While the Nationals and Pirates were patting themselves on the back for jobs well done after their amateur draft signings, baseball commissioner Bud Selig wasn't nearly as impressed. According to people in attendance at the owners meetings in Cooperstown, the two teams were singled out by Selig for overspending.
Selig's pet project is to institute a hard cap for baseball's drafted amateur players. This year's draft, which featured a total guaranteed haul of $236 million, according to Baseball America draft and signing guru Jim Callis, was up 17 percent from last year, giving Selig more ammunition to press hard for a firm cap in this year's CBA negotiations.
"[Selig] is more determined than ever to get slotting," one person who knows Selig well said.
The Pirates led the league in bonuses, handing out $17 million, while the Nats were close behind at $15 million. Both were bonus records. Selig wasn't happy with either, but the Nationals earned his harshest critique. People who attended the owners meeting relayed that Selig made suggestions to the effect that agent Scott Boras must have cast a spell over the Washington organization.
Last winter the Nationals and Boras teamed up for the $126-million, seven-year contract give to Jayson Werth. People who know Selig well said that while he wasn't thrilled with that mega deal, the draft figures especially irk him. Perhaps it's because history shows that only about half of first-round draft choices even make it to the majors. In any case, a new enforceable slotting system is Selig's biggest interest in this year's CBA negotiations, people close to him say.
Union officials aren't tipping their hand about how married they are to the current system in which slot numbers are merely suggestions. Often, though, they have referred to a slot system as a "capping" mechanism, a sure sign they are strongly against it. Conceivably, the union could consider it if they receive major concessions/inroads on other issues. But one person with ties to the union said, "If [Selig] wants it, he'd have to be willing to shut down the game."
Selig's hope that the union would accept binding slots rests partly on a belief that current players aren't concerned about incoming amateur players. He also may be feeling emboldened by the NFL negotiations, which left incoming rookies with significantly lower pay. But union people suggest there is more resistance to the cap system among current major leaguers than MLB officials believe.
In the meantime, Selig will have to come to terms with the multimillion-dollar deals the Nats agreed to with three Boras clients, No. 6 overall pick Anthony Rendon, the Rice third baseman who received a $7.2-million major league deal, junior college outfielder Brian Goodwin, who got $3 million, and Kentucky lefthander Alex Meyer, who got $2 million. The three now take their place alongside other Boras clients Washington has signed in the past, including Werth, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Ivan Rodriguez, Rick Ankiel and Alex Cora.
"Give [Nationals GM Mike Rizzo] credit. (Nationals owners) the Lerners are willing to do what it takes," one agent (not Boras) said. Rizzo didn't return a message regarding their draft but he's been talking up his signings big-time in Washington.
It's understandable why these teams have turned to the draft to enhance their chances. The Pirates, in particular, have been burned by sticking to slot recommendations, with their picks of Clemson reliever Daniel Moskos instead of Matt Wieters in '07, and two years later Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez, who was expected to be a mid-to-late first rounder and has been a disappointment so far. (The biggest noise he made was when he was benched a few days for criticizing umpires on Twitter.)
Despite a misstep here or there, both longtime losing organizations have been stockpiling young talent through the draft, especially the Nationals, who have an aggressive draft philosophy and also had the advantage of finishing with the worst record in the years the ballyhooed Strasburg and Harper were draft eligible.
And even with Selig's concerns about overpaying draft picks, it's far more expensive to turn a perennial loser into a winner via free agency. Take Werth, whose $126 million payday was more than the guarantees of all the players in the first round combined. On the other hand, that's often the only way losing teams can attract established big-league stars to sign.
And though the first round has a high washout rate, the record is better for those deemed talented enough to garner bonuses or guarantees of at least $5 million. Not counting the most recent drafts, where it's too soon to tell, the best-compensated draftees usually have been worth it, including David Price, Mark Teixeira, Josh Beckett, Rick Porcello, Buster Posey and J.D. Drew.
In this draft, those players included not only Rendon but also the Pirates' top two picks of Gerrit Cole (the No. 1 overall pick), a 102-mph-throwing UCLA right-hander who set a record for a bonus at $8 million, and Josh Bell, the two-sport, five-tool outfielder who eschewed a University of Texas scholarship for $5 million, the record for a player picked after the first round. Several interested teams passed on Bell, who sent a letter to teams restating his commitment to go to Texas. Now the the Pirates and their fans can celebrate their gamble.
