Are First Round Draft Picks Overpaid?

For all of Bud Selig’s efforts to strong-arm owners into signing draft picks to slot recommendations, it is painfully obvious to anyone paying attention to the game of baseball that this system is woefully broken. Every year, it’s the same thing. A good chunk of the draft class has to while away time rather than playing baseball before Bud will allow ownership the freedom to do whatever the heck they want. Development time is lost; recommendations go completely ignored and the amount of bonuses getting handed out goes up instead of down. It’s completely counterproductive on both sides.

While players are waiting to sign, plenty of rumblings go out on what different player’s asking prices are, and threats are issued of going to play at college or the independent leagues are made if demands are not met. Players and agents are vilified as selfish little punks. The general feeling seems to be that draft picks need to prove something before they get paid, and that handing out big dollars to a player who hasn’t done anything in the big leagues is a huge waste of resources. After all, even first round draft picks bust all the time. But are they really overpaid?

I’ve gone back and researched the draft from the past decade, similarly to what Victor Wang has done, only using WAR. In my research I’ve listed out the total WAR for each first round draft pick during their cost-controlled years to see what sort of surplus value they have. We’ll say a win on the free agent market is worth today’s rate, $4.4 million. I know we’re looking at six years, so just forget inflation for a moment. The picks were worth –

• Picks 1 though 5 on average gave their teams $32M of production.
• Picks 6 through 10, $22.4M
• 11-15, $17.6M
• 16-20, $18.9M
• 21-30 $6.6M

That’s a lot of surplus value. Even with the relatively high failure rate, first round draft picks are incredibly valuable and actually have proven to be quite a bargain. For example, recommended slot for the first overall pick is this year was $3.6M. While it’s only a group of ten players, 1st overall picks from ’90-’99 produced on average $51.5 million worth of value that a team would normally pay for on the free agent market, or about roughly 14 times today’s recommended bonus!

Even with his record deal, Stephen Strasburg is a great value. If you don’t think so, just imagine the bidding war that would go on between large market teams if he were a free agent. Dump the slots. Let teams do whatever they want. If they can’t do their homework on what a kid’s asking price is before the draft him, that’s their own failure.




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Erik Manning is the founder of Future Redbirds and covers the Cardinals for Heater Magazine. You can get more of his analysis and rantings in bite-sized bits by following him on twitter.


52 Responses to “Are First Round Draft Picks Overpaid?”

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  1. Nick says:

    Great work erik!

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  2. Slick says:

    Baseball should just draft normally like hockey, football and basketball do.

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  3. Brian says:

    Isn’t this a bit misleading? Typical draftee contracts will not buy out all six years of major league service time. Using WAR over the entire 6 year ML service time period assigns zero cost to the team for any years after the initial contract.

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    • rizzo says:

      you beat me to the punch. To truly determine excess value you have to look at arbitration awards/long term extrensions that bought out arb.

      Not saying that these guys are over-paid, but the excess value is over-stated

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      • Erik Manning says:

        Maybe it was a lot to assume, but I figured this was something you could eyeball and sort of figure in your head. It’s not the stated surplus value per se’, just what the players would be worth on avg. on the FA market.

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      • Travis L says:

        Agreed with Brian and Rizzo.

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      • Wally says:

        Maybe it would be best just to look at the first 3 years since in year 4 they start with arbitration or may sign extensions around that time. Even if you’re just getting 5 million a year out of arbitration, this changes the equation a lot. And some of the better guys now are getting around 10. So, everything just gets really messy after year 3, if not before with extensions. Given that, I’d suggest we just add the minimum for 3 years to the signing bonus, and just use the first 3 years worth of WAR.

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  4. GhettoBear04 says:

    Hmm, just to check, you are saying that this is what their value is, not what they should be getting paid, right? I’m bringing this up because even if the average value of a player is X for that pick in the draft, the teams still have to take on the risk that they don’t make it. Maybe somebody more familiar with actuarial knowledge can help here, but it seems like that while this post is useful, there would be better ways of accounting for the risk than just averaging the players WAR.

