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Wave of the Future

June 07, 2010
June 07, 2010

Table of Contents
June 7, 2010

GOLF PLUS
LEADING OFF
Inside: THE WEEK IN SPORTS
NBA FINALS
MLB DRAFT PREVIEW
2010 WORLD CUP
Departments

Wave of the Future

Once, baseball's draft was a secretive exercise, conducted by phone and followed by few. Now it's a star-powered event (hello, Bryce Harper) with millions of dollars at stake—and the smartest way to build a successful franchise

This is an article from the June 7, 2010 issue

One day early in 2009, Nationals owner Ted Lerner, then 83, enthralled agent Scott Boras with stories from his life that made for an oral history of 20th-century America. He spun yarns about growing up in the Great Depression as the son of immigrants; about the shock of Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, from the perspective of a sophomore at Roosevelt High in Washington, D.C.; and about a gym teacher he had at Roosevelt by the name of Red Auerbach, who would go on to considerably greater fame as the coach of the Celtics.

Boras responded by giving the real estate tycoon a history lecture of his own, though his was a story still in the making—the kind of baseball history you can hear coming, like the rumble and roar of a freight train. "Mr. Lerner," the agent said, "there is a thing called a 50-year player—a player so extraordinary that he comes along once every 50 years. This year there is a 50-year pitcher and next year there is a 50-year player. And they both may be available to you."

By virtue of being the worst team in baseball in 2008 (102 losses) and in '09 (103), the Nationals earned the first choices in both the 2009 and '10 Rule 4 first-year player drafts. They picked a good time to be lousy. After selecting San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg (page 66) last year, Washington is expected to use its No. 1 pick next week on 17-year-old College of Southern Nevada catcher Bryce Harper (SI, June 8, 2009). Each is considered far and away the best talent available in his respective draft. (Each also happens to be a Boras client.) And thanks in part to Strasburg and Harper, the most-hyped players in the 45-year history of the selection process, baseball finally has something akin to what the NFL and NBA have long had: a draft worth your attention.

True, almost all the players taken during the 50-round marathon in Secaucus, N.J., from June 7 to 9 will lack the name recognition of their football and basketball counterparts, most will be years from making a major league impact, and some will choose not to sign and will reenter the draft. But the proceedings have come a long way since 1965. For many years the major league draft was conducted as a secret conference call among industry insiders; in the early years selections were not even announced for weeks. Now it is a quintessential 21st-century American enterprise: a made-for-TV event (the first round will be seen live) with marquee names and millions of dollars to be won. Think of it as Dancing with the Stars in spikes instead of spiked heels.

Like the other drafts, MLB's is tailor-made to this Age of Information. (Want to know the best high school players available in 2012? The data is already out there.) It also has become so integral to the business of the sport that it figures to be the most contentious issue between owners and players when they negotiate a collective-bargaining agreement to replace the existing one, which expires after the 2011 season. Owners want a fixed-cost draft setup similar to the "slotting" system in the NBA, in which draftee salary ranges are predetermined according to order of selection. The union is averse to any change that restricts a free market.

For now the market is very free—and very lucrative. Last year, for instance, the Nationals gave Strasburg a signing package worth $15.1 million, an increase of 45% over the record held by pitcher Mark Prior, who signed with the Cubs out of Southern Cal for $10.5 million in 2001. Without throwing a professional pitch, Strasburg, 21, who has been tearing up the minor leagues and could be in the Washington rotation as soon as next week, was guaranteed more money than San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, a Cy Young Award winner, had earned so far in his pro career.

Despite the rising costs of signing high picks, more and more franchises are realizing that the draft has become the most cost-efficient way to build a contender. That means that larger-market teams are putting more effort—and money—into the draft than ever before. "The media attention is directly tied to the fact that there's a greater understanding of the importance of young players," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro says. "And the draft is clearly the single greatest option to infuse [an organization with] young talent at one time. The big markets began to emphasize young talent. And frankly, the media goes where the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Mets go."