Interestingly, as the Pirates duo of team president Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington rebuild through the draft to the commissioner's concern, it wasn't long ago that Coonelly helped originate slot recommendations as an MLB suit before going to Pittsburgh. He was an originator -- and supporter -- of the slot recommendations.
Realistically, while it may not please the commissioner to take these sort of million-dollar gambles on mostly unknown entities, it's probably the best hope for teams such as the Nationals and Pirates. For free agents, they truly have to overpay, as was the case with Werth, whose $126 million payday was more than the guarantees of all the players in the first round combined.
• Mike Jacobs' test for HGH is a big victory or MLB and will likely cause league powers to push harder for testing at the big-league level. "It'd be hard for the union to say testing doesn't work," one management source said. Jacobs, a Rockies minor leaguer with 97 RBIs, became the first U.S. athlete to fail a test for HGH. He said he took it to heal back and knee injuries, a major step for honesty. Insiders say that while steroid use is out, HGH remains a major player in the big leagues.
• The Orioles are the second-most improved offensive team in the American League and the bullpen has been OK, but as GM Andy MacPhail admitted, "The starting pitching has really gone backward." About Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta and the disappointing Brian Matusz, MacPhail said, "We've got to get these guys back to where they were before." Some Orioles people believe former pitching coach Mark Connor's early-summer departure was a setback for the staff.
• MacPhail wouldn't address his own situation. His contract is up, and some wonder whether he'll opt to return. Some are speculating he may opt out, but he wouldn't tip his hand. MacPhail didn't hint at anything bad, but others have noticed that manager Buck Showalter has gotten close to Peter Angelos. The job of Orioles GM may be the hardest one in baseball.
• Mark Buehrle finally lost his streak of not allowing more than three runs in a game in a 4-1 defeat to the Indians. He will be one of the most coveted free agents this winter. He's 32, but as a high 80s thrower and not someone reliant on a big fastball, he may have a lot of years left in him. Previous suggestions he may retire are off base, according to people who know him.
• One scout said that Johnny Cueto's new "Luis Tiant twist" has enabled him to hide the baseball from hitters, increasing his effectiveness. He still needs to work on his maturity, though, some say. It was Cueto who ended Jason LaRue's career by kicking him in the head and giving him a concussion in a Reds-Cardinals fight.
• Jeff Francoeur's deal for $13.5 million and two years seems like an overpay for the Royals, who've had trouble attracting free agents and need a positive veteran presence with their talented young nucleus. On the bright side, at least Francoeur can recoup some of his tip money.
• Clayton Kershaw is working his way into the Cy Young race, and he didn't hurt his cause by shutting down the red-hot Brew Crew Thursday.
• Austin Kearns' year with Cleveland ended predictably -- with a release. It started with the revelation of a winter DUI in Spring Training. Then he hit .200 with seven home runs for the year.
• The Mariners made headway in the negotiations with No. 2 overall pick Danny Hultzen by assuring him they intend to bring him to Spring Training next year with a chance to make the team. Mariners people have said the same behind the scenes.
• One GM predicts no stars and only role players will be traded in August.
• Red Sox people love their new catcher, Ryan Lavarnway. It can't hurt that he's a Yalie, like his boss, Theo Epstein.
• The Braves look smart to have held onto their top young pitching talent, as Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino have contributed in the race.
• Danny Espinosa is winning admirers, and while Ian Desmond is having a rough season, one scout said the Nats' DP combo of Espinosa and Desmond "could be Trammell and Whitaker."
• Scouts say the Marlins prospect ranks are thin and they could use Logan Morrison back. Maybe he's learned whatever lesson it was he was supposed to have learned by now.
• All the misses on big contracts (Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, Milton Bradley) caught up with Jim Hendry as the Cubs dismissed him as GM on Friday morning and replaced him with Randy Bush. In addition to Bush, possible candidates to replace Hendry could include Pat Gillick (though he's said he he'd prefer a team president job) plus Brian Cashman, Andrew Friedman, Ned Colletti, Rick Hahn and Josh Byrnes. As for Cubs manager Mike Quade, his contract runs through next year, and nothing more has been said about his status with the team.