Signing Deadline Nears For Nationals and Harper

Steve O Speak

Two months and nine days ago the Washington Nationals took Bryce Harper with the first overall pick in the draft, finally tonight at midnight we will know whether he will join the Nationals or not. The Nationals aren’t alone in wondering whether their top pick will sign, as the majority of first round picks haven’t agreed to terms yet, but Harper is the biggest fish and all eyes will be on Washington this evening. Now most people will try to lay the blame for the stalled negotiations on either the Nationals or Harper’s “agent” Scott Boras (some will even try to throw Harper under the bus, like a 17 year old kid is really impacting the negotiations), but really the blame for the 11th hour cram session belongs at the feet of MLB.

Major League Baseball does everything in their power to hold up overslot bonuses for draft picks, particularly the major ones (i.e. Harper). Their belief is that by holding up the deals, players can’t negotiate off one another as much. Also, since they don’t like the deals, instead of having news stories about every major deal over slot that is signed, the stories end up getting lumped together with only the cream rising to the top. Take the Nationals for instance…

They signed 3 draft picks over slot yesterday spending a reported $3.8 million on Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole, and Robbie Ray. While all three of these deals were overslot (especially Cole which set a 4th round record), they weren’t nearly as widely reported as if they were signed separately. For one thing, nationally most teams are signing deals similar to these, so the national media needs to cover all of them. And locally there are three deals to write about at the same time as opposed to one, giving less space and follow up stories per deal compared to if they were signed three different times. And finally with the Bryce Harper negotiations to report on, where is the time to write about A.J. Cole’s contract?

It would seem as though MLB was right in holding off overslot deals since they accomplish their goals, unfortunately it is all smoke and mirrors and there are tangible consequences for their tactics. These agents all have a general idea of what other top prospects are going to sign for, and in fact a handful of agents represent the majority of guys who will sign the biggest deals meaning some of these agents have all the leverage they need. Secondly, with so many industry sources now like ESPN and Baseball America (among others), in addition to all the various sports bloggers these stories still get reported, and with the power of the internet we can look up these bonus figures any time. As for pushing back these deals, MLB ends up hurting both the player and the team.

Instead of helping the team’s gain leverage, Major League Baseball takes away one of their biggest advantages by making them wait. By browbeating teams into not announcing big signings earlier teams can’t use the leverage of starting their minor league career earlier (this also hurts the players by setting them back). While the weekly pay in the minors isn’t anything special, the sooner a player starts in the minors then in all likelihood the sooner he gets to the majors and starts earning big money (this is also for the agents who hold out for 50K). Players who sign right away get an extra 3 months of minor league ball and a chance to assimilate with other draft picks. While three months doesn’t seem like a big deal, it can be for hitters it is their first extended time hitting with wooden bats, and for pitchers they have to learn to pitch differently against wooden bats, and for teams they get three months to daily evaluate these players to see what they need to work on, and if they need any major changes. So instead of helping teams, MLB just hurts them and their draft picks by setting them back from helping in the big leagues.

So what does all of this mean? Well that the Major League Baseball draft system is pretty screwed up is a good first answer, but the real answer is not alot. I fully expect Harper and almost every other 1st round pick to sign. In addition the vast majority of other top 10 round picks will sign by midnight as well. As for Harper specifically, I think he will get a record bonus, and quite possibly an MLB contract (it will help defer the bonus). Hopefully in the future some changes will be made to this system, but for now let’s not blame so much the teams, agents and players and look at who is really behind this charade.

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