Wednesday, August 19, 2009

After the Signing Deadline

Stephen Strasburg got his money; the Orioles surpisingly signed Mychal Givens; and Toronto, Tampa Bay and Texas inexplicably failed miserably. And now we get the columns lamenting the fate of western society if baseball cannot fix the draft. Jayson Stark does an especially egregious job of shilling for the owners, so let's deconstruct his piece, point by point.

Only five starting pitchers on the entire free-agent market got packages bigger than that last winter: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe, Ryan Dempster and Oliver Perez.

And Strasburg is guaranteed slightly more money than Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz were guaranteed for this season put together. Those guys own a combined nine Cy Young Awards. Strasburg has thrown a combined zero professional pitches.

Conveniently, Stark leaves out Kenshin Kawakami (3 years, $23 million), signed by the Braves this offseason and someone whose talent is nowhere close to Strasburg's. Asked in his chat yesterday about this very deal, Keith Law responded, "It's incredibly unfair to Strasburg. I doubt there's a team in baseball that would rather have Kawakami over the next three years than Strasburg." Not to mention that Koji Uehara signed a $10 million deal with the Orioles, and I'd bet the team doesn't regret that one bit. Besides, isn't saying that Oliver Perez received a whole lot of money more of an indictment of the Mets or the free agency process than of the the draft?

Law's comment, of course, brings up another point: Strasburg's deal isn't for three years; it's for four. And not only that, but the team will still control his rights (via arbitration) for another two years (at least) after that. Johnson (45), Martinez (37) and Smoltz (42) may have received less guaranteed money, but they also came with many fewer seasons of team control. Another red herring are those Cy Young awards cited: (smart) teams don't pay for past results; they pay for expected future performance. Only someone who'd been asleep for the last decade would have predicted a Cy Young award for any of those guys in 2009.

The Rockies -- a team that had to trade away Matt Holliday over the winter and a club that could afford to sign only one major league free agent (Alan Embree) -- tossed almost $4 million at another high school pitcher, Tyler Matzek.

Perhaps the Rockies felt that their money was best spent on bringing in young, high-end talent rather than retread veterans. The Rockies could clearly "afford" to sign more than one major league free agent; they apparently had $4 million in the bank. Nobody "forced" them to trade Matt Holliday; instead they acted in what they perceived to be the best interests of their ballclub. Given that the Rockies currently lead the NL wild card standings and that two of the players they received in the deal (Huston Street and Carlos Gonzalez) are playing key roles in that run, I don't think they're too upset with the outcome, either. Even more so if the 23-year old Gonzalez's blossoming is real.

"So the big loser," said an official of one team, "is Bud and his slotting system. It got crushed. Some of these signings are off the charts. Look at some of this stuff in the later rounds. There's carnage all over the map."

[C]hange is coming. This draft isn't working. It hasn't for years. And now Selig's informal slotting system is being so widely ignored, you can bet this topic is heading for a bargaining table near you in 2011.

Yes, the big loser was Selig's ridiculous slotting system; that is indisputable. Teams that are willing to spend the money get the best players. Much less clear is how the draft hasn't been working for years. Washington, Seattle and San Diego all got their man, and while the Pirates did not spend a lot at number four, that was by design. Plus, last year they signed a Boras client (Pedro Alvarez). Teams that make smart decisions are able to pull together successful drafts for much less than the cost of three seasons of Danys Baez. I don't really see how that means the system is broken beyond repair.

SLOTTING -- Baseball is now the only major sport that doesn't have some sort of system that regulates how much drafted players can get paid. And that can't go on. Not just because the clubs want slotting, either. It's because players want it. We've polled a bunch of them. And big league players want those $15 million deals going to them, not to kids who have never played a professional baseball game.

Interestingly, baseball is also the only major sport with a powerful union; might that have something to do with slotting in other sports? Regardless, of course the players want that money to flow to them; I'd like for it to flow to me, too! I don't see how restricting a few million dollars (in total) from flowing to amateur prospects is going to drastically affect current player paychecks, though. Perhaps they can win a concession or two regarding free agency or arbitration eligibility, but that sounds like the owners cutting off their nose to spite their face if you ask me. Why would the owners want to give up a year of established player cost control just to keep the top few prospects from getting closer to their market value?

TRADING PICKS -- Now here's a concept the union is in favor of. So it seems just about inevitable that this is a new draft wrinkle that's coming soon. If you have the first pick and you don't want the price tag that comes with Stephen Strasburg, or you don't want the migraine that comes from dealing with Scott Boras, you pick him anyway and then dangle him on the open market.

I see nothing wrong with trading draft picks. Though I think "price tag" and "headache" are more likely to be thought of by teams as "value" associated with picking in a certain range.

WORLDWIDE DRAFT -- We're not sure if this on-again, off-again idea will ever fly. But it's gaining momentum again, because it needs to. A system that allows the Yankees and Red Sox to outspend everybody on any player they really want, with no limits whatsoever, doesn't serve anyone except the Yankees and Red Sox.

Damn those Yankees and Red Sox! I can't believe they are able to simply outspend and get all the good international players like... Wagner Mateo (Cardinals), Michael Ynoa (A's), Miguel Angel Sano (Pirates and O's interested), Kenshin Kawakami (Braves) and Koji Ueahara (O's)! Yes, they signed Dice-K, Matsui and the like, but, without doing all the hard research, the playing field really seems quite level in terms of international free agents.

THE CONTROL ROOM -- Another idea that's been building steam beneath the surface is a way for teams to wriggle out of the embarrassment of being held hostage by 17-year-old high school kids. What some people in the sport would like to see is a draft system similar to the hockey draft, which would allow any team picking a high school player to control that player's rights through his college years. "We need something to that effect," said an exec of one team, "just so you don't feel like you have no leverage as a club in those negotiations. So if you draft a kid out of high school and he says he's not ready to sign, after his sophomore year you can try to sign him again. And after his junior year you can try to sign him again. And then, if he still doesn't sign, after his senior year of college, then he goes back into the draft."

So, the league allows players to negotiate with only one team, forcing him to either take the contract offered or wait another full year before playing professional baseball, and it's the team that lacks leverage? Why is it that players seem to get close to their asking price? Perhaps its because the teams have crunched the numbers and realize that signing a top prospect for the cost of one or two seasons of a utility infielder or middle reliever is actually a really good deal.

And the big finish...

[A]ny system that's paying an 18-year-old amateur more than a five-time Cy Young winner needs more repairs than a 1962 Volkswagen.

Never mind, of course, that the "five-time Cy Young winner" (Randy Johnson) was actually the one who needed those repairs.

I'm all for trading draft picks; teams should be allowed to maximize their return on the draft. Perhaps the Nationals would have been better served trading the number one pick to the Diamondbacks and Angels for two first round picks, or to another team willing to give up prospects that are already in their system. But remember, the team giving up those picks would clearly value Strasburg (including the associated cost commitment) more highly than a few more lesser propspects. Whose to say which team is correct in its assessment?

I would also like if the deadline was moved forward; fans, players, and teams would all benefit if the staring-at-each-other period was shortened. Teams would get their players out to affiliates sooner; fans would be spared months of nonsense and get a chance to see prospects sooner, and players would gain certainty over their futures and get a few professional games under their belt the same season they're drafted. One suggestion that seems reasonable is to move the deadline forward a month. I've also seen it suggested that some upper level short-season leagues (like the NY Penn League) could be extended a month; I think that is also an interesting proposal.

Regardless, unless your goal is to give the owners more money and teams more control over the prospects they sign, most of the proposals out there to "fix" the draft aren't worth your time.

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