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Saturday September 20 2014
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Plan, Interrupted

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Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expires in December, and a new labor contract could lead to major changes in the amateur draft, affecting everything from how much cash teams can offer players, when those players sign, and whether clubs can swap picks.

If implemented,  those changes could have a major impact on the Pirates and how they approach the draft.

Hard Slotting
Robbie Grossman. Colton Cain. Stetson Allie. Clay Holmes. Josh Bell. What do these players have in common? All are top prospects in the Pirates’ system who fell in the draft due to signability concerns, but turned pro after receiving seven-figure bonuses. If “hard slotting” is part of the next CBA, however, fat checks after the first round will be a thing of the past.

Currently, the Major League Baseball's commissioner’s office gives teams recommended signing bonuses for each slot in the draft. But clubs can choose to pay players far more than the slot bonus to lure them away from college scholarships. Case in point: Bell, a switch-hitting outfielder with huge power, had a strong commitment to Texas that caused him to drop to the second round. But the Scott Boras client signed with the Pirates for $5 million.

The increase in draft spending (teams dished out a record $236 million in 2011) could cause Bud Selig to push for “hard” slots, meaning each draft spot would have a predetermined bonus that clubs couldn’t exceed.

What would hard slotting mean for the Pirates?

“It would be terrible,” Baseball America Executive Editor Jim Callis said, noting that Bell and Allie wouldn’t be in the Pirates organization if hard slotting existed. “The draft is the one area where small-market teams can compete with anyone. In the draft, if the Pirates want to go head-to-head with the Yankees, they can get a guy if they’re willing to spend. At the major league level, they can’t.”

The Pirates dished out a record $17 million in the draft this year, and no club has spent more on picks since GM Neal Huntington’s regime took over. Yet if some of those top prospects pan out, Pittsburgh will reap huge cost savings in the long run by having those players under team control for six seasons at modest salaries.

“It’s much cheaper for organizations to develop their own stars than to risk a six or seven-year contract on the free agent market,” said Marc Hulet, a minor league expert for Fangraphs.com. “Pittsburgh has risen from the ashes because the organization has embraced player development and the amateur draft.”

“It’s a philosophy that came together under this leadership group with the support of ownership,” Pirates Scouting Director Greg Smith said. “Being aggressive in the amateur draft has allowed for the influx of talent at a higher rate than the norm may allow… There are some markets that clubs cannot participate [in] competitively.”

Signing Deadline
In 2007, MLB instituted a mid-August signing deadline that was expected to get players on the field faster. But last-minute negotiations remain the norm.

“Most player agents and team officials don’t start negotiating until deadline day, so why wait two months?” Hulet said.

The commissioner’s office also exerts pressure on teams not to announce above-slot deals until the last minute, fearing that doing so earlier would increase players’ negotiating power.

“This robs the players of months of development and virtually forces them to begin their pro career the next season,” Hulet said.

An earlier deadline would allow players like first overall pick Gerrit Cole and Bell to quicken their paths toward Pittsburgh.

Trading Draft Picks
Unlike in the NFL, NBA and NHL, MLB teams can’t trade draft picks. Opinions are split on how swapping draft choices would affect competitive balance.

“I am for trading draft picks,” said Jim Bowden, former Washington Nationals and Cincinnati Reds GM and current ESPN analyst. “The more flexibility you give teams in player movement, the better.”

“There are people who think it would give teams a lot of flexibility,” Callis said. “If you didn’t want to invest in so-called unproven talent, you could trade [the pick] for an established big leaguer or more established prospects. But I’ve also talked to people who think it would allow agents to manipulate the draft.”

Callis used Cole, who was drafted by the Yankees with the 28th pick in the 2008 draft but chose to attend UCLA instead, as an example of how trading draft picks could lead to agents steering players toward big-market teams.

“The Yankees hypothetically could tell Cole, ‘Look, we can work it that if you get to us, we can give you a $20 million contract,’” Callis said. “Then what’s to stop Scott Boras from saying that Cole’s lifelong dream has been to be a Yankee, and he won’t play for anybody else?”

Callis thinks blockbuster trades would be rare, however.

“When Stephen Strasburg is out there, I think you’d have teams falling all over themselves to get him,” Callis said. But not necessarily for a pitcher like Cole, rated in the 15-20 range by Callis among minor league prospects rather than a generational talent.

“That’s good, but I don’t think you’d see teams giving up an Andrew McCutchen-caliber player in return,” he said.

I spent three days late last month visiting 18 high schools across the WPIAL. I drove 533 miles, took hundreds of photographs, shook hands with dozens of coaches, athletic directors and principals and climbed way too many stadium steps. I loved every minute of it, of course.
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