Among the handful of other sweeping changes in Major League Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement - like a second wild card spot and blood testing for HGH - was one that should be of particular interest to Nationals fans, or at least anyone who has watched the transformation the team has undergone in the June draft the last four years.
In 2008, the Nationals drew a line in the sand with first-round pick Aaron Crow, refusing to go above a $3.5 million signing bonus for the University of Missouri right-hander, and lost him at the Aug. 15 deadline. The next year, they had the No. 1 pick in the draft, and they knew signability - baseball jargon for how likely a player is to sign a contract - couldn’t be a determining factor anymore. If they wanted San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, it would take cash, and lots of it.
So the Nationals broke every record in the draft, giving Strasburg a four-year major league deal worth $15.1 million, including a $7.5 million signing bonus, and transformed themselves into one of the draft’s most cash-happy teams. In 2010, they signed four players to contracts well over baseball’s suggested bonus for their draft slot, landing Bryce Harper, Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole and Robbie Ray just before the deadline. They gave Harper a five-year major league deal worth $9.9 million, the most ever given to a high school player.
And last year, general manager Mike Rizzo completed what might have been his boldest stroke at the deadline, landing five players (Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, Brian Goodwin, Matt Purke and Kylin Turnbull) for over-slot deals totaling an estimated $16.5 million. That flood of cash, which made the Nationals “the talk of the industry,” as Rizzo put it, also irked a number of general managers around baseball, who grumbled about what precedent the Nationals’ free-spending ways would set.
As it turned out, those contracts - and others like it - might have mattered quite a bit. Baseball’s new agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association includes the closest thing to a hard slotting system for draft picks that the game has ever seen. Go five percent over slot for your first-round pick? You’re on the hook for a fine totaling 75 percent of the excess. If you go over by more than five percent, it’ll cost you a 100 percent fine and a future first-round pick. Overspending by more than 15 percent means losing your next two first-round picks,
Essentially, it means teams will have headroom of a few hundred thousand dollars, at most, to negotiate without losing draft picks in the future. It’s a striking change meant to rein in a system that bugged commissioner Bud Selig incessantly, as players slid down the draft board because of contract demands whispered to scouting directors and GMs before the draft.
So what will it mean for the Nationals, now that they’re picking later in the draft than they have before? Well, in the short-term, they won’t be at as much risk of losing their first-round pick for signing a Type A free agent as they would have been under the old system. But it seemed less likely they were going to pursue a big-name free agent this year than they were last year anyway. This has been a team built on scouting and development; Rizzo constructed his entire front office around the idea of winning the amateur draft. Lately, that has meant spending money.
Now the trick will be to figure out if a player can be selected later in the draft, knowing the savings will be greater than if he goes early in the draft. But with such a large pool of players, both from college and high school, baseball’s draft is unlike any other sport’s, and it might be the biggest crapshoot of the major professional leagues. Teams won’t be able to pluck falling talents like Purke (who was projected to go in the first round but slipped to the third because of signability concerns) with fat contracts. It might mean the top players go where they should, but that would require every team to agree on who the top players are. At the very least, it’ll be interesting.
And it will likely limit the Nationals from going on the draft spending sprees they’ve undertaken in past years. They could shift some of their scouting muscle to Latin America - they just snagged scout Ron Rizzi from the Dodgers for that reason - and take advantage of some of the new rules there, where teams are able to trade for extra money to sign players in the international market. But their yield in Latin America has been feeble so far, marked with disappointing players like Yunesky Maya and scandals like the Esmailyn Gonzalez/Carlos Alvarez episode of 2009. They’ve got well-respected baseball men running their operation in the Dominican Republic and scouring other countries for players, but they’ve got a long ways to go to build a pipeline there.
Baseball’s new rules, though, will certainly force the Nationals to think differently. They’re entering uncharted territory as they prepare for the 2012 draft, and they’re certainly not alone. It’s a new landscape, and it’s sure to be interesting. And in some ways, it’s one the Nationals helped create.