Why the Nationals Need to Go All-in to Sign Matt Purke
June 10, 2011 in Uncategorized
When the Nationals took TCU LHP Matt Purke in the 3rd round they were applauded for their aggressiveness, but it was widely considered to be bit of a fool's errand. Although going into the season Purke was considered to be a steal if he made it to the Nationals pick at number 6th overall, a year of injury concerns made his selection at 96 seem like a risk. Purke was diagnosed with shoulder bursitis, and saw his control and velocity leave him when he did pitch. With teams concerned about what long term implications his shoulder, and Purke rumored to have a high price tag, the general consensus appears to be that he will go back to college where he has two more years of eligibility. This I believe would be a serious mistake, and missed opportunity for the Nationals.
Purke is a front of the rotation talent, that is typically hard to find unless you draft in the top 5. In fact in the last 5 drafts the number of college pitchers who had a higher upside than Purke on draft day, could probably be counted on two hands (now some other pitchers have developed, and there were some high upside high school guys). Now the caveat there of course, is 'if Purke is healthy', but to some extent that is true for all pitchers. Like it or not, and despite team's best efforts to avoid them a high percentage of pitchers have at least one serious arm injury in their early careers. Now obviously the shoulder is a greater concern than elbow (Tommy John) injuries, but we aren't talking about a labrum injury here. The Nationals could even have an advantage here because they could tweak his mechanics and strengthen that shoulder, before it causes a more serious injury.
Now I realize it would be considered insane to give Purke the $4-7 million bonus he is looking for, but why? Over the last two seasons the Nationals have given RHP Chien-Ming Wang $3.2 million combined, and he has yet to appear in a game for them. They knowing full well that the chances of him giving them anything was 50-50 at best (and probably far worst last season) gave a 7 figure salary, and committed themselves to all the medical bills, just for the off chance he could help them out that season. And it's hard to fault them for that logic, if Wang is healthy than you are getting a $7-10 million a year pitcher for a fraction of the cost.
The Nationals aren't alone in playing that high risk-high reward game, as just about every team takes $1-3 million flyers on guys who might not have the best odds of preforming. Last season the Athletics paid Ben Sheets $10 million despite the fact that he missed the previous year with a serious elbow injury, and had a multitude of injuries in the past. Sheets struggled through the season before eventually going on the D.L. with another serious injury. Now I know most people will make the point that those pitchers have proven themselves in the major leagues, but all of those contracts are usually for one season and in a lot of cases just part of the season. That isn't the case here with Purke.
The Nationals instead of needing to see the return of their investment in one season before they lose him, have plenty of time to get that value back. Not only can they take their time in rehabbing him and making sure he is a 100%, but the Nationals will have at least 6 years of team control from the moment he starts in the Majors. Even if Purke doesn't reach his ultimate ceiling, and is more of a mid-to-back of the rotation starter, he should repay the Nats in terms of value 10 fold.
For me it is a no-brainer decision to pay Purke the money it will take to lock him up, and it honestly might not be as much as originally feared. Purke was set to sign for $6 million from the Rangers coming out of high school two years ago, but the deal was nixed by the League, given the Rangers debt situation. Now Purke has the injury concern and half of his college eligibility used up, so his leverage isn't nearly as strong. While he can go back to TCU, anything short of a brilliant season and his above slot dreams will vanish. While he might be healthy next year, his velocity and stamina might not be at 100% and this year's injury will weigh into any negotiations (not to mention he'll be a year older). Another factor for Purke to consider is that next fall Major League Baseball will implement a new CBA, and one of the issues on the table is some form of control on draft bonuses. Whether it be hard slotting or a draft salary cap for each team, there is at least a chance that Purke's negotiating position will be severely hampered by the league.
Another factor for Purke to consider is what is better for him long term. Signing for a couple million with the Nationals now, or taking your chances next year, when regardless your negotiating power will be lessened. There isn't exactly a great track record of college players (either sophomores or juniors) turning down a big bonus and trying again the next season. Usually they end up getting slightly less, and it also sets them back a year.
Look at recent Nationals draftee Aaron Crow, he turned down a $3.5 million bonus, to sign a $3.5 million Major League Deal with the Royals the following season. While bonuses could tack on another million, it was a bad deal for Crow. Had Crow signed his deal with the Nationals he'd have the $3.5 million, plus he'd be making the league minimum in salary $400K+ for his time in the majors. Given the state of the Nationals he might have been up by midseason 2009, and most assuredly been up last year. Which means he's already lost money in the deal, and now has put off his arbitration and free agency by a season, giving him less earning power over the course of his career. Purke could be in a similar situation. If he signs now, and goes through the Nationals program to protect his shoulder (and what would he rather have, TCU in charge of his rehab or the Nationals best doctors and coaches?) he will probably be closer to the majors than if he signs a year from now.
Even if they can't get Purke to reduce his price too much, the Nationals would be wise to meet his asking price. It might be tough to swallow now, and could raise a few eyebrows around the league, but it is worth the risk. The Nationals could be looking at a future super rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Purke, and fellow draftee Alex Meyer. If Purke and Meyer were to reach their ceiling that big four could be one of the best rotations ever assembled, and they'd be pitching at a time when the Nationals had an impressive core lineup as well of Bryce Harper-Ryan Zimmerman-Anthony Rendon-Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa. That would be quite the formidable team, and is the type of talent base you see in true dynasties.