Anarchy, ingenuity and a lot to gain: How one team could blow up MLB draft

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It would have to be the right team.

That’s where the idea starts. The team would need to be successful — really good, preferably, enough so that in Major League Baseball’s June draft, it picks toward the end of the first round. And that success needs to be sustainable, too, because the idea doesn’t make much sense otherwise.

So the idea. It’s more a plan, actually. It’s a little anarchy, a little ingenuity, a little game theory and a lot to gain. It would anger plenty of people, might prompt an investigation but is, as far as anyone can tell, completely legal. It would, at least for a handful or two of players, change the habitual underpayment of domestic amateur talent. And for a team with the combination of cunning, foresight and luck, it would reap incredible and instantaneous dividends.

If all of this sounds interesting, it’s because it is. The plan to blow up the MLB Draft — to use the power of cold, hard cash and land the most talent-rich class in draft history, with a half-dozen or more players with first-round grades going to the same team — has been discussed in multiple front offices around baseball, bandied about for years over beers and on cocktail napkins. During these discussions, there are nods of agreement and promises to tease out the details of it more, because the details, actually, provide the answer to the only question that really matters.

Would it actually work?

***

MLB’s annual draft starts Monday. Teams will select 1,219 players over 40 rounds. By the July signing deadline, teams will have spent upward of $300 million on domestic amateurs. That will be a fraction of the marginal value they reap from them. The heart of this plan is the willingness of a single team to exploit this — to, in an environment where finding true value gets more difficult by the year, wring every last droplet of it from the draft.

Before unveiling the plan, an important primer on how the draft works. Every pick in the first 10 rounds is assigned a dollar value. The sum of these values constitutes each team’s bonus pool. Teams can exceed these pools up to 5% without serious penalty. Between 5% and 10%, they lose the next year’s first-round pick, all of which come with at least $2 million in pool money. If they’re 10% to 15% over, they lose a first- and second-round pick. And anything above 15% means forfeiture of their next two first-round picks.

Which sounds pretty bad. It’s meant to. The disincentive is strong. Just not stronger than the plan.

Here’s how it works. Teams must be willing to spend significant amounts of cash, be able to engender trust from players and agents, and be able to keep secrets. Because in order to land five (or even 10) of the best talents in any draft, it’s going to take all of those things and more.

The plan starts a year in advance. It’s got to, according to a majority of the general managers, scouting directors, area scouts and agents who spoke about it with ESPN, because something so outside the norm would take meticulous planning and widespread buy-in. Team officials would start telling agents that the team wants to spend big on high school players in the draft the following year. Nothing specific. Just planting a seed.

Targeting high schoolers is a vital part of the plan, because executing it will take enormous amounts of leverage played properly. College baseball players have next to no leverage; they are typically not draft-eligible until their junior years, and if their only threat is to return to school for their senior year, teams will laugh, knowing senior baseball players receive paltry signing bonuses compared to their junior counterparts.

High school players, on the other hand, can tell teams they don’t want to sign. That they want to go to college unless teams pay them exorbitant amounts of money — $5 million or $6 million or $10 million. That barring a stunning cash outlay, drafting them would be a waste of a pick.

And that is where the plan begins to take shape. A group of extremely talented high school players and a team willing to nuke the strictures of the system to get them.

The upshot would be mutually beneficial. Only the first five slots in this year’s draft are for more than $6 million. The team’s plan could be to offer that much to high school players seen more in the picks 10 to 20 range while being willing to spend upward of $10 million — well over the $8.4 million Baltimore gets for the No. 1 overall pick this year — on top-tier talent. So the best player says he’s not signing for anything under $10 million … and the team chooses him with its first-round pick. Another says he won’t take a penny less than $9 million … and he goes with the second-round pick. A third players says he’ll go to college unless he gets $7 million … and he goes to the team in the third round. And so on, for as many players as a team can get to agree to this.

It behooves the player, who gets paid far more than he would by teams adhering to slot. And the team can instantaneously build up its farm system and offer itself options: keep the players, develop them and reap the benefits of young, controllable talent, or dangle the players in trades, taking advantage of a far deeper farm system to target instead major league assets.

This is particularly tempting for the most successful teams, not just because the first-round picks they would give up carry significantly less slot value but because for teams in win-now mode, the ability to trade top prospects is a luxury few have. This would afford them that, and the only cost would be cash.

And it would be a lot. Let’s not sugarcoat that. The perfect team this season would be the Boston Red Sox, who have a bad farm system, a great core and lots of money. Their bonus pool is an MLB-low $4,788,100. Say they convinced seven players to execute the plan and guaranteed them $50 million total. Their total outlay on those players alone would be closer to $96 million because of penalties.

