Friday, August 19, 2011

Draft intrigue

This summer, as the Padres tried to strike a dollar deal for Joe Ross, the second of their first-round selections in June, they might have turned two shades of green had they contemplated how easy the Chargers had it.

Ross is the pitcher from Oakland the Padres drafted 25th overall.

Unlike Corey Liuget, the defensive end drafted 18th by the Chargers in April, Ross had a crowbar at his negotiating table. Actually, two crowbars.

The pitcher could opt to go to UCLA, leverage that the Padres respected and grew to respect more as the summer unfolded, given how two Bruins pitchers were enriched by major league clubs.

Liuget, conversely, had gone to his college of choice, Illinois, and couldn't return there to play football.

Major league baseball's toothless signing guidelines for draft picks also empowered Ross's adviser.

In contrast, the pro league that Liuget was drafted into -- the NFL -- had a labor contract that set hard guidelines for a draft pick's compensation. Other than the fourth year of the deal that he negotiated with the Chargers, Liuget's agent, Tony Fleming, told this blog that he didn't have much wiggle room in which to negotiate. Liuget was paid in line with the others drafted near his spot.

Ross's adviser, the player agent Joel Wolfe, gained an edge from big deals for draftees taken high in the first round and low in the second round.

When the signing deadline arrived Monday night, the Padres had inflated their offer to Ross by several hundred thousand dollars. They landed him for $2.75 million and smiled about it -- but they didn't feel good about the late helium.

A coincidence was that the Padres generated some of that helium -- gladly.

The day before the deadline, they reached a $3 million deal with their second-round pick, Austin Hedges, a catcher they rated a first-round talent.

Losing Ross would've hurt, but the Padres would've recouped a pick in the 25 range next June. That wouldn't be a bad consolation prize, even if the pick would be unprotected.

Losing Hedges would've stung far worse. A compensatory pick in the 82 range isn't much of a consolation prize for losing a defensive ace that Padres scouts viewed as a potential star.

The Padres were elated to sign Hedges, but his $3 million pricetag at a draft spot 57 picks later than Ross's helped to inflate the price on Ross.

Another wedge that Ross gained without throwing a pitch this summer was the four-year major league contract that UCLA junior Trevor Bauer got from the Diamondbacks in late July. Arizona drafted Bauer third overall. Three years ago, Bauer hadn't been eligible for the draft. Now, he was getting $4.45 million guaranteed and other goodies thrown in.

Look at my guy, Ross's adviser could say (and did say, according to the Padres). You drafted him 25th. He wants to go to UCLA. Three years from now, he might be in the same spot as Bauer. Better yet, he could climb as high as Gerrit Cole, the UCLA junior taken first overall by the Pirates in June three years after he spurned the Yankees, who had drafted him 30th overall.

The same day the Padres announced the signing of three high school players drafted from 25th to 82nd -- a spree that cost about $6.5 million and raised their outlay on this year's draft to $11 million, a club record --  a longtime hawk on draft spending was at Petco Park.

Sandy Alderson worked in the commissioner's office in the seven years before he became CEO of the Padres in May 2005. As such, he often scolded executives of clubs who had blown past the "slot" recommendations of Bud Selig.

"I think some of the things have gone over the top," Alderson, who became CEO of the Mets last year, told this blog this week.

Spending on draft picks by the 30 clubs "obliterated" the previous mark, reported Jim Callis of Baseball America. "Like a chemically enhanced Barry Bonds, major league teams crushed record after record at the Aug. 15 deadline for signing 2011 draft picks," Callis wrote.

MLB's management team and the players' union have laid groundwork for a new labor pact widely expected to get done this offseason without a labor stoppage.

Alderson, who is among the potential candidates to succeed Selig in a few years, said he was not part of those negotiations. He didn't say whether he wants NFL-like hard slotting for baseball's draftees.

"But," he said, "a lot of money was spent."

As the marketplace has spoken with increasing volume in recent years, it appears that teams such as the Red Sox got the jump years ago on the other teams, among them the Padres, Angels and Dodgers, that were less willing to invite Selig's wrath by busting slot recommendations.

Alderson framed it more as a matter of ethics than smarter investment.

"I wouldn't say they were ahead of the curve," he said of the early slot-busters, "but I think more and more clubs began to realize that they were being taken advantage of by those clubs that didn't adhere to the guidelines or felt different 'philosophically'.

"To me, it was a matter of taking advantage of the clubs who were more compliant with the commissioner's point of view," Alderson said.

"(But) at some point," he said, "the other clubs wake up and say, 'Why should I allow the other clubs to take advantage of us in a situation where it creates a competitive disadvantage?' "

The Red Sox' willingness to bust slot furthered the careers of two prominent members of this Padres baseball operations staff -- Hoyer and assistant GM Jason McLeod -- and those of former Padres execs Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein, who joined the Sox about 10 years ago. Now Boston is gunning for its third World Series title in eight years with help from Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres' slugger traded last December for three prospects. Among those prospects was Casey Kelly, who signed for well-above slot after Boston drafted him in 2008.

The opportunity cost of not busting slot, if such a cost existed, varied from club to club and case by case. The scouting-strong Dodgers, for example, drafted and signed future stars such as Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw without angering the commissioner's office. But friends of Dodgers scouting chief Logan White, a former West Coast scouting supervisor for the Padres, wonder what he could've done if he had been allowed to bust slot as often as, say, the Red Sox.

The Dodgers of Frank McCourt are bobbing in red ink, making it a moot point now.

In contrast to the Padres this summer, the Dodgers played it safe in the draft. On behalf of the Dodgers' first selection, Scott Boras readily agreed to slot or close to it, which Boras does only if his leverage is close to nil (he did the same with Allan Dykstra, the failed first-round pick of the Padres in 2008 who wasn't on the top-75 of at least two other teams' draft boards.)

As Hoyer and McLeod no doubt exhaled in relief but not surprise, the cash-strapped Dodgers twice passed on Hedges, a consensus first-round talent who grew up in Orange County rooting for them.

Boras, who advised Hedges in negotiations with the Padres, was at Petco Park on Thursday for the teenage catcher's introduction to the San Diego media. At the end of the news conference, Boras was asked whether the MLB draft needed fixing.

"The scouting industry is probably one of the greatest strengths of major league baseball," he said. "I always think that if we have two drafts -- a college draft and a high school draft -- and I think we lessen the rounds of the draft, particularly with high school (players), you'd let these men be able to give greater focus on the selection of players. I think the efficiency of selections and the spending would go up if we did that."

But Boras wouldn't stop there.

"I'd like to remove the draft," he said. "Make everyone free agents."

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