Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Draft in desperate need of repair
By Jayson Stark ESPN.com
Stephen Strasburg may be -- whoop de doo -- a Washington National now. But you can bet every centavo of his signing bonus on this:
The draft that made that miracle possible will never be the same.
"This thing's broken, man," said one scouting director.
"The system needs to be blown up," said another. "We need to re-evaluate how we do the whole draft process."
"What Stephen Strasburg has succeeded in doing," said an official of yet another club, "is that now, to me, there's no question that there will be a [formal] slotting system in the next labor agreement."
But wait. Didn't Strasburg get "only" $15.1 million out of this deal? Not $20 million? Not $30 million? Not $50 million? So did he really get enough to implode the entire draft? Uh, you bet he did.
Stephen Strasburg is likely to pitch a few innings for the Nationals in September.
"That's still a gigantic amount of money," said one AL exec. "Don't kid yourself."
So how gigantic an amount is it? Think of it this way:
• 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.
But it's not just him.
The Mariners showered a package on their top pick, Dustin Ackley, that can be worth between $7.5 million and $10 million. That's more than Bobby Abreu, Orlando Hudson or Ken Griffey Jr. signed for last winter.
The Tigers threw a package at high school pitcher Jacob Turner that could pay him nearly $7 million. That's more than they guaranteed their three major league free-agent signings -- Brandon Lyon, Adam Everett and Matt Treanor -- combined last winter.
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.
And everybody -- OK, not quite everybody, but 17 of the 29 first-round picks who agreed -- signed for more than Bud Selig and his office's "recommended" slot.
"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."
And where there's carnage, there's always a reaction. And by that, we don't mean all the yelping emanating out of the commissioner's office after these mega-dollars had finished splattering off Selig's wall.
We mean change 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.
It's impossible to say for sure exactly how this draft will change once that bargaining is done -- because the union has always been opposed to formal slotting. But here are some of the topics that have to be addressed:
• 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.
• 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. Amazingly, it's always been small-market owners who have opposed the idea of dealing picks. And what's their argument? That it would allow Boras to manipulate the draft. Huh? He manipulates it just fine now.
• 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. Whether baseball can figure out a way to navigate all the unique laws and circumstances of every country with a baseball talent pool is a massive question. But we now sense more interest in getting those international signings under control than we've sensed in years.
• 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."
These are just some of the ideas being collected by a committee, headed by the esteemed John Schuerholz, which is studying ways to "fix" the draft. They won't all fly. They won't even all make it to the bargaining table.
But file them away for future reference, because many of them are going to happen. They have to happen -- because any system that's paying an 18-year-old amateur more than a five-time Cy Young winner needs more repairs than a 1962 Volkswagen.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.