It’s still totally worth it. Seriously. Every executive surveyed said that the value of young players compared to what they get guaranteed in the draft is the single biggest bargain in baseball. If one of the seven players turns into a star, he is worth more than $96 million. If two of them grow into above-average major leaguers, they are worth more than $96 million. And that’s to say nothing of their trade value.

The plan, in fact, has been executed on a smaller level. Before MLB instituted a hard cap on money spent on international amateurs, teams would annually blow through their bonus pools and accept the penalty of not being able to spend more than $300,000 on a player for the next two international signing periods. During the 2016-17 signing period, the San Diego Padres went on a frenzy, spending nearly $80 million on international players. When the bidding war over Cuban amateur Yoan Moncada ended, the Red Sox paid $31.5 million to him and happily doubled it because of the penalty.

Not even 18 months later, Boston traded Moncada, top pitching prospect Michael Kopech and two other prospects for Chris Sale, one of the best pitchers in baseball. That’s what prospect capital offers. All the pre-arbitration contract extensions signed this winter — at least a few of them will teem with marginal value, and the organizations with caches of prospects will be in the running to acquire them.

This sort of flexibility offers inherent value itself. Organizations crave the ability to pivot, to be creative, to weigh options, to settle on the best. Using the draft as a conduit to offer choices when rules restrict teams otherwise is a perfectly logical endpoint.

“Theoretically,” one American League general manager said, “it makes all the sense in the world.”

He paused.

“Theoretically.”

***

The theoretical is a wonderful place in baseball. It incubates ideas that have changed the game. It also Turing tests ones that don’t pass muster as real.

For all of the good reasons a team should blow up the draft, there are significant roadblocks. Some of these are capable of being traversed. Others would take savvy, instinct and a good bit of fortune to overcome.

1) It’s harder to project high school kids

Teams tend to gravitate toward college players in the draft today because they’re seen as a surer thing. The near-necessity to execute the plan doesn’t make it a nonstarter; it simply complicates things.

“You have to be really confident in your process,” one American League GM said. “You have to scout very differently. You’re going to take young guys. Going to be a lot of high school guys. They’re inherently riskier. You really need to know them well if you’re investing that kind of money.”

2) Trust issues

This goes both ways. Are executives really inclined to trust an agent whose duty is to get the best deal for their client? Are players really inclined to trust executives who have no ties, no history and no loyalty shown to him? What can a team do to ensure a player it will stick to the plan? What can a player do to show the team it’s not simply using it as leverage?

Trust is tricky. But this, too, is capable of reasonable resolution.

3) No one in baseball can keep a secret

Every spring, a few high school players inform teams that they don’t want to be drafted. The most prominent this year is Jack Leiter, the right-handed pitcher and son of former major leaguer Al Leiter, who has a strong commitment to play at Vanderbilt.

If a half-dozen or more first-round talents did so in the same year, alarm bells around baseball would sound. Executives would dispatch scouts to do recon in their small circles. The culprit almost certainly would leak out before the draft.

“Amateur scouts gossip too much,” one agent said. “No way you could keep it under the radar.”

4) Teams will call players’ bluffs

Let’s say the first three potential roadblocks happen to be nonfactors — that a GM has deep faith in his scouts and crosscheckers to choose the right players for this experiment, that the GM’s reputation is beyond reproach and fosters conviction in players and agents, and that his scouts likewise respect him enough to keep the secret.

The other 29 teams, suspecting something is amiss, may not buy the threat of the player going to college and select him anyway.

“If he’s good enough,” one agent said, “clubs are going to say: ‘Here’s your $2 million. Go to college if you don’t want it.’ “

Particularly with prominent players, there are extra safety valves to protect teams. If a team offers a player drafted within the first three rounds at least 40% of that pick’s slot value and he doesn’t sign, the team receives a compensatory pick in next year’s draft one pick later. The Atlanta Braves didn’t sign Carter Stewart, the eighth overall pick last year. Because they offered him 40% of slot, they’ll pick ninth this year.

Would it be frustrating to see a top pick go unsigned, particularly when that pick could be developing in the minor leagues? Sure. Does that protection make sliding players down later into the draft, as the plan calls for, that much more difficult? Absolutely.

And by the second round, it will be obvious what’s happening. If the team trying to execute the plan chooses one of the don’t-choose-me players in the first round, that’s a sign. If it doubles up with another in the second round, that’s proof. And the possibility of teams making a run on the players in the third, to prevent the plan from working while still protected by compensatory picks, is very real. It also shows the danger for the players, who at that point would be looking at sub-$800,000 slot values rather than multi-million-dollar bonuses for not trying to game the draft.