    As an aside, my favorite part of moving to a more free market system for free agents would be that teams could better address their needs. If there’s lots of pitchers they’re interested in one year, they could stock up, fill up all of their low A openings, then not draft/sign as many the next year.

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  5. MeOhMy says:

    This post is completely missing the problem with the draft and with baseball. It doesn’t matter if Strasburg is a great value at 15 million or at 100 million. If a team can’t afford the player then it does them no good. The draft needs to be there to create parity in the league. Give the bad teams the best players because for the most part the top teams are the ones that can afford to spend on the free agents. Without a salaray cap there needs to be some other mechanism which ensures that the worst teams don’t have to skip taking the best player in the draft because they won’t be able to afford them.

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    • JH says:

      So your basic point is: screw the kids as much as possible to save a bad organization. And punish those who run their teams well.

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      • PhD Brian says:

        No one who makes multiples of times more than the typical MD is screwed at the age of 20! Sorry! If a CEO who earns his company billions in profits can’t get paid 10s of millions without this society getting mad at them, after they spent 30 years working up yo that wage, then a 20 year old who has proven nothing is not getting screwed earning merely 100s of thousands of dollars.

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    • Andrew says:

      A cap is in place in the NFL, and recent trends are suggesting that contrary to popular assumption, lower 1st rount picks have more value than the top-10 picks.

      The worst team in the NFL has the opportunity to pick the best player, but the downside to this is that the player is going to command a large contract/bonus. With a hard cap in place, bad teams with more needs to fill find themselves either spending a disproportionate amount of money on ONE player.

      Continuting the argument made yesterday (abolish the MLB draft), if we dump the draft, and institute a hard cap, then we get parity. Of course, a cap is near impossible to implement in MLB because teams also must fund their MiLB organizations and international camps and traning centers. The NFL and NBA have their minor leagues (NCAA) provide for development and marketing while absorbing absolutely $0 of the cost.

      Do we require that teams cap spending on MLB contracts (or do we limit to the active roster of 25, not the 40-man MLB roster?) Do we limit the cap to salaries and ignore signing bonuses? What about performance bonuses (All-Star, WS, etc)?

      Also to use the word “afford” is dubious at best. The Lerners are Billionaires, with a B. The fact that the biggest FA signing in Nationals history is Adam Dunn provides you with all the evidence you’d need to make the argument that ownership is “cheap”. This is also an ownership group that demanded the cash-strapped DC City Council fund the stadium build with budget cuts and tax hikes, only to refuse to make the first 6 months of rent payments because certain elements of the stadium were “incomplete”, all while the Nationals were playing MLB games in the stadium.

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      • PhD Brian says:

        Adam Dunn is way overpaid, as is half the Nats roster. The Lerners are cheap, but stupid!

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      • Dave Shaw says:

        The Lerners have only been owners of the Nationals for a couple of years – to use that track record to call them cheap is foolish. It is also apparent that you do not live in Washington and are not familiar with the DC government – if you did you would understand how it was necessary for the Lerners to demand that it live up to their obligations. There is a reason the DC government is “cash strapped” and it is because it is incompetent and wasteful.

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      • Andrew says:

        I actually DO live in the area Dave, which is why I have to shake my head at the incompetence with which the Lerner’s have handled their franchise.

        The Lerner’s forced the taxpayers to fund their ugly monstrosity of a stadium. They refused to pay rent for a stadium because it wasn’t “game ready”, while actually playing games in the stadium!

        They incompetently hired Jim Bowden and signed off on his poor treatment of the Alfonso Soriano debacle, the collection of any and all Reds has-beens, the Frank Robinson firing, the Manny Acta firing, the whole thing with them has been crap!

        Outside of the good luck of Ryan Zimmerman, the team has been pretty much miss on all of its major player personnel decisions. Rizzo seems to be doing fine, but I wonder how much the Lerner’s will be willing to let him spend on the draft going forward to properly develop this franchise.

