Sunday, August 14, 2011

What to Watch For: Signing Deadline

Tomorrow is the signing deadline for players drafted in June, an event which gives every hard-core Nationals fan the willies since the Aaron Crow fiasco of 2008.* Here are some things to watch for as the clock ticks towards midnight.

First, the Nationals go into the last 24 hours with their top five picks all still unsigned. Lots of teams are in this situation, and for that, you can thank Bud Selig and his laughably ham-handed efforts to suppress signing bonuses.

I don't want to make this an entire post about why, when it comes to draft bonuses, MLB is (take your pick) incompetent, greedy, insane, maddening, self-defeating... But the upshot is that MLB tells teams and players that picks should be signed for their arbitrary, unilateral bonus recommendations, or "slots." Neither players nor teams think these slot recommendations are realistic, and they've been shown to be completely out of touch with reality over and over again.

The Nationals aren't going to sign any of these top picks for slot, and everyone knows that. But MLB won't allow teams to ink players for over-slot deals until the last minute, based on the illusion that players, agents, and teams don't already know that the slot recommendations are absurd bluffs.

For the Nationals that means there is a lot of work to get done in the final hours, which creates the potential for another Crow-like debacle with everyone wondering, "how did that happen?"

That said, I'd be stunned if the Nationals failed to sign any of their first three picks, Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, and Brian Goodwin--though it could cost the team a combined eight figures to get them all done. All three are Boras clients (remember when we didn't like that guy?), and reports that Rizzo spent the weekend talking to third-round pick Matt Purke increases the sense that these deals are done or close to it.

Rendon is the top college pick in the draft, and two years ago that distinction brought Dustin Ackley $7.5 million. Ackley was the #2 overall pick, while Rendon went #6, but it's still unlikely that Rendon goes for less than $6-7 million. Meyer turned down $2 million from the Red Sox out of high school in 2008, so don't count on him taking less than that. And Goodwin is a high-upside guy who could easily go back to school and try to increase his draft standing.

In each of these negotiations, a major factor will be the fact that this year's draft was considered very strong while next year's draft (especially the college class) is considered very weak. So if you're the Nationals, there's no way you can expect to get similar value with compensation picks next year, especially if they fail to sign Rendon or Meyer. And the players know they have a good chance of getting drafted in the same spot or higher if they wait.

The conventional wisdom is that the Nationals will not be able to sign their fourth pick, Matt Purke. If they don't, I wouldn't be too upset. The Rangers wanted to give Purke $6 million when they drafted him in 2009, but MLB blocked them (cuz clearly Selig knows more about scouting than Jon Daniels and his team, and screw the player--according to Bud, he should only get to negotiate with one team and Bud gets to veto the deal he strikes with that team too, but whatever). Purke was considered a potential 1-1 pick going into this season, but he had shoulder troubles that scared away most teams, for good reason.

So especially considering the weak 2012 draft class, Purke has a really good chance of getting his $6 million if he can go out next season and show people that he's ok. The question is how close the Nationals are willing to come to that figure, and how much Purke values security over opportunity. If Rizzo's final offer is around $2 million and Purke walks, it's kind of hard to blame either side.

Here's where you might be thinking, "Screw that kid! Two million in today's economy? Who does he think he is." And you'd be wrong. Remember, the collective bargaining agreement allows teams to pay players the league minimum for three full seasons. And the teams can and do blatantly manipulate players' service time by keeping top prospects in the minor far longer than they need to be. So bottom line, Purke and any other player drafted is at least 4-5 years away from another really big payday, and especially given the injury risk that pitchers face, their draft bonus is likely to be the only really big money they ever see. They'd be crazy not to leverage these negotiations to the max--especially in today's economy.

The fifth unsigned pick is fourth-rounder Kylin Turnbull. He's a 6'5", 21-year-old lefty with a lot of projection and a commitment to Oregon. In other words, he's not signing for slot either.

If the Nationals fail to sign any of these players (or even if they do), keep an eye on rounds 19 and 20 picks Hawtin Buchanan and Josh Laxer. These are two elite high school pitchers out of Mississippi who are both committed to Ole Miss. You assume these guys won't get signed, but teams sometimes throw first round money at guys like this as a Plan B when their top picks fail to sign.

*No, just because Drew Storen seems to be turning out to be a roughly similar player to Crow doesn't justify what the Nationals did. Good luck does not justify bad process, and this was probably the worst meltdown in the five-year history of the August 15 signing deadline. If you want you relive my many rants on the topic, you can search the blog for past articles on Aaron Crow. But one thing I'll add now is that the further we get from that era the more it seems that Stan Kasten was acting during that negotiation in particular and perhaps during his entire tenure in DC as a mole from the commissioner's office, keeping payroll and draft bonuses artificially suppressed in the (misguided) perceived interests of MLB and against the interests of the Nationals.


peric said...

Looks like your pal Jim Bowden beat you to it with his long blog post on on the very subject of the Crow negotiations.

Its interesting reading and he does at times come across as pathetic.

Steven said...

I talked to Rizzo, Bowden, and Kasten a couple weeks after that when they all appeared together at the ESPN Zone. Kasten and Bowden were digging in with their defensive rap blaming the Hendricks brothers, etc., but when I asked Rizzo, "Not signing Crow for what he was asking for, that was a mistake, right?" he said, no hesitation, "Yes. I believe he would have been a fast-riser."

ff said...

btw, The Rangers didn't draft Purke last year, they drafted him 2 years ago. That doesn't make sense because no one except JuCo players can get drafted after High school than 1 year of college.

Steven said...

thanks for the fact-check. Fixed in the post.