass that amount are penalized by having to pay a tax on those selections as well as losing future draft picks. When the system was implemented, it was because Bud Selig and the owners wanted to control spending which has happened, but it also has created a lot of (possibly) unintended consequences that Boras correctly identifies, beginning with the actual slot values.
Along those same lines, baseball would be better served if each team's scouting staff was allowed to pursue the player of its dreams each year in the draft. Right now, the pool system is totally inflexible. Like any other inflexible system, it's creating illogical outcomes.
That Mark Appel wasn't signed in 2012 shows flaws in the draft. Last year, to take a notable example, the Pittsburgh Pirates selected Stanford's Mark Appel with the No. 8 overall pick, which had an assigned value of $2.9 million. They failed to come to terms with the right-hander, who was valued as a $6.2 million player in this year's draft.
Pittsburgh could have given Appel $6.2 million last year, but that would have left them with only $360,000 to sign their other ten picks in the first ten rounds. Instead, they were forced to offer him considerably less and unfortunately for Pittsburgh that was not enough to sign the college righty. Truthfully, because of the slotting system, Houston is probably the only team that had a shot at paying Appel what it would take to sign him, and that is a huge problem for the sport. While Mark Appel will play professional baseball, two-way stars like Joe Mauer, Matt Kemp, and Bubba Starling may have never made it to baseball if not for the money they were offered (and were able to be offered) as amateurs. The hard reality is that college baseball simply doesn't have the same sort of opportunities as football and basketball, two much larger revenue sports, so the chances of dual sport athletes sticking with baseball in college are somewhat remote. Anything that will take athletes away from the game is bad for baseball, so Boras is spot on here.
Additionally, as Boras points out, not every draft class will have equal amounts of talent. The 2009 draft had potential the best pitching prospect ever, Stephen Strasburg. The 2010 draft had potentially the best hitting prospect ever, Bryce Harper. The 2011 draft was quite possibly the best pitching draft of all-time. But the last two drafts? They have not matched up in terms of talent and therefore the spending on bonuses should vary accordingly. With the slotting system, that's just not the case.
So what's the resolution? I think each team's first pick in a season should not be subject to any signing limits. Look at it from the team perspective: One player is not going to break any team's budget, big market or small, and the flexibility to pursue one elite player of its choice will reward scouting and player development personnel who properly identify and value talent as it fluctuates from year to year. The remaining rounds could still be subject to the pool system, striking a balance between cost certainty and healthy competition.
Interesting, right? Ignoring the fact that Boras represented four first-round picks this year, I like this idea if owners insist on some sort of bonus pool/slotting system. At least this will allow teams to offer the premiere athletes an option to stay in baseball and it will put an even larger emphasis on scouting, something that I fully support. It would be better to eliminate the bonus pools altogether, but this is a decent compromise.
Another problem, one that I do believe was unintended, is the hardship the new system has placed on free agents that have draft pick compensation attached to them. In the past, compensation picks did drive free agent prices down slightly, but this year the market was almost nonexistent for players like Kyle Lohse and Adam LaRoche. Here you can see the production and contracts for LaRoche and Lohse paired against those of Shane Victorino and Ryan Dempster, free agents that did not have compensation attached to them..
|Adam LaRoche||32||0.271||0.343||0.510||0.361||127||3.4||2 years, $24 mil|
|Shane Victorino||31||0.255||0.321||0.383||0.310||94||2.9||3 years, $39 mil|
|Kyle Lohse||33||2.86||3.51||3.96||16.6||4.4||3.5||3 years, $33 mil|
|Ryan Dempster||35||3.38||3.69||3.77||21.3||7.3||3.1||2 years, $26.5 mil|
While obviously there is more to the analysis of these contracts than just one year of data, it looks as if these two were unfairly valued. Under the new rules, not only do teams lose a draft pick; they also lose the bonus money associated with that pick, which has created an unfair restriction on these few players that qualify. Detractors will say that there are ten teams that can sign these players without giving up a pick, but they're typically not on the right spot on the win curve to be acquiring these older free agents.
So what is the resolution? I suggest that free agents age 31 or older who have received qualifying offers should not cost the signing club a draft pick or any draft dollars. Give the former team a new pick instead. Don't punish veteran players who have done nothing wrong except have an excellent walk year. The way it works now, LaRoche would have been better off performing like Victorino, and Lohse like Dempster, and lesser performance is not the sort of incentive anyone in baseball wants to create.
Personally, I'd say get rid of the punitive-compensation for all players, but again this seems like a fair compromise.
Finally, Boras' last problem with the draft is one that dates back farther than the most recent CBA. He acknowledges, correctly, that the draft unfairly penalizes American (Canadian and Puerto Rican as well) players by giving them the ability to negotiate a contract with only one team. At the same time, international free agents over the age of 23 can become free agents that are able to sign multi-million dollar deals like those of Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes. Look no farther than 2009 when Strasburg, the best pitching prospect of all-time in many minds, signed for $15 million while Aroldis Chapman was able to sign with the Reds for over $30 million despite being the lesser prospect.
To this problem, Boras doesn't offer an answer. The one that is most commonly floated is to do away with the draft entirely, making every amateur a free agent. Selfishly I'd be against this idea simply because I enjoy the draft, but I do think the imbalance should be corrected.
Boras wraps up the article with this final thought:
The collective bargaining agreement does not expire until after the 2016 season. Counting the remainder of 2013, that's four seasons, an eternity in the relatively short timeline of a player's career. The same goes for front offices that are trying to win before owners and fans run out of patience. As stewards of the game, we owe it to everyone involved to repair systemic problems that were not intentionally introduced. The flaws in the system hurt everyone. We've got a lot of smart people in the game. Let's put our heads together and resolve them now.
Despite his ulterior motives, I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit behind Boras' sentiments. Illustrating just one of the many reasons I have always liked Boras, it seems that after essentially causing the new draft rules, he is determined to do what he can to fix the system, and I'd say he's on to something.
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You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.
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