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    • Tim says:

      This is a valid point to a certain extent. That said, even the poorest of teams are regularly going over-slot to get their guys these days- look at Oakland and Washington in this draft.

      The problem is that the over-slot mechanic can become a slippery slope where eventually the draft becomes an odd kind of free agency which creates the problems that MeOhMy mentions.

      What about this: what if the league treated rec bonuses the same way they treat the payroll tax? Basically each team is allotted a purse consisting of the aggregate value of their rec. bonuses. Players and teams are still allowed to negotiate the actual bonuses but if teams exceed their allotted total then they have to pay a tax on that into the revenue sharing pool. That provides amateurs and teams the flexibility they have today while also putting a mechanic in place to limit the amount of over-slotting that goes on.

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      • Bigmouth says:

        Tim, the A’s are not a poor team. Oakland routinely drew more than 2 million fans per year during the 1980s, when that was still an impressive number. The Bay Area is actually a decently sized market. The A’s, Raiders, and Warriors just have atrocious ownership. The A’s owner is like the villain in Major League…

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    • nilodnayr says:

      All teams can afford to sign their draft picks. There aren’t any teams out there with operating budgets uner $20M. Its just a matter of if that team wants to allocate their resources to the draft picks. Its a smart way to build a small market team and by the looks of the results of this years draft, small market teams are finally understanding that.

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      • Wally says:

        Sure all teams could techincally afford to pay $20M out in the draft, but how much can the Yankees afford? $50M-$100M? In the interest of parity, we do need some system to bring the small markets up, and the big markets down. Given that need, something like a revenue sharing system specifically for the draft would work well. This way the “poor” teams get a chance at actually signing the top talent, while the amateur players aren’t cheated out of their free market value.

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      • Steve says:

        the Yankees draft budget this year was about $7M.

        no, the Yankees can’t afford $100M on the draft. you sound like Dr. Evil.

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      • Wally says:

        Well that’s the deal with this “afford” thing. Surely they *could* put $100 million into the draft if they wanted to, but they’d have to make cuts elsewhere. Other clubs couldn’t put $100 million into the draft and maintain anything resembling a functional franchise.

        Basically, I’m just saying the financial advantages of a large market a present in the draft just as they are in free agency. And whether or not all clubs can “afford” to put $20M into the draft is irrelevent. Some clubs can still “afford” to put more into it than others.

        BTW, loved the Dr. Evil bit.

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    • Steve says:

      it sucks that the Yankees just got Strasburg.

      oh wait, they didn’t. the NATIONALS signed him.

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      • Andrew says:

        Be fair – he was drafter by the Nationals, and as such could only negotiate with them. If he went unsigned, he would have to go pound sand in some independent league for a year before being drafted again, by another team that stunk it up enough to be drafting in the top 5.

        Wally’s comment today references the fact that current top draft choices are being paid way under market. Completely eliminating the draft without regulating who gets to spend how much would guarantee players like Strasburg, Ackley, Wieters, etc are that much more likely to go to the big spending teams, teams that have money to spend not because they are successful, but because they just have an owner willing to drop coin.

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  6. The Fonz says:

    I think with improvements in scouting, we are seeing stronger prospects being taken in the first round than we have in the past. No scout is perfect, but a lot of first-rounders nowadays have the talent, but just need the work ethic to maintain consistency and have the ability to make the small, necessary corrections.

    The biggest problem I see – and I agree with the proposal of an international draft – is that teams looking to save money can place more emphasis on baseball feeders in Latin America, where kids that don’t have much money get locked into the tenuous life of baseball in their early-to-mid teens. Those cheap contracts stick for a long time, and the lack of regulation on PED’s in major league baseball influenced a monster down there. I love baseball, but this systems takes advantage of kids from poor countries, many of whom will never get a shot but will find themselves spending important years without an education (or with the often-inadequate education offered by the teams).

