Though the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between the MLB Players Association and Major League Baseball are not expected to infringe upon the 2012 season, the issue of instituting a hard-slotting system for the amateur draft has come to the forefront of the discussions. In fact, it is largely considered the only true roadblock in negotiations at this point.
The players view hard-slotting as the beginning of a salary cap in baseball, as it begins to limit how much teams are able to spend on amateur baseball players. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, is pushing a hard-slotting system as a way to curb the ever-rising bonus spending — teams spent a record $236M on the 2011 Draft — and to better ensure that the best amateur prospects are dispersed to the worst teams in an effort to increase parity.
With those two opposing viewpoints on the table, is hard-slotting good for baseball?
Before attempting to answer that question, it is important to understand what is meant by baseball. Baseball is not Major League Baseball. The MLB is a for-profit institution — a wonderful institution that provides a legitimate avenue by which we can live and breathe the sport we love — but an institution nonetheless.
Baseball is the abstract notion of the game itself. The same game that many of us played in the backyard with neighborhood friends or at the local park in a pick-up game that lasted hours and was only stopped when mom called for dinner.
And when it comes down to it, a hard-slotting system is not good for the game of baseball.
Professional baseball is designed to be played at the highest level by the most elite athletes in the world. Hard-slotting would severely limit the bonuses that are currently dished out to high-profile, two-sport athletes that attempt to woo them away from other sport commitments, namely football scholarships, which would undeniably lessen the talent pool.
As one big league scout said when asked about the effects of a hard-slotting system, “Kids would go play other sports. Plain and simple. For example, there’s no way in hell Zach Lee is playing baseball right now with a hard-slot system.”
Lee committed to LSU to play quarterback prior to being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first-round of the 2010 Draft. It was largely assumed that his commitment was ironclad and the Dodgers were merely saving money by drafting a player they couldn’t sign, but the Dodgers shocked the baseball world by shelling out over $5 million to lure Lee away from LSU into professional baseball.
That scenario would not have even been possible in a world of hard-slotting. The recommended slot bonus for the #28 pick in the 2010 Draft was $1,134,000, which would not have even gotten the conversation started with Zach Lee and his agent. The Dodgers would have lost (arguably) the top prospect in their system, and baseball would have lost one of the brightest young right-handers in the minors.
This story is not limited to Lee. A similar narrative can be told about Bubba Starling, Archie Bradley, Domonic Brown, Joe Mauer, Billy Beane, as well as dozens of other premium athletes throughout the years. This is not attempting to make some naive comment about how every high-priced athlete is guaranteed to be a huge star once entering professional baseball, but the overall talent level within the game is heightened when those athletes choose professional baseball over college football.
Aside from the theoretical discussion of what’s good for the game of baseball, it should also be noted that a hard-slotting system would not immediately increase parity within the game of baseball. That assumption works if big-market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs are perennially atop the list of bonus money spent each year — as it simply becomes another piece of evidence for the age-old argument that big-market clubs buy championships.
The problem is, however, that from 2007-2011, the teams that have spent most on the draft are the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals, and Kansas City Royals. Not exactly franchises with monstrous payrolls. Of course, one can argue those three teams top the charts due to their position atop the draft year-in and year-out, but it’s not quite that simple.
For example, the Pirates have made gargantuan splashes in the draft the past few years, signing Josh Bell to the highest bonus ever for a non-first-round draft pick in 2011 and also signing over-slot guys such as Stetson Allie, Zack Von Rosenburg, and Colton Cain in the past three years.
Teams such as the Pirates, Royals, Nationals, Rays, and Blue Jays have devoted a large portion of their resources to the draft because they ultimately understand that the rewards of securing six years of cost-controlled production at the major league level is well worth the risk of spending an extra couple hundred-thousand dollars on a handful of players in the draft. Instead of committing that money to a throw-away reliever at the league minimum, spend it on multiple lottery tickets on the farm and get far more value.
Sure, big-market teams are able to spend more on the draft and still have enough in the remaining budget to out-spend on free agency, but small-market teams clearly understand the value of the draft. Curbing the over-slot deals hurts those same small-market teams that the plan is supposedly protecting, as teams with lower payrolls must find sustainable success through the farm system.
Draft bonuses may be rising to record levels every year, but the overall value teams are getting on premium talent far outweighs the cost. After all, Leonys Martin got a five-year, $15.5M deal as an international free agent, though he was not considered the equivalent of a top-tier first-rounder. Imagine if Stephen Strasburg — who received a $15.1M bonus — was signed on the open market. It would have dwarfed that Leonys Martin contract.
Hard-slotting is presented as a way to fix the MLB Draft. The problem is that the draft not broken. It’s certainly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination (free agent compensation), but the system is not broken. Small-market teams are correctly utilizing the draft nowadays, and the current system allows baseball to pry away premium athletes from football and basketball. And ultimately, if we’re looking at the draft in that way — purely as a way to add talented players to the game we love — anything that would siphon elite athletes to other sports is bad for baseball.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).