Major League Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement agreed to this past winter overhauled a few systems that had been in place for years. The results of these tweaks have been felt this week, in the first two days of the amateur entry draft. Instituting a budget to curb spending, rather than just frowning whenever a team went over slot repeatedly, had the potential to change the dynamic of the draft. If the first 10 rounds are any indication, those changes are significant.
In the past, as long as there was room in a team's budget -- meaning, however much money they were willing to pour into the draft -- then players could be signed. Drafted a high schooler in the fifth round with a scholarship to a great school? Throw a larger bonus at him, and hope it entices him to forgo college ball. Have a 15th-round pick, and there's a serious talent who might not sign left on the board? Draft him, and offer a bonus big enough to make him reconsider school.
While the latter is now nigh impossible -- after the first 10 rounds, bonuses of over $100,000 count against the budget of the first 10 rounds -- there are ways to work around the former issue. Even though it's the first year of the new draft rules, there were already multiple organizations finding creative ways to redistribute the risk and money allotted to them. The most prominent of these was the drafting of college seniors.
A high school player talented enough to be drafted is likely also good enough to play ball in college on the school's dime. A sophomore or junior in the draft can, if selected too late for his liking, refuse to sign in order to build his draft value further with another season at college. Seniors, though, lack leverage of any kind: they're finished with playing amateur baseball, and are in a situation where nearly any bonus offered them is a best-case scenario, assuming baseball is what they want to do with their life.
Take the 2003 Royals, for instance. After paying Chris Lubanski $2.1 million as the fifth pick overall, they were conservative with their spending the rest of the way. They drafted five players in a row, from rounds five through nine, to whom they offered $1,000 bonuses. Mike Aviles, who is now the starting shortstop for the Red Sox and in his fifth major-league season, was one of those five: as a senior drafted in the seventh round, there wasn't a whole lot of choice in the matter for him.
While the Royals weren't forced by MLB to shuffle money around like this, the principle is the same. And, as this graph shows, plenty of other teams remembered the importance of a lack of negotiating leverage for seniors:
In all, 65 four-year college seniors were drafted (as well as a smattering of fifth-year seniors) in the first 10 rounds of this year's draft. Combine any two of the 2009 through 2011 drafts, and you come up short of 65 four-year seniors, as 2009's 31 is the loftiest total of the three.
The Blue Jays (7), Yankees (5), Red Sox (5), and Rangers (5) led the way, picking over one-third of all seniors in the first 10 rounds on their own. Given the respect often given to the brain trusts of these four clubs, it's not surprising to see them adjusting so quickly to the new rules.
During the first few rounds, things didn't go much differently than they normally do in regards to seniors, but once the seventh kicked off, the 2012 draft started to show off what the new CBA means for strategy. Boston was one of those teams who selected a senior in the fifth round, and that kicked off a five-of-six stretch where they selected four regular seniors and a fifth-year one, with a junior who will be 22 years old in another 10 days in between. They've already signed one of them: Mike Augliera, who was selected in the fifth round, inked a deal below the slot recommendation, giving the Sox financial flexibility for other negotiations within the bounds of the first 10 rounds.
Augliera knew the deal from the start even before he was drafted, as he wrote on Binghamton University's blog:
I will not be using an advisor or agent come draft day. Being a senior I don't have much need for negotiating and would like to get started as soon as I possibly can. An advisor would be more beneficial to a high schooler or underclassmen who may be in line for a bigger signing bonus.
Augliera isn't a total nobody selected solely for negotiations, either: he led the NCAA in K/BB ratio in his senior year, striking out over a batter per inning and handing out just seven free passes in 82 frames. He's something of an overdraft at #181 overall, but there's a potentially useful pitcher here. That might be a side benefit when put up next to the flexibility signing him below the slot recommendation offers, though, especially for a Red Sox team attempting to pry a few high school talents -- ones with much higher ceilings than Augliera -- away from college.
In the coming weeks, expect to see a flood of below-slot contracts signed by college seniors who are as aware of their situation as Augliera. This will allow the teams clever enough to draft college seniors in bulk to redistribute their limited, allotted budget elsewhere, giving front offices a chance to bypass the roadblocks set up by the owners and players in their own negotiations.
The new CBA might not allow for an optimal setup, in which teams spend what they're willing to on untested talent, but it does force teams to be creative, and for fans to recognize that the 2012 draft is a far different animal than its predecessors because of it.