There hasn’t been an amateur player in the history of baseball worth a $1 million signing bonus, let alone the catastrophic amount (reportedly $50 million) about to be demanded by Stephen Strasburg‘s agent, Scott Boras. This is why baseball’s draft, which kicks off this afternoon, is such a travesty.
The draft was established in 1965 after years of monopolistic domination by the Yankees, who signed and traded for players at their leisure and had a stranglehold on the American League. Fittingly, it was the Kansas City Athletics, long the Yankees’ patsy, who had the first pick, and they took Rick Monday, signing him to a $100,000 bonus that was eye-catching but hardly outrageous.
The bonus amounts stayed pretty well in check through the 1970s, Bill Bordley (Giants) signing for $200,000 as the No. 1 overall pick in ’79. By 1991, the Braves’ Mike Kelly signed for $575,000 and then came the first ridiculous leap: Brien Taylor hooking up with the Yankees for $1.5 million in 1991. Kris Benson (’96) was the first $2 million signing, and last year, with Boras as his agent, Detroit signed pitcher Rick Porcello to a $7.3 million deal. Now, although the Washington Nationals are intent on signing Strasburg to a deal within the $10-15 million range, reports suggest Boras will shoot for as high as $50 million.
Strasburgh is widely believed to be the most outstanding amateur pitching prospect in history. Videos and eyewitness accounts reveal a right-hander throwing 102-mph fastballs and unhittable curves. He’s the real thing, no question; some of the quotes from veteran scouts are so outrageously laudatory, it sounds as if they just returned from Mars. But he isn’t worth $1 million any more than any other player in the history of the draft – because he hasn’t done anything.
If you watch a collegiate running back run wild against USC, you’ve got a pretty good idea he can play in the pros. Big-time NCAA basketball games, particularly those involving the major conferences, offer some pretty good clues about a kid’s potential. Amateur baseball can be a full-blown mirage. Nothing that occurs in a high-school or collegiate baseball game offers even a hint of what takes place in the big leagues.
Tom Boswell, the esteemed columnist of the Washington Post and a baseball man at heart, wrote a column warning the Nationals not to draft Strasburg. Since 1965, he pointed out, 12 pitchers have been taken No. 1 overall. Their combined won-loss record is 822-853, and only four – Mike Moore, Andy Benes, Tim Belcher and Floyd Bannister – became respected front-line starters on a consistent basis. There are so many examples of high-priced busts – David Clyde, Todd Van Poppel, Steve Dunning, Ben McDonald – it’s a major risk, historically, to take that route. As Boswell wrote, “Pitching phenoms were born to break your heart. That’s bad enough. Don’t let them break the bank, too.”
My point is, why be forced to break the bank at all? The way the system is set up, with meddling agents and contracts in the millions, it’s actually punishment to draw the No. 1 selection, because either you don’t have the necessary finances or you’re swept into a back-and-forth, public negotiation that often winds up in embarrassment at the August 15 signing deadline.
There’s a “slotting” system in place, but only in theory. The commissioner’s office outlined a list of recommended bonuses for each pick, in descending order, but Boras just laughs at that. The players’ union rejected an inflexible slotting system and will continue to do so, oblivious to the damage done to downtrodden teams so desperately in need of amateur help.
I know this would never actually happen, but in a fair-minded world, the No. 1 pick would get exactly $500,000 – no more, no less. To hell with the agents; that’s more money than the kid ever saw in his life. With that figure as a ceiling, there would be no need for “slotting.” After the No. 1 pick, teams and players would be on their own as far as the negotiated amount. (If a team can’t afford $500,000 for a draft pick who could turn the franchise around, it should simply go out of business.)
It seems ridiculous that MLB prevents teams from trading the picks, but as CBSSportsline’s Danny Knobler pointed out, with agents like Boras representing so many top-flight picks, the crisis would only escalate into bullying small-market teams with ostentatious trade demands. And who would get the best of these deals? That’s right: the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, etc., in far too many cases.
Given the presence of agents, and the oppressive players’ union, there’s no way out. All I know is that a college or high-school ballplayer deserves nothing, in the way of big contracts, until he’s proven something on the professional level. Perhaps if Boras gets $50 million for Strasburg – in Washington or somewhere else – the backlash will force some form of change. As John Kruk put it so well on ESPN last night, “A guy shouldn’t be able to retire before he puts on a uni.”