High-payroll teams once could count on adding young talent when six-year major leaguers hit free agency and became too expensive for small-market clubs. But on the heels of a stadium construction boom and the enhanced revenue-sharing system that grew out of the 2002 collective-bargaining agreement, small-market teams have been doling out contract extensions to their best young players to keep them away from free agency until their early 30s. As free agents have grown older and costlier, teams such as the Yankees and the Red Sox have responded to the less efficient free-agent market by throwing their financial weight into the amateur market, including international and draft-eligible players. To compound the demand for young talent, older players have become less valued by the industry because of testing for the amphetamines that once energized tired bodies and performance-enhancing drugs that helped prolong careers. Also, advances in statistical analysis have brought about a better understanding of how players' performances decline as they age.

Boston, for instance, embarked on a more aggressive draft strategy beginning in 2006, when it started dangling first-round money at later-round draft picks. (Often those players sank in the draft because they were "signability" risks: low-budget teams with early picks knew they couldn't meet the players' salary demands.) From 2006 to '09, the Red Sox handed out bonuses between $500,000 and $2 million to nine players taken in the third round or later. (The Yankees also signed nine in that price range in that span.) On one Class A team alone this year, Boston has five players who signed for at least half a million dollars.

Since 2007, MLB has tried to curb any such big-market advantage in the draft by installing a "recommended" but unenforceable slotting system—the commissioner's office suggests guidelines for signing bonuses based on draft position. But many teams have ignored the recommended bonuses when they've wanted a player. In 2007, for example, Rick Porcello, the best high school pitcher available, fell to the Tigers with the 27th pick largely because he was considered unsignable by small-market teams. Detroit gave him $3.6 million, the fourth-highest bonus of that draft, or nearly $2.5 more than the recommended offer. "When people refer to the draft being broken," Mariners G.M. Jack Zduriencik says, "it's because the whole design of the draft should be that the best players go to the worst clubs. That's in essence why you have a draft."

Indeed, skyrocketing bonuses and the influence of big-market clubs have undercut the very purpose of the draft: to help weaker franchises get better. Teams such as the Pirates and the Astros, for instance, have either behaved well when it comes to the recommended slotting system or avoided prospects thought to be unsignable. That's good news for those clubs' accountants but bad for the player-development systems that should help chronically bad teams improve. Pittsburgh, for instance, drafted no lower than 11th every year from 2001 to '07. In those years, however, because of budget concerns and sometimes plain old poor evaluations, it passed on a slew of highly rated prospects who might have strained the budget but have turned into stars: David Wright, B.J. Upton, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Ian Stewart, Aaron Hill, Jered Weaver, Stephen Drew, Phil Hughes, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Matt Wieters and Jason Heyward.

The Pirates did pick one impact player, outfielder Andrew McCutchen in 2005. Otherwise their first-round picks have been a pedestrian bunch: John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington, Paul Maholm, Neil Walker, Brad Lincoln and Daniel Moskos, a collection of misses that have provided Pittsburgh with two home runs and a pitching record of 43--64.

Like the Pirates, Houston has missed out on young talent by refusing to invest in the draft. In 2007, for instance, the Astros failed to sign four of their top 11 picks. (A player who doesn't sign can reenter the draft the following year.) In '08 the franchise whiffed on signing six of its top 25 picks. Of Houston's 243 picks over the past five drafts, only three have played even a day in the majors (shortstop Tommy Manzella, third baseman Chris Johnson and pitcher Bud Norris, all marginal big leaguers). By comparison, the Red Sox have produced 10 big leaguers thus far from those five drafts, and the Rangers 11.

Meanwhile, the Astros haven't hesitated to sink millions of dollars into older free agents with lower ceilings than top draft picks. Last winter they gave righthander Brandon Lyon a three-year contract that guarantees him $15 million—essentially spending roughly three years of draft budgets on a 30-year-old setup reliever pitching for his fifth organization. Last year teams spent an average of $5.4 million on draft bonuses for picks in the first 10 rounds—or less than 3% of a franchise's average revenue. Says one G.M. of the draft, "It's the most cost-efficient thing we do in baseball. You hit with one or two picks [a year], and it makes your organization."

The draft includes 50 rounds, so hitting .040 in the draft is an achievement—a testimony to the difficulty of projecting how amateur talent will pan out in the big leagues. Even the top of the draft is fraught with misses. Of the top 30 picks each year from 2000 to '05, 31% have never reached the big leagues (55 of 180). Despite all those misses, the ones who do make it provide the most talent for the buck. "I think numberswise maybe more guys are getting there now," said Yankees vice president of scouting Damon Oppenheimer. "But has there been longevity and impact? You can say guys touched the big leagues, but is that all that you're looking for from a first-round pick?"

