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MLB Draft Cap Another Obstacle as Pirates Aim to Contend

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MLB Draft Cap Another Obstacle as Pirates Aim to Contend
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Gerrit Cole landed an $8 million signing bonus in 2011, with the richest draft slot in 2012 coming in …

COMMENTARY | Don't expect the Pittsburgh Pirates to land another second-round steal like 20-year-old power hitter Josh Bell for quite some time.

And excluding the unlikely event that MLB redacts its draconian new draft slotting system, don't expect to see Bell's circumstances repeated again.

When the Pirates landed Bell and first-round pick Gerrit Cole with a pair of record-setting signing bonuses following the 2011 draft, MLB's power players took notice -- perhaps especially in Boston, where Bell was passed over in the first round due to his stated intent to attend college. However, Pittsburgh's $5 million signing bonus (a record for a second-round pick) was enough to sway Bell out of college and into the Pirates' minor-league system.

Bell, finally healthy coming off of knee surgery that took months to properly heal, was the subject of an interview with Andrew Pentis at MiLB.com. Often mentioned as part of a strong Pirates prospect class that includes names like Cole, Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco, Bell is perhaps Pittsburgh's best power-hitting prospect since Pedro Alvarez.

Pittsburgh set a draft record that year, spending in excess of $17 million on signing bonuses for unproven talent ($13 million on bonuses for Cole and Bell alone). Such spending had become something of a trend under GM Neal Huntington in his first four years on the job. According to Jorge L. Ortiz at USA Today, the Pirates spent $48 million on draft picks from 2008-2011, the most in baseball over that time.

For unproven talent, that sum of money seems hard to digest. For the small-market Pirates, MLB's uncapped free-agent market must seem equally hard to digest. But it's draft spending that has been curtailed by MLB's big office, not free-agent spending, and now the Pirates are without perhaps their best avenue into contention.

It didn't take very long to see the effects of the draft slotting system, in which maximum values are placed on picks and overspending results in massive penalties, both financially and in the form of surrendered future picks. Stanford pitcher (and Scott Boras client) Mark Appel fell from a projected first overall take to the Pirates' first selection (eighth-overall) in 2012 due to concerns of sign-ability in the new system.

Those concerns were well-founded. Appel and Boras wouldn't settle for the Pirates' maximum offer, nor would the Pirates incur the penalties of spending over slot. Appel will now enter the 2013 draft as a college senior while the Pirates will receive a compensatory first-round pick this summer.

Losing an arm like Appel's is huge for the Pirates, a club that recently set a franchise free-agent record by signing catcher Russell Martin to a two-year, $17 million contract in November.

By comparison, the Yankees have four players -- all of whom were acquired as free agents -- making $17 million or more this season alone.

It's easy enough to point to Boras as the reason for Appel's holdout. One wonders if the Pirates would have ever signed Cole or Alvarez, both Boras clients, had the slotting system prevented the Pirates from handing them monster signing bonuses.

Boras' influence can't be ignored, but it's only one factor. As the Pirates try to break their two-decades long run of losing seasons, they'll also have to break the perception of the organization as one of baseball's basement properties.

Big signing bonuses can go a long way towards getting past that stigma.

It's possible that a larger signing bonus would have been enough to ink Appel, whose slot value dropped from $7.2 million as a potential first-overall pick to $2.9 million with the Pirates.

A prospect system that includes arms the likes of Taillon, Cole and Appel would have provided greater hope for the Pirates to crawl back into relevancy. For all the accusations of penny-pinching owner Bob Nutting receives, the Pittsburgh market is simply too small to generate revenue on a level with the Yankees or Dodgers, revenue needed to land ace-quality arms on the open market.

Stigma or otherwise, Zack Greinke, he of the $147 million free-agent contract, is off Pittsburgh's radar.

Until last summer, Pittsburgh's best hope to ink an ace pitcher or stud hitter was through the draft, even if at a relatively expensive initial cost. And while the Pirates have at least begun to spend somewhat competitively at the MLB level, as evidenced by the Russell contract and Andrew McCutchen's $51 million extension, they're still nowhere near the stratosphere occupied by big spenders in New York and Los Angeles.

The draft used to provide an avenue for small market clubs to gain a leg up on the league's upper class. For the Pirates, they'll have to hope Bell and other top prospects can help make Pittsburgh a premier free agent destination before their currently strong prospect pool is unable to replenish itself due to the league's puzzling financial system.

James Conley is a Pittsburgh native and Pitt grad. He covers the Pirates at Baseball News Source and at his own Pittsburgh sports blog, Slew Footers.

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