For those that may not have known, the players selected in the amateur draft in June are only allowed to sign with the teams that drafted them until August 15th, or the first business day after that if it falls during a weekend (which it does this year). Note that this deadline only applies to players who still have eligibility at the college level, so college seniors have until the following year’s draft.
It has become a pretty standard practice that the top picks do not sign until as close to the deadline as humanly possible. On Saturday, at 10 PM EST, 15 of the first 32 picks and 12 of 18 supplemental 1st round picks had signed contracts. However, the top 3 picks, and 7 of the top 10 picks remain unsigned.
To me, the thing that stands out as really unusual with the amateur draft is the sheer size of the signing bonuses received by players who have not played a single inning as a professional. Last season, Stephen Strasburg received a $15.4 million contract, with $7.5 million of that being a signing bonus to be paid over 3 installments. While the salary portion of the contract is not unreasonable (the remainder is split over 4 seasons), the idea that he will be paid so much so soon surely must present a problem to other players who have worked their way up from later rounds of the draft, or via the international market.
The perfect example of what shouldn’t be happening is this, via MLBTradeRumors.com: The Nationals signed their 2nd round pick, Sammy Solis, to a deal worth $1M, and also their 4th round pick, A.J. Cole, to a deal worth $2M. Even though there were almost 150 players drafted before him, the only players to sign for a larger bonus so far have all been in the top 10 selections of the draft. Now, I understand that the bargaining positions of certain players can change depending on their eligibility and their ability to re-enter the draft. But the idea that a player taken two rounds later could or should get a bonus twice as large as a different player seems really unusual.
I have to imagine that the draft is something that is going to be addressed as a part of the next collective bargaining agreement, and here’s some ideas I would love to see them implement:
1. A hard-slotting system for the draft picks
This essentially is a set contract for a player based on where they are selected. For example, picks #1 through 5 would have a contract of X dollars with an X bonus. As the player gets selected further down the draft, the amounts progressively get smaller.
This problem is not nearly as bad in MLB as it is for the NFL, but the contract demands of these amateurs can severely limit a team’s ability to acquire top talent due to concerns of signability. There seems like there are always a few choices each season in the 1st round that a team has a player rated higher, but will not accede to the contract demands of the player. The most glaring examples I can remember involve the Tigers’ paying. In the 2004 draft, Justin Verlander was viewed as a potential top pick, but the Padres went with local SS Matt Bush for a number of reasons, one of which was the fact that they knew he would cost less to sign. That one went pretty horrendously for the Padres. In the 2006 draft, nearly every team in the Majors passed on high school prep star Rick Porcello because it was known that he had very high contract demands. The Tigers got what was widely viewed as a top-5 talent toward the end of the first round.
2. The ability to trade draft picks
If the team does not want to pay the money for a player at a top slot, they should be allowed to move the pick to another team that is willing to. These picks represent the future value of a player, and as a result have value. The fact that they cannot move them seems almost ridiculous to me. The one thing that I would do to limit this however is that teams cannot trade picks after the 15th round. For all intents and purposes, there are very few players taken in the late rounds who make it (although some do), and clearly the most valuable picks are the ones near the front of the draft.
3. Stop trying to market it like the NFL draft
As much as we all would love to think that the MLB draft could someday be just as popular to watch as the NFL draft is, it just isn’t ever going to happen. Strasburg is the exception, not the rule for players who will have an impact within 1 calendar year of their drafting. For many of these players they will be lucky to be in the Majors within 2 years, and there’s always the possibility that some will never make it.
Clearly, there’s no perfect solution for MLB. They need to try to market the game as well as they can, and they need to keep the competitive balance as well as they can. You may have noticed that I didn’t make any mention of a worldwide draft that would include Latin America and South American countries. Honestly, I’d like to see it implemented, but I don’t have any idea how it would work out. There are so many varying conditions right now that it seems like it would be something to determine at a future date.