Like most Major League teams, the Mets have followed the wishes of the league office and declined to pay "over the slot" for U.S. amateur talent selected in the First-Year Player Draft, which will be held on June 5 this year. Indications from our sources at Baseball America, the industry's leading authority on amateur baseball, are that the Mets will continue to toe the line here.
"The Mets have borrowed from the league's central fund to build their new stadium and would like to host an All-Star Game soon after it opens," said co-editor-in-chief John Manuel. "So maybe they concluded this isn't the best time to stand up to the league on this."
Here's how premium U.S. talent falls to teams willing to pay for it on draft day. Players and their agents have an idea of what they are worth. Teams unwilling to pay or enter into tough negotiations pass on the player. But the player doesn't alter his demands because he can always go back and play his senior year in college or, in the case of high school players, put off the pros and take a college scholarship. In other words, unlike their NFL counterparts, baseball draftees have leverage.
Teams willing to forget about what their pick gets paid relative to those selected before and after him can get real bargains. They just have to pay the player for his actual ability. For example, the Mets, who pick 18th this season, could choose to pay their selection a higher sum than that given to the 17th or 19th pick. This holds true in later rounds, where premium talent can be bought if a team is willing to pony up for it and ignore the slot at which the player was drafted.
Manuel says the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers are the only teams that have consistently violated the league's wishes on draft slotting.
"A high-revenue team like the Mets that wants to invest in talent really should be aggressive in the draft and pay over the slot," Manuel continued. "Free agency is weakening given that even small-market teams have the revenue and the smarts to lock up their best talent well before they're eligible. The draft is the next-to-last playground for the big-market clubs. All that's left is the international market, where, to be fair, the Mets are very aggressive. That's like the Wild West. There are no rules and the league office doesn't get involved."
Added executive editor Jim Callis, who specializes in the draft, "You theoretically could make up the difference on the international market, but the problem with that is the big-ticket guys there require even more projection than draftees -- they're further away from reaching their potential -- so there's even more risk involved.
And of course there's no reason why the Mets couldn't flex their muscle in the draft and be active internationally.
"If it was an either/or proposition, I'd definitely invest in the draft," Callis continued. "There's not as much guesswork involved as to how good these players will become, and there's virtually no uncertainty as to how old they really are. And the draftees are likely to contribute at the Major League level sooner, too."
How much money are we talking about? Relative peanuts.
"It's been about 800 K," Manuel said. "Sometimes it's one or two million. Not per year, but over the life of the deal. Think of this in the context of what the Giants paid Barry Zito and now imagine putting even a fraction of $100 million going into this kind of player development."
Where else in baseball can you gamble on greatness for that kind of price? Consider how it paid off for the Tigers, who gobbled up both center fielder Cameron Maybin and pitcher Andrew Miller when they fell in the draft and then parlayed those prospects into Miguel Cabrera, considered by many the best young hitter in the sport.
The Mets famously got Scott Kazmir for this reason with the 15th pick when he was supposed to go No. 3 to the Reds, who balked at his salary demands and then ended up paying Chris Gruler $500,000 more than Kazmir ultimately signed for with New York.
To get an idea of how seriously the league considers the slotting issue, Manuel said to consider the case of outfielder Drew Stubbs and the Astros. Stubbs agreed to a $900,000 deal as a third-round pick in 2003, but the league said the Astros could only pay him $450,000 at that slot. Houston pulled out and lost the player to college. Stubbs was ultimately taken in the first round by the Reds and hasn't exactly panned out, but that's not Manuel's point.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Astros owner Drayton McLane acknowledged "there was pressure from New York" on the Stubbs deal.
Just last year, the Tigers used the 27th pick to draft the pitcher most scouts felt was the best high schooler in the draft, Rick Porcello. Detroit then signed him for about $7 million, well above the slot. The Grand Rapids Press quoted a club official at the time saying, "There will be fireworks coming out of New York [over that]."
The Mets took Eddie Kunz 42nd overall last year even though Kunz lost his closer's job on his college team. The Mets instead could have taken Matt Harvey, considered the second-best high school pitcher in the draft, well before the Angels grabbed him in the third round. The Angels ultimately didn't sign Harvey, who instead took his scholarship to North Carolina.
This year, keep an eye on Eric Hosmer, a high school first baseman from Florida represented by Scott Boras, to gauge the impact of the slotting controversy. Hosmer is considered one of the best high school hitting prospects ever and also has been clocked at 99 mph on the mound. He could easily fall like Porcello did last year due to signability. The Mets not only pick 18th but also 22nd and 33rd, but if they pass on Hosmer and he is taken by the Yankees, Red Sox or Tigers, you know why.
New York might be able to get their first baseman of the future for a couple million bucks (over the slot). Or they can wait until November and get into the bidding for Mark Teixeira and hope he doesn't turn into an albatross like Jason Giambi.