There are high expectations for every player picked No. 1, but even by those standards Harper is considered a can't-miss prospect. What's up for debate is whether or not he should exceed Strasburg's riches. "If they were in the same draft, Strasburg would be the consensus Number 1 pick and Harper Number 2," says one general manager, "so Harper shouldn't get more. Take the record for a high school player [the $6.3 million given to outfielder Donavan Tate last year by the Padres] and apply the 50 percent premium Strasburg got, and you're at about $10 million."

There's a flaw in that logic, though—Harper may not be old enough to vote, but he isn't really a high school player. He should be a junior, but he famously ditched his final two years at Las Vegas High, obtained a general equivalency degree and enrolled in junior college in order to face better competition and become draft-eligible a year early. Boras, as family adviser, says he hatched the plan for the catcher to leave high school when Harper was "14 or 15." It's worked out just fine. Swinging a wood bat in the Scenic West Athletic Conference against many major-college- and draft-quality pitchers two and three years older, Harper even exceeded the hype this season by batting .442 and slugging .986 with 29 home runs and 89 RBIs. In a May 22 win over Central Arizona that put College of Southern Nevada into the Juco World Series, Harper went 6 for 6, with all of his hits for extra bases: four homers, a double and a triple. (All of CSN, including Harper, used metal bats in their playoff games.) "He is the greatest power hitter at his age that's ever been seen," Boras says. "This kid has more power than A-Rod, Griffey or any of them.

"No baseball person in his right mind will have the guy catch. You can't take an asset with that kind of a gift and put it at risk."

Indeed, Harper, a lefthanded hitter, has the athleticism to play the outfield and third base. Says one G.M. when asked to assess Harper's major league potential, "He has plus-plus power. He's not going to hit for a high average, but he's going to hit 35 home runs or more a year consistently. As a catcher you would have to invest four years in the minors with him. He's a number 5 hitter who will hit .260, .270 with a [boat] load of bombs."

How rare is a lefthanded hitting outfielder or catcher who can hit 35 home runs? No current such outfielder did it last year, and only five active lefty-hitting players have done it as outfielders: Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey, Jim Edmonds, Garret Anderson and Matt Stairs. No active lefthanded-hitting catcher has.

With Strasburg and Harper, the expectation is not just that they will reach the big leagues but that they will change them. Boras already has negotiated five of the 10 most lucrative signing packages in draft history: Strasburg, Mark Teixeira ($9.5 million in 2001), Dustin Ackley ($7.5 million in '09), Porcello and J.D. Drew ($7 million in 1998). To him, Harper represents another windfall bonus, yes, but also another progression in the growth of the draft. "The Nationals [could have] two 50-year players back to back," Boras says. "But what I'm most excited about is that the entry-level player is more exciting than ever before."

Baseball's draft is now the quintessential American enterprise—Dancing with the Stars in spikes instead of spiked heels.
Harper is considered a can't-miss prospect—but does he deserve the riches lavished upon Strasburg?

