Draft changes could have wide-ranging effects
In the heat of the negotiations on a new Basic Agreement last year, the Major League Baseball Players Association asked what giveback mattered most to the Commissioner's Office. Union negotiators were told that the owners cared most about a cap on Draft and international signings, even though no team last year spent more on the Draft than A.J. Burnett makes this season, and the Texas Rangers led all teams in amateur international signings at $17 million -- a million less than Alfonso Soriano earns in Chicago.
On Saturday morning, two days before the Draft, there were 13 teams within 3 1/2 games of the Wild Card lead. The American League East and National League East each had five teams within three games of first place, and two of the teams lingering within six games were the Tigers and Giants -- who the first-place White Sox and Dodgers know will make their runs.
That is what the old system left baseball. Now, we'll see what the new system brings. The old system allowed the Pittsburgh Pirates to rebuild their farm system with legitimate talent, intended to eventually do more than be .500.
"Our plan was to utilize the Draft and give us access to talent we might not be able to compete for on the Major League level," said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington.
Thus, they gave Dallas high school outfielder Josh Bell $6 million in the second round, after paying the nation's top pick, pitcher Gerrit Cole, $8 million.
"Obviously, the system is different now, and we'll adjust to it," Huntington said.
"It makes it more difficult to rebuild quickly," said Cubs president Theo Epstein. "It is what it is."
In the agreement, the union got owners to greatly reduce the number of compensation picks, which often restricted the free-agent market for veteran players.
"From revenue sharing to almost every aspect of the business, we've tried to better level the playing field," said Commissioner Bud Selig. "We believe that the record shows that we have unrivaled parity, and trying to adjust the First-Year Player Draft is a step we feel will further give all teams access to the best talent."
Under the old system, the Pirates and Royals were two of the three highest spenders over the last three years, which one GM says "is the way it should be. And, by the way, their talent levels have dramatically improved."
The old system allowed Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod to take over a Padres system that was rated the worst in the game and, within two years, make it the best. The new system is all about limiting bonuses, curtailing the influence of agents and helping the Players Association convince teams to take their revenue-sharing dollars and spend them on mediocre free agents. Teams that rake in hundreds of millions of dollars are told they may only spend $9-12 million on procuring players, and, of course the Players Association is all too happy to have an entire Draft class make 50 percent less than John Lackey.
When the Draft begins Monday, the first priority is signability, which will severely limit baseball's ability to compete with football and basketball for extraordinary athletes, especially given the NCAA's limits on scholarships, which essentially block underprivileged players from playing college baseball.
The message is that the owners and those who run the game believe you'll watch TV and spend $135 a ticket to see anyone -- Nick Punto, Clint Barmes, anyone and that the investment the Yankees made in Austin Jackson was wasted money, even if buying Jackson out of his ride to hoop at Georgia Tech brought Curtis Granderson to New York and gave Detroit and the game one of the best and intrepid center fielders.
The Royals last year bought outfielder/quarterback Bubba Starling out of a football ride to the University of Nebraska and now have a local kid who has a chance to be a monster figure for the franchise. This year, Kansas City could not do that, just as the Tigers couldn't draft or sign another Kirk Gibson. Starling would never have played baseball again. And it will happen with lesser talent, because given football vs. baseball, the kid is going to take a full over a one-fifth ride.
One GM asks why the limits couldn't be spread over five years, so perennial second-division small-market teams cannot go above slot for potential star players for two or three years -- "players," one of those GMs says, "we cannot afford when they get close to free agency."
"In a year like this, where there is no clear No. 1 pick like a [Stephen] Strasburg or [Bryce] Harper," says another GM, "why didn't they allow teams to swap picks? There was little thought put into this. If the Astros didn't love a Mark Appel, Carlos Correa or Byron Buxton, why couldn't they have the option of trading that pick to someone for a legitimate prospect and a couple of other picks, with the slot money available to be used in another year? The entire system seems to have been set up by people who have never run a team, or hate the Draft, period."
And limiting international signings to $2.9 million -- which does not cover Japanese professional free agents like Yu Darvish or Cuban refugees older than 23, like Yoenis Cespedes -- with a couple of lesser exceptions will avoid future Aroldis Chapman, Leonys Martin or Jose Iglesias signings.
The Draft and international free agents have not altered the balance of power in baseball. In the last 10 years, eight different teams have won the World Series. The Tampa Bay Rays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies have won pennants. In the 47 seasons since the Draft was implemented in 1965, 20 different teams have won World Series, and the only teams that haven't won played in the Series are the Expos-Nationals, Cubs and Mariners -- and the latter won 116 games in 2001.
That was the old system. In the new system, teams do not have the right to choose between allocating money for a high-ceiling talent they control for eight to 10 years, versus a 30-year-old veteran. Great scouts will be extremely important, and the ability to find the Daniel Navas and Brandon Beachys under mango trees will alter franchises, but in the end, baseball has essentially signaled that it does not choose to compete with football for the best athletes.
Look, we all realize that Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper wouldn't get what they got under this system, and under any system they eventually are going to make enough money to buy Dixville Notch for a one-percenter. An owner says that from 2006-11, spending on the draft rose by $70 million, which is less than what the Red Sox are paying for players on the disabled list.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.