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    • Brian says:

      Opening up the draft to international players would take away a team’s incentive to develop players in the Caribbean using camps and other methods. Why would the Pirates spend millions scouting and developing international talent that will just be drafted by another team?

      The logistics just do not support an international draft.

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      • The Fonz says:

        That doesn’t make any sense…in theory, you’re saying that they would look elsewhere for players? MLB teams don’t hold camps in the United States?

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      • Brian says:

        Fonz, feel free to correct me if my understanding of the process is wrong, but I’m saying that the costs of finding and developing international talent (completely different than US talent) wouldn’t be worth it becasue there is no guarantee that you can draft the player that you are developing.

        Right now the team and find, scout, and develop a player in it’s own international camp and then sign that same player during international free agency. Logistically, if you take away the incentive to have your own operations/camps/facilities (in EVERY single country that has baseball talent, no less), then teams will decrease their focus on international players.

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      • The Fonz says:

        If there’s talent in those regions, believe me, teams will gravitate. And all the money spent on “developing” (aka “monopolizing”) talent in a region can be put towards signing players. So what exactly is being lost? It reduces crazy bidding wars like we’ve seen for Japanese players (who won those battles?), and it organizes available players into the draft format.
        “The logistics just do not support an international draft.”(?) You need to be specific. No teams will go for it? It’s not numerically possible?

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      • PhD Brian says:

        MLB itself should create baseball schools all over the world that all teams can take advantage of equally. That is more cost effective than each country having 30 separate schools.

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      • The Fonz says:

        The players should go to a real school, not the crap they pass off as school in those “development” programs. Kind of like “prep” schools in the U.S; how many thousands of players have earned the exciting decision to either slog through the minors or fulfill their degree and becoming Phys Ed teachers?

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  7. lookatthosetwins says:

    I completely disagree. Because I’m a Twins fan and that puts my team at a disadvantage. And I care more about the Twins than being fair to prospects. And I like starting my sentences with conjunctions. But thats just me.

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  8. Damon G. says:

    To shore up this analysis a bit I’d like to see the players broken down into pitchers and position players. Also, some sort of variance measure is needed. Even if, on average, players of a certain draft position pan out when considering the mean value, teams might not want to pump large amounts of money into a complete “hit or miss” proposition, which is reasonable.

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  9. James M. says:

    Ghettobear04 asked for some actuarial help on the question of whether simply averaging the WAR for all players drafted in a given range is the best way to deal with the high failure rate. I’m an actuary. Although my work doesn’t really help answer the question, it does help to frame the question. It’s a function of how risk averse you are.

    Suppose you were given the chance to buy a lottery ticket which has one chance in 10 of winning $1,000. Would you give me $100 for the ticket? Probably; it’s a fair bet Unless of course you feel you can’t afford to lose that $100.

    How about a ticket with one-in-10 chance of winning $1,000,000. Would you give me $100,000 for it? Probably not, unless you don’t mind losing $100,000.

    This illustrates why a potential draftee (or a free agent) is worth more to the Yankees than he is to the Twins, even if they are in complete agreement about his potential for success and expected WAR. The cost of failure is much greater for the Twins than it is for the Yankees.

    There is no way to know what a draftee is worth to a club without knowing how risk averse they are. The clubs probably don’t know the answer to that themselves. It only becomes apparent after the fact from their decision-making. And of course it changes over time.

    One statistic you could look at to get a better feel for the value of a typical slot is the median (instead of the mean). The mean is distorted by a few big winners; the median is not.

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    • Kris says:

      I’m glad you brought up risk aversion within the context of expected value.

      Anyways, I have trouble just looking at the first round knowing how distorted the MLB Draft has become. Most first-round talent guys aren’t drafted in the first round, unless there’s a very good chance that they’ll sign.

      Baseball’s draft essentially follows the market and pretty much every business model. I always enjoy using illicit drugs to describe markets, especially sports markets.

      You buy the good stuff cheap and once you’re hooked, you gotta pay more money for the crappy stuff.

