I understand that it is the Braves strategy not to pay players more than the suggested slot bonus in the major league draft. It makes John Schuerholz and the Braves look pretty smart when they look at the cost effective way they have been able to improve their team through the years by identifying and developing talent through the amateur draft. It's one thing to look at other teams from a competitive angle and think, "If we can do it they should be able to do it," but it's a different a different story when you are the custodian of one of baseballs' best tools for bringing in talented players.
Braves president John Schuerholz heads the Rule 4 draft committee which may try to "hard slot" the amateur draft in future years. This would force teams to pay a set bonus to draftees depending on their draft slot. This is a practice the Braves have used successfully for years, but many experts believe it will be bad for baseball if the practice is mandated. Would Bo Jackson have played baseball if he was treated like just another athlete? More after the jump...
Let's deflate the biggest fallacy about slot bonuses right away. Many baseball execs and writers claim that hard slotting players will give small market teams a fighting chance. The simple fact is, nothing could be farther from the truth: paying over slot is what gives the small market teams a chance to get talented players. Why in the world would the best college pitcher in the draft sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team who is going nowhere fast, when they know a hot young team like the Washington Nationals will pick him up later in the draft and he could help build a dynasty with Strasbourg and Harper? The equalizer is that the Pirates can compensate the player to be a trailblazer for their team because they've been saving money to sign him. Small market teams have been using this strategy for years to retain talented players who would not otherwise sign with their team. The fact is: paying over slot is a good thing and an important tool for small market teams.
The next complaint we often hear from baseball execs is that draft bonuses are a risky investment on young and untested players. Here's the truth about draft bonuses: bonuses are a drop in the bucket to a major league baseball team. MLB teams spend about 6.5 million dollars on drafted players. This is a small portion of their annual budgets which average out nearly 100 million dollars. For 6.5 million dollars, baseball teams get to reserve the rights to up to 50 players for 7 years of cost controlled baseball. In 2002, the Brewers signed Prince Fielder for a slot record 2.4 million dollars and then were only required to pay him the league minimum for the first 3 years of his MLB career. It was the steal of the century. In 2007, the San Francisco Giants gave Madison Bumgarner 2 million dollars as the 10th overall draft pick. In 2010, they rode Bumgarner and fellow young arms Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain to a world series victory. They paid Bumgarner $400,000 for the entire season. The truth is that paying overslot is an amazing opportunity to retain young talent for a drop in the bucket compared to what you would pay for similar talent on the free agent market.
What dissapoints me most about the talk of hard slotting is the fact that Schuerholz doesn't seem to understand that being the head of the Rule 4 draft board makes him a custodian for the sport. His job is to put Major League Baseball above the agenda of his team. The simple fact is that bonuses allow baseball to retain marquee talent that might slip away to other sports. Baseball is a business and its a business that competes with football and basketball for ticket sales, advertising revenue, and merchandise sales. If baseball is going to create and sustain an advantage over competing sports, marquee athletes are the best way to do it. Baseball needs players who can make highlight reel plays, drive balls into the stratosphere, and light up speed guns. Young rising star athletes who can choose multiple paths to professional sports might have the choice of 4 free years of college after which they will have the immediate opportunity to play at the highest level of football or basketball; or they can sign with a baseball team, play several years in the minors, and hope things work out. Baseball teams need to be able to offer big bonuses to retain players like Bubba Starling or Matt Szczur. If they can't lockdown these players, then they risk losing the players along with their jersey and ticket sales to other sports.
John Schuerholz would be doing a great disservice to baseball if he leads the Rule 4 draft board to believe that hard slotting does not put small market teams at a disadvantage and is not a bad investment choice for the future of the game. The simple fact is that not one of the common arguments for hard slotting holds up when put under a microscope. How is it possible that the former president of a team known for one of the greatest two sport starts of the 20th century doesn't get why this would be a bad investment for the game?