The Nationals will join the rest of Major League Baseball on Monday night in the first draft since this winter’s new collective b
argaining agreement changed the rules about how much money clubs can spend on the draft. The Nationals, picking 16th overall, will be allotted $4.4 million for their first 10 picks, the result of baseball’s effort to restrain the kind of draft spending the Nationals employed for the past three years.
The Nationals also will deal with a welcome change in the draft order. Their 80-81 record last year put them in the middle of the first round after they picked in the top 10 for five straight years.
“It’s a lot less clear the type of player we’re going to get,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Picking in the middle of the pack, you put together a list and the next guy on the top of the list is the guy you’re going to take. It’s hard to plan.”
The Nationals built one of the sport’s best farm systems with aggressive spending on the draft. Selecting Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper enhanced their budget, but the Nationals anticipated more restrictive rules on draft bonuses and planned three years ago to bet big on the draft. Last year, when they picked sixth overall, the Nationals dropped $16.5 million on deals for their top five picks alone.
“We understood what was going to happen this year,” Clark said. “That’s why we were much more aggressive, especially with the four guys we signed at the deadline. This year’s draft, on the surface, is not as deep as the last few years.”
All 30 teams have a cap on signing bonuses for picks in the first 10 rounds, depending on when they pick and the number of compensatory picks they have. The cap ranges from the Minnesota Twins’$12.4 million to the Los Angeles Angels’ $1.6 million. Teams also are no longer allowed to sign players to major league contracts, which the Nationals handed out to Strasburg, Harper, Anthony Rendon and Matt Purke.
If teams spend more than their cap amount, the penalty is punitive to the point of being prohibitive: a 75 percent tax for exceeding the cap by 5 percent, up to a 100 percent tax and the loss of two future first-round picks for exceeding the bonus allotment by more than 15 percent.
Clark felt instant comfort with the new rules. He worked for 11 years as the Braves’ scouting director under John Schuerholz, who started as general manager and later became team president. Schuerholz stuck so strictly to the slot bonuses that Commissioner Bud Selig named him the head of the league’s Draft Reform Committee.
Clark loved drafting with the Lerner family’s unlimited checkbook, but his experience allowed him to outline to others in the Nationals’ draft room how the draft would unfold with a strict budget.
“We’re going to take it as we always have,” Rizzo said. We’re going to put the board together ability-based and we’ll do our due diligence on the health, makeup and signability of all the players. We’re going to pull the trigger and take the best player available.”
But the rules will make for some debate, none more fascinating than the case of California high school right-hander Lucas Giolito. He was projected for most of the year as the possible first overall pick, but a strained elbow ligament moved him down draft boards. Giolito still wants to be paid like a top choice, though, and if he is not, he could honor his commitment to UCLA.
The Nationals, then, could be among the teams faced with a new dilemma: Should they exhaust the majority of their bonus money on one supremely gifted player and sign lesser, but more signable, talents with the leftover scraps?
“That’s a good question,” Clark said. “I’m not sure how that’s going to play out.”
Clark doubted the Nationals would go with that kind of all-or-nothing strategy.
“I don’t think, at 16, that guy is going to be out there this year,” Clark said. “It’s not like we’re picking 1.”
Agent Scott Boras blasted the system when it was first announced on the grounds that it will weaken baseball’s talent pool. (Needless to say, it will also decrease his take from the draft.) If teams are unable to lure elite athletes with exorbitant bonuses, he argues, then MLB could lose them to college football.
“Baseball is making more money than it’s ever made,” Boras said. “The reason these guys play this sport, they knew there was an appropriate structure for them to be appropriately compensated.”
With the new rules in place, the Nationals will try to find their next young star. Sunday afternoon, Clark stood in the tunnel between the Nationals’ dugout and field, discussing the kind of player the Nationals hoped to draft, as Harper walked behind.
“Somebody like a Bryce Harper,” Clark said, laughing and slapping him on the shoulder.