With the July 18 deadline to sign draft choices looming, the Nationals have yet to sign three of their top 10 choices, including their first- and second-round selections.
Headlining the Nationals’ unsigned trio is No. 18 overall pick Erick Fedde, a right-handed pitcher from UNLV who is advised by agent Scott Boras and underwent Tommy John surgery in early June. Fedde remains one of only four first-round picks who have yet to agree to terms.
General Manager Mike Rizzo views leaving draft picks unsigned as a cardinal sin, but signing Fedde and the other two unsigned players – second-round pick Andrew Suarez, a left-handed pitcher from Miami, and ninth-round choice Austin Byler, a first baseman from the University of Nevada – could be challenging, particularly Fedde, even if the Nationals and Boras share a close relationship.
The Nationals’ negotiation with Fedde will likely go to the deadline. First, Boras would be able to oversee Fedde’s rehab longer. Second, the negotiation may be difficult. The slot value of the No. 18 pick is $2,145,600, but Boras may use use the $2.925 million bonus the Nationals gave in 2012 to No. 16 pick Lucas Giolito – who also fell in the draft because he needed Tommy John surgery – as a benchmark.
The Nationals could counter with an example from this year to make their case. East Carolina right-hander Jeff Hoffman, like Fedde, was expected to be a top-of-the-draft pick until he suffered a torn elbow ligament. He slipped to the Blue Jays at ninth overall and signed a contract for precisely the slot value of the ninth choice, which is $3,080,000. The Nationals, then, could argue the going rate for an elite starter who needs Tommy John surgery is the value of the pick as dictated by MLB.
Even that haggling alone would make for a tough negotiation. But the Nationals have another minor issue that could trickle to both Fedde and Suarez. For reasons that remain unknown, there is significant doubt that the Nationals will be able to sign ninth-round pick Byler, according to someone familiar with the situation.
Under baseball’s rules, every draft pick comes with a value attached, and all a team’s draft picks add up to a bonus pool. Teams may sign a player for less than slot value and transfer savings elsewhere. But if a team fails to sign a pick, they lose that pick’s value from their bonus pool.
Byler was chosen with the 274th overall pick, which comes with a value of $145,900. If the Nationals signed him for under that value, they would have had extra money to pass along to Fedde and Suarez.
The Nationals this year have a $5,275,700 spending pool, as allocated by Major League Baseball. If they exceed the total, they incur penalties. The Nationals can spend up to $5,538,750 – five percent of their bonus pool – and incur a strictly financial penalty. If they spend more on bonuses, they would be fined and lose a draft pick. (Both numbers would decrease if they cannot sign Byler.)
In previous years, including 2012, the Nationals have shown a willingness to exceed their bonus pool and pay the fine, but not to forfeit a draft pick.
In signing seven of their draft picks, the Nationals have committed $1.638 million, about $88,000 below the total slot value of their picks. They could spend about $3.9 million on Fedde, Suarez and Byler without forfeiting a 2015 draft choice – but that’s only if Byler signs. If not, they would have $3.748 million to sign Fedde and Suarez. That probably won’t make or break the negotiations, but it’s a wrinkle.
The Nationals are working at signing their top two picks, and it would be a surprise if they failed. Since he became Nationals GM, Rizzo has never let a high-profile draft pick slip away. They have 10 days to maintain that track record.