SEATTLE — Dylan Crews, the center fielder out of LSU, had “one of the greatest offensive seasons in college baseball history.” He entered draft season “right there with Adley Rutschman for best collegiate position prospect in recent memory.” He was ranked as the top talent in the 2023 MLB Draft by Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, FanGraphs and The Athletic.
But by Sunday morning, it was widely expected the Pittsburgh Pirates would look elsewhere with the pick — a notion they confirmed by making Crews' teammate, dominant pitcher Paul Skenes, the No. 1 overall pick. Crews went off the board at No. 2 to the Washington Nationals, a team that has been willing to go big to sign elite college players in the past.
It might feel foreign to devotees of the more familiar NFL or NBA Drafts, but even when a consensus top player emerges in baseball, he is not a lock to go first overall.
In other words, there’s no Victor Wembanyama effect in the MLB Draft. There are a variety of reasons for that, some of which are distinct to this draft class and others that are characteristic of MLB’s amateur draft every year.
Slot values, bonus pools and the math at the heart of MLB Draft strategy
The first thing you need to understand is how MLB’s draft system creates a game of financial Tetris. Each team has a lump sum it is allowed to spend in the first 10 rounds, called a bonus pool. That total is built out of MLB-assigned dollar figures, called slot values, for each of their picks in those rounds. But while the picks correspond to those slot values, the draftees aren’t necessarily paid that amount. Teams can allocate the total pool however they see fit.
They can even spend more than their assigned amount, if they’re willing to accept the consequent penalties. Spending more than allotted bonus pool by 5% or less involves paying a 75% tax on the excess money, and about half the league does that in any given draft, according to MLB.com’s Jim Callis. Beyond that 5% threshold, teams begin losing future picks, a penalty extreme enough that no team has ever dared to incur it.
Within those guidelines, front offices are trying to maximize the talent they can bring into their system with their total dollar amount. Scouting has advanced and zeroed in on top talent more successfully in recent years, but baseball’s amateur ranks are undeniably more difficult to judge than football's or basketball’s. The level of competition varies wildly, especially for high school players. A team might get only a few games' worth of looks at a young prospect before offering him millions to join the organization.
So while choosing the best possible player is imperative, bounty is often the name of the game. Teams at the tippy top of the draft rarely pay the entire slot value to those draftees. Instead, they save the money and use it to enrich offers to players at the bottom of the first round or in the second round — often high schoolers torn between going pro and going to college who might be swayed by a boosted bonus.
Successfully threading that needle, in theory, could mean scoring two of the top 15 or 20 talents available even if your second pick isn’t until pick No. 35.
This year, the slot value of the No. 1 overall pick is $9,721,000, and the Pirates’ overall bonus pool is a league-best $16,185,700. That is the advantage of winning the new draft lottery, but it goes only as far as the front office can stretch it.
Dylan Crews was not trying to ‘cut a deal’
There’s negotiation calculus happening on both sides.
Crews and his representatives want to land him the largest bonus possible — perhaps approaching $10 million and very likely the largest bonus in draft history. They might have a preferred destination. They might simply be making some tactical moves to push his eventual payday higher. As ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel explained well in a late June mock draft, the motivations for Crews matter less than the implications. He is looking for more than $9.7 million to sign. Even if he’s unlikely to follow through on the threat of returning to school for his senior season, the firm stance evident from the rumors swirling around scouting circles indicated that a team choosing him must be comfortable either ponying up that amount of its bonus pool or living with that uncertainty for the rest of the draft. And that last bit is the important part.
Teams trying to successfully play the 3D chess of slot values and bonus pools crave a degree of certainty that players and their advisers do not have to provide. Recognizing the less singular nature of baseball players in general — no matter how good Crews turns out to be, there’s no such thing as an instant franchise-changer à la Wembanyama or LeBron James in basketball — teams often go shopping for the best player who will “cut a deal.” That means essentially agreeing to a bonus amount — or at least a range — ahead of the draft.
In practice, this can involve relatively minor savings from the slot values, such as when the Baltimore Orioles signed 2022 top pick Jackson Holliday for about $600,000 below slot. Or it can be far more extreme, such as when the Orioles saved more than $2.5 million of their pool with No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad.
The Pirates themselves executed this in 2021, signing No. 1 overall pick Henry Davis — who recently made his major-league debut — for almost $2 million less than the slot value.
It remains to be seen how far below slot Skenes’ deal will come in and how the Pirates will deploy the savings, but the tactic is common.
It is also especially enticing in deep drafts, where there are multiple high-level options, which was very much the case in 2023. In reality, the space between Crews, Skenes, University of Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford (who went No. 4 to the Texas Rangers) and even top high schoolers Max Clark (No. 3 to the Tigers) and Walker Jenkins (No. 5 to the Twins) was not all that large.
Baseball America and other assessments have deemed this a “loaded” draft, the best in more than a decade. Skenes’ excellent performance in the Men’s College World Series was only the latest development in a class that might immediately place three of the newest pros in the sport’s overall top 10 prospects: Crews, Skenes and Langford.
The Pirates will now be working on a sort of inverse of the No. 1 overall process. Instead of finding a player willing to take less than slot, they will seek out some of their favorite possible draftees who might be available in the range of their future picks — No. 42, No. 67 and No. 73 — and ask them to do essentially what Crews reportedly did: make contract demands that other clubs can’t or won’t meet. Then they will swoop in, offer them over-slot deals and hope the combination of talent alongside Skenes is worth whatever gamble they took by passing on Crews.