      In baseball, you buy the good stuff cheap, and once your fans will hang you for not keeping him around, you gotta pay more money for the crappy years.

      The external pressure of pleasing your fans is akin to the internal pressures of addiction.

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      • Andrew says:

        Here here. Baseball economics are cruel to both team and player at times. Let’s disregard the fact that we’re talking about individuals throwing around Monopoly money.

        My favorite is the argument that the owner that doesn’t spend money (or overspend) on FA is somehow “bad”. PAngelos is reviled in Bawlmer for many a reason, but I find it laughable the number of people pissed that he didn’t drop the $180 million offer on Tex.

        Irrespective of the fact that Boras was using the O’s for leverage against the Yanks and the Sox, fans actually wanted a team that had no ML rotation to speak of to spend that kind of money on a guy who would do essentially what ADunn is doing down I95 with the Nats – put up big numbers on a 100 loss team.

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    • Damon G. says:

      This is exactly why I was saying some sort of variance measure would be helpful. It’d help illustrate how risky picks are.

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  10. Ben p. says:

    Pirates pitcher Ross Ohlendorf actually wrote his senior thesis at Princeton on this subject. He did not discuss the slotting system, but his findings show that from a purely financial standpoint the teams came out overwhelmingly ahead.

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  11. BW says:

    One problem with this analysis is using free agent market to measure the dollar value of wins. There’s no good justification for that. Free agent markets are very different than baseball’s overall salary structure. You will always find players to be underpaid if you measure wins that way, because it’s a bogus method.

    First, the free agent market is dominated by teams with deep pockets. It is therefore not a good estimation of the demand curve for MLB as a whole.

    Second, dollar value per win is non-linear. Teams are rationally willing to spend much more to get the 95th win than the 80th. But free agent markets focus heavily on those more expensive wins, because those are the short-term players than can turn a contender into a champion.

    Consider the current Pirates team for instance. It would have been folly for them to chase Mark Teixiera or CC Sabathia last season, even if they could afford them, since they were so far from contention. No sense paying that much money to finish 5th rather than 6th. Contrast that to the Dodgers and Manny. It made sense for them because they were already competitive, thanks in large part to the contributions of their low-salaried young players.

    What that tells you is that Manny’s market value was so high because of the Dodgers’ young players. The same was true for CC and Tex, although in that case, the supporting cast is very highly paid — the point remains, though, that the market value was dependent on the value already on the team.

    An accurate analysis would have to apply auction theory, which is probably excessively technical for this context. In absence of that, it is best to use average player salaries, and not free agent salaries, to measure the $$ value of wins.

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    • Jay says:

      Thank God somebody brought this up. This knee-jerk valuation of players based on free agency is idiotic, and it has to stop. Hardly any teams can afford to buy more than a handful of marginal wins at the free agent rate. Outside of those few teams, if first-rounders are going to get paid anything close to what free agents get, then teams would be better off not signing them at all.

      Part of the reason quality free agents are so expensive is because quality free agents are so scarce. Hundreds of players are far more cheaply available through development operations and trades. If you took those hundreds of arb-eligible and pre-arb guys and put them on the free agent market, the cost of free agents would go down dramatically.

      The average player makes about $2 million, there are 28 players on the average roster (including the DL), and the average team gets 32 marginal wins. Just working on the fly here, that figures to $1.75 million per marginal win, or about 40% of the free agent figure of $4.4 million. Rewrite that article with that figure, and factor in the actual salaries of first-rounders as major leaguers, and then this might become an article worth reading.

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  12. cpebbles says:

    I’m not sure that it’s ever been established how accurate this is, but the general rule of thumb is to assume arbitration awards of 40%, 60%, then 80% of the player’s market value for the years of arbitration. Instead of the picks being worth ~10X the slotted amount maybe they’re worth 5X, and it answers the criticism of those earlier in the thread.

