First there was Kyler Murray, and now there’s Carter Stewart. The former we already know quite a bit about: after the Athletics drafted Murray, now a quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, in the first round to a $4.66 million bonus, it seemed like a shrewd move for the college junior. The A’s just had to agree for him to play football, and that closed the door shut, as his Heisman Trophy senior season catapulted him to first overall in the NFL draft and a can’t-be-declined ~$35 million offer.
That’s just one player, though....... well, now there’s two. Stewart, who was picked in the same round as Murray at eighth overall, declined a $2 million deal and opted for junior college last year. Now he is signing a six-year, $7 million contract with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Nippon Professional Baseball league.
There’s really no other way to put this: it is astonishing and something baseball should take seriously; losing two first rounders to different leagues is a crushing blow to one that has just recently embraced its youth movement. The culprit for both of these, unfortunately, are self-imposed, unnecessary, and altogether greedy rules. In the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, one that was underrated in how bad it was at the time, management and the union agreed to cap the bonuses for draft picks.
This has caused the draft not to be about the best player available, but a series of meta-games regarding signability, and allocating your—once again, self-imposed by the league—pool space smartly across the board. You may take a player earlier to get them under-slot, then use the extra cash to get a player over-slot later. In the past, no such choice needed to be made because your budget was your budget, no strings attached.
This game was best played out with respect to Stewart, who was part of a play by the Braves to offer him an under-slot bonus because they believed him to be injured, and then they use that extra money to sign the likes of Tristan Beck, Trey Riley, and AJ Graffanino. That could have been extended to more players but as with the ridiculous rules, the strategy backfires if you don’t sign the player: then you lose the entire value of the slot from the pool.
So instead of being able to spend $7 million—or even just the allotted amount—to keep Stewart, who has a 3000 rpm curve that is already considered big league ready, he’ll now go international until he qualifies for international free agency and the posting system in 2025.
Will this ultimately lead to a flood gate? No, because NPB has cost control measures of their own, one of them being caps on the number of foreign players. KBO has a cap on foreign contract deals that top out around $1 million.
Yet there are some that get far, far less than that in draft bonuses or minor league or independent league salaries, so... what’s to stop KBO from signing players to small but livable wage deals? What’s to stop them both from changing the rules and allowing more, or expanding scouting efforts to Latin America?
And to be clear, that probably isn’t an altogether bad thing for baseball worldwide. MLB is just one flavor of baseball after all, and fans around the world deserve to see talent, too. The issue stateside has more to do with the fact that arbitrary restrictions on payouts for younger players, whether it be minor league wages, international amateur and draft caps, or arbitration, all have a deleterious effect on the overall talent pool of the sport.
You could probably quantify Murray and Stewart’s lost MLB years as lost wins for a big league team, and for Atlanta and Oakland. Let’s call them five overall to be generous, and you can calculate that in dollars, revenue, or whatever you’d like. Then there’s the ripple effect that this policy has down the ladder, where the wins are innumerable. There are those that will retire because of insufficient wages in the minors, or those who can’t continue in the Dominican Republic, for example, because they can’t pay off the buscóne’s debts from a meager bonus, or those that are discouraged out of the academies because of lack of necessities.
So, the sport gets worse for it. Stewart is not groundbreaking considering it just followed Murray, and wages and free agency have been a hot topic for a good two years running, so count this as just one data point along a line of them, ranging from minor to serious wage violations. It’s a conflict that will either cause positive conflict and positive change, or an era of strife that could wreck any gains the sport has made in the digital era.