The draft is in need of reform
As a baseball player, Jered Weaver is pretty good. As a restless pawn in a long-playing skirmish between the owners and the players’ union, not so good.
The Angels selected Weaver in the first round of the 2004 draft. And then he sat around and did nothing, for months upon months, while adults with various motivations debated his price tag.
“That,” Weaver said, “was the toughest time of my life.”
He wanted to be a baseball player, not a poster child for greed, not an aggrieved victim of the system. He got advice from his mother and father. He got advice from his big brother, Dodgers pitcher Jeff Weaver, and from his agent, Scott Boras.
“There were four different people telling me 45 different things,” Weaver said.
No player should have to endure what Weaver did. On the eve of the 2009 draft, with Boras hinting at the mother of all bonus battles on behalf of San Diego State phenom Stephen Strasburg, the owners and players’ union ought to commit to draft reform that pays players fairly and promptly and enables the worst teams to select the best players rather than pass on them for fear of not signing them.
Weaver was widely regarded as the top pitcher available in the 2004 draft, but he was the ninth pitcher selected, falling to the Angels after Boras floated $10 million as a signing bonus. The Angels eventually signed him for $4 million; no player in the draft signed for more.
The San Diego Padres had the No. 1 pick in that draft. They had neither the dollars nor the stomach for Boras, so they chose a shortstop named Matt Bush, signed him for $3.15 million and watched in horror as he deteriorated into one of the all-time busts in draft history.
It comes as little surprise, then, that owners covet a bonus scale, with each draft pick receiving a specified amount.
The NBA has one. The first pick in the June 25 NBA draft gets a contract for $4.15 million next season, the second pick gets $3.72 million, and so on, with a bonus of up to 20%.
“You have some cost certainty, but, frankly, that is not the biggest benefit,” said Rob Manfred, baseball’s executive vice president for labor relations.
“The biggest benefit is restoring the integrity of the draft. If you know Round 1, Slot 1, is going to cost you X dollars, you have no motivation to do anything other than take the best player.”
The owners proposed slot payments for draft picks in the last two rounds of collective bargaining; the union rejected the proposal each time.
The commissioner’s office since has circulated an annual schedule of bonus recommendations for each draft slot and leaned heavily upon clubs to play along. Not all do.
Pitcher Rick Porcello, who starts against the Angels today, fell in the 2007 draft much as Weaver did in 2004. The Detroit Tigers snapped him up with the 24th pick, paid him more than three times the recommended slot value and happily put up with the venting of Commissioner Bud Selig.
The Weaver and Porcello cases are not isolated. Even the union does not argue that the draft works to deliver the best players to the worst teams.
“No, it’s not working,” said Michael Weiner, the union’s general counsel. “I disagree that the only way to fix it is slots.”
The union abhors the slot concept and any restriction on the ability of players to negotiate contracts.
“The best way to preserve competitive balance,” Weiner said, “is to say, ‘Here’s an asset. What’s the best way to exploit it?’ ”
Say the Washington Nationals, owners of the top pick in Tuesday’s draft, would rather not select Strasburg and wait all summer for Boras to come down from his overly hyped $50-million asking price.
If the owners want reform, Weiner wonders, why not give the Nationals the option to trade the pick, to fill three or four holes with young players, at less cost?
The rich teams are not always the smart teams. If the Minnesota Twins could get Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski, what could the wily Twins get for a pick that a richer team could use to sign the likes of Strasburg?
That could work, the owners say, in concert with a slotting system. Without one, the owners fear that agents could pressure low-revenue teams to trade the rights to the very best prospects to, well, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
In turn, those agents would note that the Yankees and Red Sox contribute millions to low-revenue teams every year, and what’s the point if those teams won’t spend that money on a top prospect when they have the chance?
The Nationals say they intend to select Strasburg, and sign him. Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, signed for a package that included a bonus of $5.6 million, a guarantee of $8.5 million and the chance to earn as much as $11.25 million.
Boras would do well to double that for Strasburg. The NBA draftees, at least, almost always go directly to the NBA.
Of the 12 pitchers taken with the No. 1 pick in the baseball draft, two were selected from high school -- David Clyde, promoted directly to the majors in a publicity stunt that ruined his career, and Brien Taylor, who blew out his shoulder in a bar fight.
The 10 pitchers selected from college combined for 97 seasons in the major leagues, with an 805-827 record and three All-Star appearances -- one for the club that drafted the player (Andy Benes, for the San Diego Padres, in 1993).
This is the kind of track record that raises eyebrows -- not only among owners, but among players who have established themselves as major leaguers and wonder about Strasburg.
“If he comes in and gets $30 million, I’m happy for him,” said the Angels’ Torii Hunter, a two-time All-Star. “If they’re giving it away, you might as well take it. If it was me, I’m doing the same thing.
“But you’ve got guys in here who have proven themselves and haven’t made $30 million.”
Boras, who did not return calls for this column, has done a tremendous job in raising the profile of draft picks and highlighting their worth to teams.
In 1988, he got Benes a $235,000 bonus, the first time since the inception of the draft that a bonus had topped $200,000.
The owners instituted the draft in 1965, putting a halt to bidding wars after the Angels signed outfielder Rick Reichardt for $205,000 in 1964.
The Benes bonus was roughly four times the minimum major league salary that year, half the average salary. The Chicago White Sox signed infielder Gordon Beckham last year for a record bonus of $6.15 million, about 16 times the minimum major league salary and twice the average salary.
The exploitation is long over. Let the owners and the union devise a system that satisfies the needs of both sides, allowing draft picks to be traded and slotting the bonuses for those picks. The union need not accept predetermined amounts. Just tie the bonus amounts to some multiple of the average salary, so bonuses rise as salaries do.
And let the kids play, rather than let negotiations play out.
Weaver got to play for a hometown team and a perennial contender, so the memory of the idle, bittersweet summer did not linger.
“It was all kind of disappointing when I didn’t go in the top five picks,” he said, “but it all worked out for me.”
On behalf of the next generation, he endorses reform.
“With slots, it would be great, without all the negotiations,” Weaver said, “as long as the kid is getting treated fairly.”
Fairness is in the eye of the beholder, of course. On this issue, it is time for the owners and the players’ union to see eye to eye.