Minutes before midnight on Aug. 15, the Nationals spent $16.5 million to acquire their top four choices in the amateur draft. Team officials never thought they would be able to sign Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, Brian Goodwin and Matt Purke. Two or three of them, sure. But not all four.
The Nationals celebrated that night, and they can celebrate their haul again today after MLB and the Players Association announced the draft provisions included in their new Collective Bargaining Agreement. A draft with that much talent, on paper, will probably never happen again.
Why not? The new rules governing the draft includes a penalty for spending so much money that it virtually prohibits teams from acquiring so much talent – on paper – in one draft.
If teams spend 5 percent over their allotted “slot” amount, they must pay a 75 percent tax. Teams that go over slot by 5 to 10 percent must pay a 75 percent tax and lose a first-round pick. Teams that go over slot by 10 to 15 percent must pay a 100 percent tax and lose a first- and second-round pick. Teams that spend more than slot by 15 percent or more must pay a 100 percent tax and lose two first-round picks. Teams also cannot give draftees major league contracts, which the Nationals did for Rendon and Purke.
Depending on where teams pick and how many selections they have, the allotment per team will range from $4.5 million to $11.5 million over the entire draft. Teams might be able to dish out one or two major contracts a piece, but not, like the Nationals this year, four deals ranging between $2 million and $7.2 million.
“You’re not going to be able to do that,” Nationals scouting director Kris Kline said. “It turned out great, exactly like we had hoped. You have to really give a lot of credit to our owners. If they don’t support us financially, there’s no way this happens. On paper, it looks great.”
The Nationals spent so much in 2011 – even more than in 2010, when they held the first overall pick – with an eye on this season. First, they expected significant improvement on the major league level, which would cause them to pick later and presumably not spend as much on their first-round pick. Second, the Nationals expected some changes to the draft in the CBA.
“I think we had a little foresight with what was coming in 2012,” Kline said. “I think with the draft we had this year, I think that was pretty good plan.”
The Nationals had used the unlimited, un-penalized signing bonuses to their advantage not only in 2011, but also in 2009 and 2010 in landing first overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Still, Kline supported the new system.
“Everybody is going to have to stay within the guidelines,” Kline said. “I like it. You’ll have to do your diligence with the signability of each player, know him inside and out.”
“To be honest with you, I think it’s gotten way out of hand,” Kline added. “I think there needs to be more structure. The system was certainly broken. If this is something that’s going to help us keep it in check, I’m all for it.”
Many observers have expressed concern the new draft rules will cause elite athletes who otherwise would have received a massive contract in baseball will shift to either football or basketball. Fifth overall pick Bubba Starling, for example, might have played quarterback for Nebraska rather than signing with the Royals. Kline, though, does not harbor the same concern.
“I don’t really worry about that,” Kline said. “Those guys are so rare in our game. They are out there, but there are very few that are exceptional.”
Moving forward, Kline did not see the changes altering the way the Nationals approach the draft. They will have to pay less, of course, but they will also be picking later in the draft.
“I don’t think it changes anything,” Kline said. “Our philosophy has always been, take the best player available. If there is a player out there who has priced himself out, you move on to the next guy. I don’t think our philosophy is ever going to change.”