5) The misery of going halfway

“The worst-case scenario is you get caught in the middle ground, which is a very likely scenario,” an NL GM said. “Guys don’t get to your picks. You think you’ve got these guys lined up. They get picked. Then you’re scrambling. That middle ground is a terrible outcome and it’s too likely to chance.”

He’s not wrong. It’s pretty ugly. Consider what happened above. The team ends up with two players that it has promised a total of $19 million. The rest are gone before the team’s third-round pick. If it honors those commitments, it will pay more than $37 million for those two players and lose two first-round picks. If it does not, and simply offers slot or slightly above to prevent future penalties, the breach of trust will hit baseball gossip circles and embarrass the team for failure to execute a plan followed by blatant lying.

This is where the theoretical really starts to scare teams.

6) MLB will investigate

Just to tease this thing out entirely, let’s say that teams don’t run the risk of losing picks, that the players all fall where the team hoped and that they sign for record-breaking bonuses.

MLB is going to be livid at a team for making a mockery of its system. Other teams will be apoplectic, too. The draft is great for all of them. The talent-acquisition cost is minuscule compared to the production players provide. The draft is baseball’s golden goose, and whatever team would do this runs the risk of killing it.

Almost certainly the league would launch an investigation, not to mention eye significant changes to the draft to ensure no team can singlehandedly threaten whatever sanctity it may have. Pre-draft deals are technically not supposed to happen, though MLB’s eye toward such things has an enormous cataract. It could suddenly remedy that and hit the offending team with severe punishments.

When the Atlanta Braves ran afoul of the rules on international signings, MLB banned their GM, John Coppolella, from the game and made all the illicitly signed players free agents. It levied future penalties, too. Even if teams are told they can talk with agents about what it might cost to sign a player to gauge whether he’s worth selecting, the league could very well render judgment against a team based on intent.

Whatever a team’s argument may be, the intent of this plan is, of course, to subvert the draft almost entirely. And it doesn’t matter that draft systems can be more about cost control than they are talent distribution. When there is a norm and that norm is flipped on its head, the consequences are a complete unknown. And as great as the plan is theoretically, as logical as it is in a vacuum, the threat of those consequences is powerful enough to scuttle the plan for now.

***

Surely among Major League Baseball’s 30 teams is one whose risk tolerance is large enough to stomach the downside of the plan, recognize its massive potential and try to execute it. It’s too late this year, unless a team truly has pulled a fast one on the industry. Anyway, the 2020 draft may be an ideal one to try it.

The industry buzz about the talent in the 2020 draft dwarfs this class. Two evaluators said 2020 looks like the best MLB draft since the stacked 2011 draft, with a first round that included Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, George Springer and Jose Fernandez, Blake Snell and Trevor Story, plus Mookie Betts, Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow, Blake Treinen and dozens more major leaguers in later rounds. The 2020 draft got even better this week, as Blaze Jordan, a top high school player, told Baseball America he was reclassifying to enter next year’s draft as a 17-year-old.

There are worse plans than letting Jordan and the phenomenal right-hander Mick Abel and California outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong and the rest of the top high schoolers understand that the draft does not necessarily have to be this way. Dissatisfied with it, Carter Stewart — the first-round pick who did not sign with Atlanta last year — instead skipped the draft altogether this year and agreed to a six-year deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan.

It’s another leverage point for players to use, to try to get the most they can out of the draft — or potentially maneuver themselves around so that the plan isn’t simply a futile idea buried in a corner of the Internet. There are more nefarious ways to drop in the draft — completely shut down early in the spring and don’t give scouts a single look — but that would entail a kid abandoning his high school team, and that opens an entirely different can of character worms.

The margins are so small in baseball right now, the shutdown — a tried-and-true tactic in Latin America — may well come stateside sooner than later. Teams employ dozens of people to hunt for the tiniest advantages. The plan, if executed, would not provide a tiny advantage. It would be the baseball-team equivalent to a winning Mega Millions ticket.

One GM said it’s such good value that it would take getting only four of the top 40 players in a draft to make it worth blowing past the bonus pool and losing two future first-rounders. And if that team did, it could take that draft budget money and put it right back into free agency, where signing a top player would not be nearly as onerous, because the team wouldn’t need to give up a first-round pick. Not only does the plan enrich teams with young talent, it’s like a coupon for older talent.

This is all well and good, but it’s still pure theory, subject to the various levers of life, of human decision-making, of rational and irrational behavior’s ceaseless squabble. The only question that matters, really, is the one asked long ago: Would it actually work? Until it’s put into practice, one can only hazard a guess to the binary of yes and no. There is a third answer, though, one that may be the best we’ll get when it comes to whether a team blowing up the draft would actually work.

It sure would be fun to find out.



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