No. 1 PICKS

1965 ATHLETICS

RICK MONDAY OF

COLLEGE PLAYER

1966 Mets

STEVE CHILCOTT C

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1967 Yankees

RON BLOMBERG1B

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1968 Mets

TIM FOLISS

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1969 Senators

JEFF BURROUGHSOF

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1970 Padres

MIKE IVIEC

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1971 White Sox

DANNY GOODWINC

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1972 Padres

DAVE ROBERTS3B

COLLEGE PLAYER

1973 Rangers

DAVID CLYDEP

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1974 Padres

BILL ALMONSS

COLLEGE PLAYER

1975 Angels

DANNY GOODWINC

COLLEGE PLAYER

1976 Astros

FLOYD BANNISTERP

COLLEGE PLAYER

1977 White Sox

HAROLD BAINESOF

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1978 Braves

BOB HORNER3B

COLLEGE PLAYER

1979 Mariners

AL CHAMBERSOF

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1980 Mets

DARRYL STRAWBERRYOF

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1981 Mariners

MIKE MOOREP

COLLEGE PLAYER

1982 Cubs

SHAWON DUNSTONSS

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1983 Twins

TIM BELCHERP

COLLEGE PLAYER

1984 Mets

SHAWN ABNEROF

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1985 Brewers

B.J. SURHOFFC

COLLEGE PLAYER

1986 Pirates

JEFF KING3B

COLLEGE PLAYER

1987 Mariners

KEN GRIFFEY JR.OF

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1988 Padres

ANDY BENESP

COLLEGE PLAYER

1989 Orioles

BEN MCDONALDP

COLLEGE PLAYER

1990 Braves

CHIPPER JONESSS

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1991 Yankees

BRIEN TAYLORP

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1992 Astros

PHIL NEVIN3B

COLLEGE PLAYER

1993 Mariners

ALEX RODRIGUEZSS

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

1994 Mets

PAUL WILSONP

COLLEGE PLAYER

1995 Angels

DARIN ERSTADOF

COLLEGE PLAYER

1996 Pirates

KRIS BENSONP

COLLEGE PLAYER

1997 Tigers

MATT ANDERSONP

COLLEGE PLAYER

1998 Phillies

PAT BURRELLOF

COLLEGE PLAYER

1999 Devil Rays

JOSH HAMILTONOF

HIGH SCHOOL PLAYER

SI's Mock Draft

The stars of tomorrow, identified today: Senior writer Jon Heyman projects the top 10 picks in the major league draft, which begins with the first round this Monday and ends with round 50 two days later

1. Nationals

BRYCE HARPER

College of Southern Nevada, C

Amazing power; could break Mark Teixeira's record for a signing package by a position player ($9.5 million).

2. Pirates

MANNY MACHADO

Brito High (Miami), SS

A power-hitting shortstop from Miami—A-Rod comparisons might be unfair, but they're out there.

3. Orioles

JAMESON TAILLON

The Woodlands (Texas) High, RHP

Scouts rave about his talent and superb makeup. An easy call for a rebuilding franchise.

4. Royals

DREW POMERANZ

Mississippi, LHP

Struck out 134 in fewer than 94 innings this season, but uneven performances lately have caused his stock to drop.

5. Indians

CHRIS SALE

Florida Gulf Coast, LHP

Has an excellent changeup and was NCAA strikeout leader; has moved steadily up the board recently.

6. Diamondbacks

DECK MCGUIRE

Georgia Tech, RHP

Velocity (low 90s) doesn't blow hitters away, but a polished college arm is what the pitching-thin Arizona system needs.

7. Mets

MATT HARVEY

North Carolina, RHP

Had 3.10 ERA for UNC. Mets also like Seattle high school slugger Josh Sale and Middle Tennessee State OF Bryce Brentz.

8. Astros

KARSTEN WHITSON

Chipley (Fla.) High, RHP

Scouts rave about his size (he's 6'4", 190 pounds, with room to add more muscle) and a mid-90s fastball.

9. Padres

ZACK COX

Arkansas, 3B

Best college hitter available, he hit .432 for the Razorbacks this year. Versatility helps too: can play second or third.

10. A's

STETSON ALLIE

St. Edward High(Lakewood, Ohio), RHP

Another power high school arm, he can hit 98 mph with his fastball; could be a closer in the making.

PHOTOPhotograph by GREG NELSONYOUNG GUN Only 17, Harper showed a veteran's command of the game at the Junior College World Series.PHOTOJOSH HOLMBERG/ICON SMI (HARPER)LUMBER JACKS After leaving high school early, Harper hit 29 homers in a wood-bat juco conference.PHOTOTIM DEFRISCO (HARPER RUN)LONG MAY HE RUN Harper would be the sixth catcher picked No. 1, but to avoid injury the slugger is likely to play a different position as a pro.PHOTOGREG NELSON (HARPER)PHOTOTOM DIPACE (MACHADO)PHOTOBRIAN WESTERHOLT/FOUR SEAM IMAGES (MCGUIRE)PHOTOTONY FARLOW/FOURSEAM IMAGES (HARVEY)PHOTODAVID STONER/FOUR SEAM IMAGES (TAILLON)PHOTOICHEY MILLER/CAL SPORT MEDIA (POMERANZ)PHOTOBRIAN WESTERHOLT/FOUR SEAM IMAGES (SALE)PHOTODAVID STONER/FOUR SEAM IMAGES (WHITSON)PHOTOCHRIS TALLEY/CAL SPORT MEDIA (COX)PHOTOMIKE JANES/FOUR SEAM IMAGES (ALLIE)