On his visit to Phoenix, where he expected to become a millionaire, Barret Loux found out he was going to get nothing. As his father machine-gunned questions and his mother turned emotional, Loux sat there stone-faced, stunned, broken. He was being told his right arm – his future – was no good, and he didn't know what to say.
The Arizona Diamondbacks picked Loux, a strapping 6-foot-5 starter from Texas A&M with a heavy fastball, sixth overall in this year's draft. When Loux went to Chase Field in early July, the trip was little more than a formality. He'd meet and greet Diamondbacks brass, take his physical and sign the contract with the $2 million bonus upon which they'd agreed.
Instead, the nightmare of that day has devolved into an indictment on an obscure Major League Baseball rule that, in all likelihood, will torpedo Loux's career for the foreseeable future. Two years ago, MLB started awarding compensation selections for unsigned first-round picks. The draft choices were considered insurance against high school picks that insisted on attending college or difficult negotiations that passed the mid-August deadline without an agreement.
Meant to be a rule that evened out the leverage game around the signing deadline, it is playing out in an unfair, unseemly fashion with Loux and the Diamondbacks. If its first-round draft pick is hurt, a team can take the compensatory choice without concern for the player. The Diamondbacks would get the No. 7 pick in the 2011 draft by stonewalling Loux, and unless something drastic changes, they don’t plan on offering him a contract by the Aug. 16 deadline.
In the Diamondbacks' eyes, Loux is damaged goods. Their medical staff's customary MRI on Loux's arm turned up two red flags. The first: Loux has a tear in his labrum, a shoulder injury that has ended careers. The second: Loux's elbow, which had bone chips taken out in 2009, showed signs of eventually needing Tommy John surgery.
Loux denied neither injury in an interview with AggieYell.com, though he said a doctor affiliated with the Texas Rangers considered him fit to pitch. Loux, his family and his advisor, Tom Little, have since declined comment, perhaps fearful that Loux's college eligibility will be torpedoed, too, since he has used back channels to enlist the MLB Players Association's help.
Union officials have discussed Loux's situation but have not decided whether to file a grievance on his behalf. The case would be tough. The player-team agreement is always contingent upon a medical review, and the sanctity of such handshake deals is difficult to quantify without a signed document. Perhaps the worst thing the union could charge is a lack of draft-day due diligence on the Diamondbacks' part – and even then, it's not industry standard to request medical information on a college player before drafting him. Medical privacy laws hamper MLB's ability to gather a database of health information on players for teams' consumption. Loux and his parents, Steve and Debbie, would have needed to voluntarily give Arizona the records, and once word filtered around about his injuries, his draft stock would have plummeted.
So the Diamondbacks picked Loux, the player they considered the safest bet in a low-upside draft class. Jerry Dipoto, now the Diamondbacks' general manager, watched Loux pitch seven strong innings at the Big 12 tournament. He eclipsed 90 mph in most of his starts down the stretch. The MRI from his bone-chip surgery was reportedly clean. His mechanics were considered solid. Since the Diamondbacks chose him nearly 30 picks higher than most mock drafts pegged him, Loux was willing to sign for $340,000 less than the recommended amount for the No. 6 pick.
Before any check cleared, Loux was introduced to the cruel world of professional sports, where only the risk-averse survive. The post-draft pitching injury is nothing new. In 1996, Texas chose R.A. Dickey(notes) with the 18th overall pick, only to find he wasn't born with an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. They dropped their bonus offer from $810,000 to $75,000. Billy Traber(notes) lost $1.3 million in 2000 after New York Mets doctors questioned his elbow's structural integrity, and San Diego reduced Tim Stauffer's(notes) bonus offer from $2.6 million to $750,000 when he reported weakness in his shoulder.
The compensation-pick rule has changed the equation, providing the Diamondbacks incentive to offer nothing. They'll get the seventh overall choice next year, in addition to their regular high first-round selection based on their poor record. Loux will have to wait around a full year, especially if he can't go back to school, for the 2011 draft.
And his case won't be like that of Aaron Crow(notes), who didn't sign with Washington in 2008 and ended up with a $3 million contract. Nor will it mirror two other holdouts, Gerrit Cole (chosen 28th in 2008 by the Yankees) or Matt Purke (taken 14th by Texas last year), who are expected to go in the top five and fetch massive bonuses next year. The best-case scenario for Loux: He strengthens his arm and hopes it doesn't break down before the '11 draft so a team can take a hundred-thousand-dollar flyer on it. The worst: Nobody goes near him.
Either way, the union need not fight a case on behalf of Loux as much as for the rest of the players whom the compensation rule can affect. It's a flawed bylaw. It needs a rewrite. And it can be the catalyst in a long-needed draft overhaul. Among the ideas, in addition to the abolition of compensation picks:
Agree to a slotted bonus system. Yes, it's a big concession by the union, which still holds firm against prearranged dollar figures for every pick. In exchange, perhaps the owners would start the arbitration clock earlier or raise the minimum salary of players on the 40-man roster after the collective-bargaining negotiations in 2011.
Best of all, it guarantees the best players will go in the proper order. So many players drop due to signability concerns, it gives big-spending teams an ability to snatch up top talent strictly through financial might. The draft might actually serve its intended purpose: evenly distribute the talent.
Another vital revamping would be to bump up the signing deadline to July 15. It gives players plenty of time to think over their decisions. If they know their bonuses to the dollar on day one, there will be no delay in getting their careers started. Instead, last week we get to follow the latest Facebook bluffing of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the Nos. 1 and 3 picks in the draft, who are threatening to go to junior college together. Enough of the silly posturing. Sign or don't.
Unfortunately for Loux, it's don't. He won't be a Dickey, a Traber or a Stauffer. His only bet now is to throw for the Cotuit Kettleers of the Cape Cod League, where he plans on showcasing his stuff to convince the Diamondbacks and others his shoulder and elbow are fine.
Maybe they are. Maybe they aren't. That isn't the point. As long as compensation picks remain – as long as kids like Barret Loux are hung out to dry when hurt – the draft will be irrevocably broken. It's time to fix it.