Always the quirkiest distribution system for talent in pro sports, Major League Baseball has added layers of complications with spending limits and ways to punish some behaviors and reward others. It's not clear if the people who just ran the three-day event grasp all the possible permutations, let alone us outsiders.
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In the NFL and the NBA, it's common for teams essentially to assign themselves peaks and valleys in the draft by trading away or acquiring picks, and fans understand the value of those peaks is dependent on whether a team is contending or building for the future.
Under the new rules, MLB teams are being given the option to adopt that type of behavior. And the Pirates, who just selected one of the top three players, arguably the top player, with the eighth overall pick just became an intriguing case study in this.
Stanford right-hander Mark Appel dropped in large part because he wanted more to sign than the $4.8 million the Astros gave Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa, who was the draft's top pick. He fell in the lap of the Pirates after the Twins, Mariners, Orioles, Royals, Cubs and Padres all passed.
"(There) are meaningful penalties, so the strategy and the decision-making has to be different," Pirates President Frank Coonelly said. "But the one strategy, the one principle, that we said would not be different is we would take the best player on the board when we selected. While we didn't think that Mark Appel would remain on the board when we selected at No. 8, when he was, we were anxious to make that selection."
Executives with other clubs believe the Pirates were smart to take a calculated gamble that other teams would not. It's a move that was fraught with peril for a team with a weaker farm system (the Cubs) or ownership issues (the Padres), but one that might turn out great for the Pirates.
Because they have invested heavily in recent drafts — at a majors-high $52 million in the last five drafts, they are one of only six teams to average $8 million in bonuses during that time — the Pirates already have their share of young talent.
They invested $13 million to sign right-hander Gerrit Cole and supposedly unsignable outfielder Josh Bell in last year's draft, and gave right-hander Jameson Taillon a $6.5-million bonus in 2010. They would love to add Appel to their core group, and the spending limits won't stop them.
The calculation the Pirates have to make is this: Do they want to get as much talent as possible this year — which means signing Appel, Texas Tech outfielder Barrett Barnes and high school catcher Wyatt Mathisen — or have a full array of picks next year?
Based on where the picks fell, the Pirates were only allotted $6,563,500 to sign their 11 top-10 picks this year. But if they like Appel, Barnes and Mathisen enough, they can pay a penalty in taxes and, of more significance, forfeit high picks next year to lock them up (unless they go more than 15 percent over their allotted total, at which point they would lose first-round picks the next two years).
If the Pirates decide to pass on Appel, they will get the pick back next year — probably as the ninth overall — and try to get fat in that draft, which is considered better than this year's.
One consideration for Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington is that the Pirates have a shot at a winning record this season, which could make a forfeited 2012 pick fall in the second half of the first round. It's going to be very interesting to see how the Pirates and Appel (along with his advisor, Scott Boras) play things.
Pot vs. kettle: Jerry Reinsdorf and other owners long have pointed to Boras for making the baseball draft a superhighway with an express lane for big-spending teams rather than a roadway safely traveled by all, and Boras was an instant critic of spending limits included in the new collective bargaining agreement. He's no happier now that the first draft is on the books.
"There was all forms of artificial behavior in the draft," Boras told USA Today. "The purpose of the draft is that it's supposed to create parity in the game. You want teams with the greatest needs to get the best available talent. That has not been achieved in this draft. It has created a mockery."
How upset is Boras? Will he advise Appel and Albert Almora not to take what they're offered from the Pirates and Cubs? Will he challenge the owners and the players union (that signed off on the new rules) to force a change in the system? That's a huge question hanging over baseball with the July 13 signing deadline certain to come fast.
Tight squeeze: The Astros insist signability wasn't the reason they selected Correa over Appel, a Houston native who would have loved to lead them into the American League West. But executives with other teams point out that Correa's signing price was $2.4 million below its assigned value, the Astros were in great position for their next pick.
They used their second pick, a supplemental (41st overall) for the loss of free agent shortstop Clint Barmes, for Tampa Jesuit right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., who as a sophomore and junior had been expected to be a top-five pick. He may be headed for a career as a reliever, not a starter, but could dominate with a high-90s fastball and improving slider.
While the Astros clearly love Correa, owner Jim Crane says the decision was made "in such a way that allowed us to pick up some other players that we really wanted.'' That would be McCullers and 61st overall choice Nolan Fontana, a shortstop who is trying to help the University of Florida reach the College World Series for a third straight year.
The 17-year-old Correa won the support of Astros GM Jeff Luhnow when he accepted an invitation to spend a late-May day with the team's extended spring players in Florida. He got 12 to 15 at-bats and swung and missed once.
"He looked like he fit in," Luhnow said. "He was three or four years younger than most of the players on the field. He absolutely stood out. It gave me confirmation that this is the type player we're looking for. This is an impact player … for the future."
Dancing fool: R.A. Dickey is the majors' only knuckleballer, and its hottest pitcher. He has to be on the short list to start the All-Star Game for the National League, running his record to 9-1 with a streak of 242/3 scoreless innings.
Dickey hopes that his success makes teams more open-minded about developing knuckleball pitchers.
"There's not one scout looking for the next Hoyt Wilhelm,'' Dickey said. "They're looking for the guy who has the frame to be Stephen Strasburg.''
The last word: "Not for just that one at-bat, but for how it can spread the defense later and how they'll pitch him later — in the season and in the game. But you have to be comfortable … it sure looks easy at times, though.'' – Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine on how he would like his power hitters to bunt for hits against over-shifted defenses.