Playing the slots

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

One of the usual exercises during baseball's collective-bargaining negotiations goes something like this: Owners ask for a system to pay draft picks pre-determined bonuses. The union says no. And after that short dalliance, they discuss bigger, more important things.

Only last year was different. The owners wouldn't budge. They had a plan. The baseball draft was broken – controlled, they believed, by rogue agents who threatened to send their players back to school or, heaven forbid, an independent league, if their demands for large bonuses weren't met – and they wanted to fix it.

Never mind that the real problem with the draft was that the worst teams don't end up with the best players because they're too cheap to fork over top dollar. And that agent Scott Boras, the king of draft-pick holdouts, does so because first-round bonuses have not changed significantly since 1999, even though baseball's revenues are closing in on $6 billion – more than double the $2.8 billion of eight years ago.

Whatever. Facts never get in the way of a good plan, right?

The owners proposed and received an Aug. 15 cutoff date for signing draft picks. And they still instituted their slotting system, silently of course, cutting bonuses between 5 and 10 percent across the board, according to two scouting directors.

Perhaps they can use that extra money to create a fragrance: Eau de Collusion.

Anyway, with less than two days remaining until the clock strikes midnight Wednesday, 11 of the 30 first-round draft picks remain unsigned, including Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5. Scouting directors and agents are engaged in their usual game of chicken, only because MLB lords over the draft and urges every team to stick to slot, it's like they're driving Yugos that won't crack 20 mph. It's all building toward a conclusion that could see some of the best players go unsigned, an embarrassing turn for a plan that was supposed to be the draft's glue instead of the sledgehammer that crushed it.

"They bartered for this in collective bargaining," one agent said. "Players gave it to them. Now that they have it in hand, they can't try to complain about it if it backfires."

For the most part, executives are confident deals will get done. Everyone has heard scuttlebutt that a few above-slot deals have been agreed upon, their announcement delayed so the exact numbers don't leak, but gossip cruises through baseball's pipelines like old ladies playing Mah Jongg.

Tampa Bay can't afford to let No. 1 pick David Price return to Vanderbilt for his senior season, even though his cost likely spiked with the news late Monday that Detroit gave Boras client Rick Porcello, the high school pitcher who dropped to 27th because of signability issues, a $7.3 million major-league contract. The Chicago Cubs are reportedly close to signing high school third baseman Josh Vitters, the No. 3 pick.

Perhaps that will create a market for the No. 2 pick, Mike Moustakas, chosen by Kansas City and represented by Boras, who also has catcher Matt Wieters (No. 5 to Baltimore) and the other player aside from Porcello who plummeted because of signability worries, North Carolina State right-hander Andrew Brackman (30th to the New York Yankees).

"Ultimately, you'll just see a trickle effect of guys signing the 14th and 15th," said one AL scouting director whose pick remains unsigned. "This forces clubs and players to make a decision. It helps colleges because it allows them the opportunity to know on the 15th whether they're going to get their players.

"It may take some Tums, but it's a good thing."

Is it, though? Kansas City drafted Moustakas because they viewed him as an easier sign than Porcello, exactly the kind of backward scenario that allowed the Tigers, annual slot-ignorers, to nab Justin Verlander, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller the three previous years. The Royals have exceeded slot the last two years to sign Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar, and they don't want to feel the wrath of MLB at Thursday's owner's meetings for paying Moustakas more than the suggested $3.15 million.

Owner David Glass finds himself in a precarious position: Do right by the system or do right by his team?

The money is certainly there, with the $60 million or so in revenue sharing and central-fund dollars the Royals rake in. As is the incentive: For a franchise starting its ascent back toward credibility, losing Moustakas to USC would make Kansas City look positively cheap. Even though the Royals would get the No. 3 pick in next year's draft – the new rules award teams that don't sign the current year's pick one in the spot below the next season – the last pick as high as Moustakas not to sign was J.D. Drew, another Boras client, 10 years ago.

"Because you can't trade draft picks, the sole criteria for drafting is signability," Boras said Monday. "That's not how this system should work."

Some kind of a compromise with a slotting system and higher bonuses would probably fly, but the union doesn't want to set any kind of salary-ceiling precedents, and owners won't consider the possibility of trading draft picks, allowing smaller-market teams to cash in on players' value.

So we're stuck with a system that, at best, leaves things at their iffy status quo and, at worst, causes a 50-car pileup.

"I'm sure we'll look up in a day and a half and see all those guys signed," said an NL scouting director who signed his first-round pick for slot money. "Teams have too much to lose by not signing them."

That's a fact.

One, hopefully, their plan doesn't get in the way of.

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