Fast Trackers

Subtle changes to the draft rules are spurring prospects to sign more quickly and get to the minors sooner—and speeding their big league arrivals
July 08, 2013

It was only a month ago that D.J. Peterson was living the comfortable, carefree life of a college student. He was playing third base for New Mexico while doing the things that undergrads do: making midnight fast-food runs, playing video games with roommates, watching old Adam Sandler movies—"some for about the 20th time," he says—and, of course, studying for final exams.

But now "college seems like a distant memory, with all that's happened over the last few weeks," Peterson says. "To say it's been crazy is an understatement." Here's what's happened since the three-time All-America played his last game for the Lobos on June 1: He was drafted on June 6 (by the Mariners with the 12th pick); he signed with his new team (for $2.7 million) on June 12; and he joined Seattle's short-season Class A team, the Everett (Wash.) AquaSox, on June 19. Peterson is already entrenched as the club's cleanup hitter; on June 23 he socked a grand slam for the AquaSox, his second home run in just his fifth game as a pro.

It has been a whirlwind month for the 21-year-old, but Peterson's experience is not unique. It's a glimpse into the new accelerated timetable for top prospects, "where there's no time to catch your breath," says Peterson. Not that the 6'1", 190-pound slugger, who was widely regarded as the nation's top collegiate power hitter this season, has any desire to take a breath. "My goal," he says, "is to be starting for the Seattle Mariners in less than a year."

From campus to the Show in a year? That idea would have been a pipe dream for most players in the past. But recent (and often overlooked) changes to the draft rules have paved the way for "players to be fast-tracked and pushed through faster than ever," says one American League general manager. "They're signing earlier, which means they're joining the team earlier, which means they're developing faster, which means they have a better shot at getting to the big leagues and making an impact earlier. I think we're already seeing that."

NOT LONG AGO contract negotiations with top prospects dragged on longer than Congressional hearings—for instance the No. 1 choice in 2010, outfielder Bryce Harper, came to terms with the Nationals on Aug. 16, more than two months after the draft, and he didn't make his professional debut until he reported to the Arizona Fall League that October. In 2009 top pick Stephen Strasburg signed with Washington just minutes before the deadline of midnight on Aug. 18; the righthander too was inactive until joining the AFL in October. But last year changes to baseball's collective bargaining agreement moved the signing deadline for draftees up by a month, to mid-July. New rules governing draft spending also went into effect: A team's budget for signing bonuses is set each year based on its draft position, and clubs that exceed their caps are hit with harsh taxes. With less time to negotiate and little room for quibbling over the size of bonuses, the pace of signing draft picks has been greatly accelerated. "There was a lot of criticism of how the cap hurts small-market clubs that used the draft to their advantage by spending more than other teams, and I do still hate the changes," says the AL G.M. "But there is upside in that players get into our system faster. There are fewer surprises in negotiations since players know how much we have to spend on picks."

Five players from the 2012 draft made it to the big leagues in less than a year: pitchers Kevin Gausman (Orioles), Michael Wacha (Cardinals), Paco Rodriguez (Dodgers), Alex Wood (Braves) and Michael Roth (Angels). Catcher Mike Zunino, who went to the Mariners with the third pick, was called up to Seattle on June 12, missing the calendar-year milestone by just eight days. In most cases these players are doing more than getting a taste of the big leagues. They're making an impact on contending teams.

Gausman, the fourth selection, has already made five starts for Baltimore. Rodriguez, a second-rounder who made his big league debut last September, recorded his first career save for Los Angeles last week. Wacha has already tossed two quality starts for NL Central--leading St. Louis; on June 13 he was sent back down to the minors to conserve his innings so the Cardinals will have him as a weapon down the stretch. A first-round pick out of Texas A&M, the righthander signed with St. Louis just eight days after the 2012 draft and made his Rookie League debut a little more than a month later. "Getting signed quickly right after the draft, and getting out there pitching—that was huge for me," says Wacha, who was at Double A by the end of last season. "It's a huge transition to make, from college to the pros, and the more time you have to make it, the better off you are."

Says Reds senior director of amateur scouting Chris Buckley, "These kids are coming from playing weekend ball, Friday-Saturday-Sunday, to having to learn how to play six, seven days a week. They have to get used to swinging bats every day. They have to get used to the grind of travel. They have to learn how to stay healthy." Cincinnati's top pick this year (at No. 27), Samford outfielder Phillip Ervin, was the first from the first round to sign; he agreed to a $1.8 million deal just four days after the draft. Ten days later he was on the roster for the Reds' Pioneer League rookie affiliate in Billings, Mont., in time for the team's Opening Day. In his third game Ervin homered and drove in four runs. "These 25, 30 extra games that these players are getting [with the earlier deadline] can be big," says Buckley. "That's a significant head start."

Of this year's 33 first-rounders, all but six had come to terms by last Friday. (In 2011, the last year under the old draft rules, only 14 of 60 first-rounders signed in the first three weeks after the draft.) The No. 1 choice, Stanford righthander Mark Appel, signed his $6.4 million bonus just 13 days after the June 6 draft. Appel, one of the fastest top picks to sign in recent memory, was already throwing at the Astros' spring training facility in Kissimmee, Fla., last week. He's on track to make his pro debut in early July, and some in the organization have suggested that he could be pitching at Double A by the end of the summer. Indians top pick Clint Frazier, Baseball America's High School Player of the Year and the No. 5 choice in the draft, also hit the ground running: Batting leadoff in his debut in the Arizona Rookie League on June 25, the Loganville, Ga., native homered, tripled and drove in four runs. Says Frazier, "I look at, like, Mike Trout, and how he was up and making an impact right away just out of high school, and I want to get to the big leagues faster than he did."

With such a head start, Frazier may just do it. "We're all anxious to get started—the sooner the better," says Braves first-round pick Jason Hursh, who signed two weeks after the draft. The next day the righthander was touring Turner Field, meeting Atlanta players and watching batting practice alongside Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton. "A few months ago all that was on my mind was getting to the College World Series," says the Oklahoma State product. "Then just like that, I'm an Atlanta Brave, talking pitching with Don Sutton."

The day after Hursh's Turner Field visit, the Braves put him on a bus headed for their Class A affiliate in Rome, Ga., where he would begin his life as a professional baseball player. Says Hursh, "They don't waste any time, do they?"

"These 25, 30 extra games ... can be big," says Buckley. "That's a significant head start."

Swift Six

A half dozen players from the 2012 draft have already made their major league debuts

MICHAEL WACHA

Cardinals

Games in minors: 21

Big league debut: May 30, 2013

So far ... 1--0, 4.58 ERA and 14 K's in three starts

ALEX WOOD

Braves

Games in minors: 23

Big league debut: May 30, 2013

So far ... 0--2, 3.46 ERA and 18 K's in 13 IP

MIKE ZUNINO

Mariners

Games in minors: 91

Big league debut: June 12, 2013

So far .... 212 average, 1 HR, .590 OPS

PACO RODRIGUEZ

Dodgers

Games in minors: 21

Big league debut: Sept. 9, 2012

So far ... 2.62 ERA, 35 K's in 341/3 IP

MICHAEL ROTH

Angels

Games in minors: 21

Big league debut: April 13, 2013

So far ... 1--1, 9.00 ERA, 14 K's in 14 IP

KEVIN GAUSMAN

Orioles

Games in minors: 14

Big league debut: May 23, 2013

So far ... 0--3, 7.66 ERA 20 K's in 242/3 IP

*STATS THROUGH JUNE 27

Comp and Circumstance

Compared with 2011, the last year under old draft rules, most of this year's top picks are signing more quickly and for less money

2011

1. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates

Bonus: $8 million

Signed: Aug. 15

Pro debut: Oct. 14, Arizona Fall League

2. Danny Hultzen, LHP, Mariners

Bonus: $6.4 million

Signed: Aug. 15

Pro debut: Oct. 7, Arizona Fall League

3. Trevor Bauer, RHP, Diamondbacks

Bonus: $3.4 million

Signed: July 25

Pro debut: July 30, Class A

4. Dylan Bundy, RHP, Orioles

Bonus: $4.2 million

Signed: Aug. 15

Pro debut: April 6, 2012, Class A

5. Bubba Starling, OF, Royals

Bonus: $7.5 million

Signed: Aug. 15

Pro debut: June 28, 2012, Rookie League

6. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals

Bonus: $6 million

Signed: Aug. 15

Pro debut: April 6, 2012, Class A

7. Archie Bradley, RHP, Diamondbacks

Bonus: $5 million

Signed: Aug. 15

Pro debut: Sept. 4, Rookie League

8. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians

Bonus: $2.9 million

Signed: Aug. 15

Pro debut: Aug. 28, Class A

9. Javier Baez, SS, Cubs

Bonus: $2.6 million

Signed: Aug. 15

Pro debut: Aug. 26, Rookie League

10. Cory Spangenberg, 2B, Padres

Bonus: $1.9 million

Signed: June 10

Pro debut: June 17, Class A

2013

1. Mark Appel, RHP, Astros

Bonus: $6.4 million

Signed: June 19

Pro debut: Early July, Class A

2. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs

Unsigned as of June 28

3. Jonathan Gray, RHP, Rockies

Bonus: $4.8 million

Signed: June 12

Pro debut: July 10, Rookie League

4. Kohl Stewart, RHP, Twins

Bonus: $4.5 million

Signed: June 19

Pro debut: Early July, Rookie League

5. Clint Frazier, OF, Indians

Bonus: $3.5 million

Signed: June 15

Pro debut: June 25, Rookie League

6. Colin Moran, 3B, Marlins

Unsigned as of June 28

7. Trey Ball, LHP, Red Sox

Bonus: $2.8 million

Signed: June 19

Pro debut: Early July, Rookie League

8. Hunter Dozier, SS, Royals

Bonus: $2.2 million

Signed: June 10

Pro debut: June 20, Rookie League

9. Austin Meadows, OF, Pirates

Bonus: $3.0 million

Signed: June 28

Pro debut: Early July, Rookie League

10. Phil Bickford, RHP, Blue Jays

Unsigned as of June 28

PHOTOSHARI SOMMERFELDOFF AND RUNNING First-rounders like Peterson once spent their summers negotiating, but he's already a productive pro. PHOTOJEFF ROBERSON/AP (WACHA); KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES (WOOD); KIRBY LEE/USA TODAY SPORTS (ZUNINO); WALLY CADDOW/ICON SMI (RODRIGUEZ); JAYNE KAMIN-ONCEA/USA TODAY SPORTS (ROTH); JOY R. ABSALON/USA TODAY SPORTS (GAUSMAN) PHOTOCHUCK CROW/THE PLAIN DEALER/LANDOV (FRAZIER)WIGGING OUT Frazier, who was hazed by the Indians last month, is already making pitchers red-faced in the minors. PHOTOPETER DIANA/PITTSBURGH POST GAZETTE/ZUMAPRESS.COM (COLE) PHOTOJUAN DELEON/ICON SMI (APPEL)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)