    Second, I don’t think it’s at all true that the free agent market is determined by high-payroll teams. The dollar value of wins is not determined solely by the Teixeiras and Sabathias, but by all of the players that enter the free agent market, and while teams certainly vary in how dependent they are on free agency to fill out their team, that is sort of the point–low-payroll teams can attempt to stay competitive by focusing on these other markets because the return on investment is better than anywhere else.

    Now if you want to argue that we shouldn’t always default to the free agent market as the true or only meaningful measure of a player’s value, you may have a point, as roughly the same number of Major Leaguers are entering baseball via the draft and international signings each year as are available in the free agent market, they are just not actually in the Major Leagues for a few years. That’s just an academic point when the discussion is about what we (should) already know: That draftees are paid less for their eventual production than the free agent alternative.

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  13. BobbyMac says:

    Some people have made a couple of these points but I think you make two assumptions here which dramatically change the ratio by which teams are underpaying. I have not tabulated the actual numbers, but if I just assume $18mil for the 11-20 picks, that’s about $3mil in FA value per 6 years…

    1) FA values are roughly twice the average price-per-value players receive in MLB, so half that should really be used.
    2) You really need to adjust everything to NPV (net present value). The loss of use of the dollars *is* significant, not just the impact of inflation.

    Just ad hoc, I used $18mil and figured that teams got the year 3-8 years out of a player (a very optimistic assumption, as many players are still in A ball at year 3), and came up with $5.12 mil in “value”. Using years 4-9, I got $4.61mil. These were both using an annual depreciation of 10%.

    I do think that assuming a “value” to the team of $4.5-5.0 mil for an 11-20 pick is much more accurate than assuming ~$18mil. Obviously, I just used back-of-envelope figuring here, but I also didn’t assume any reduction in value for assuming all the risk that teams do.

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  14. DavidCEisen says:

    The New York Times mentioned this article today.

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  15. han says:

    The use of the average is a problem here. One Tex and twenty nine Matt Bushes makes for a pretty hefty average, but you wouldn’t want to be picking in that round, would you? The median is a better indicator.

    The median non draft bonus is about the same as the median draft bonus (around the 35k mark.) and yet there is 2.5 to 3 times more money spent in the draft on roughly the same number of players. There is as much money spent in the first round alone as there is for all non drafted players, and it doesn’t matter if it is a dog of a year, or 2005. Bad year? still have to pay. That is the problem. Check out the first round in 2000–almost half the players never even got to the ML. And many of them who did were about as good as Adam Johnson. However, Gonzalez, Utley and Wainwright will blow the average right up the ladder. Teams are locked into the value of the round, not the value of the player. The first round has great players who will make a lot of money. However, any team in any year has just as good, if not better, chance of getting an impact player after the first round than in the first round.

    Bay/Pedroia/Lowell/Papelbon/Lester/Youkilis/Wakefield/Delacarmen/(plus Ortiz/Martinez/Gonzalez)
    Beckett/Ellsbury/Drew/Buchholz/Varitek/Kotchman/Lowrie/Duncan/Baldelli/Anderson/Bowden/Traber/Matsuzaka and Tanaka (1st rounders in Japan, paid like first rounders.)

    Which group is worth more?

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  16. Blogger Bill from Elmhurst, IL says:

    Proof once again that stats can be manipulated to make whatever argument you wish to pursue. Take a look at the MLB draft class of 2005, and you’ll quickly see that picks #15 through the supplemental 1st round picks have produced only 2 (count ‘em), quality big leaguers, both coincidentally enough in Boston.
    ***
    There are a couple of “fringe” players in the (mostly bad), lot, but for the most part it was an awful lot of money MLB owners spent on a bunch of stiffs.

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  17. han says:

    so even in 2005, one of the greatest draft years ever, there is only a 50-50 chance that you are going to get a decent player. The reality is that a large percentage of first rounders don’t even get to the majors, much less have any sort of career. What percentage of first rounders even make it to free agency? Figure 3-5 years in the minors, and 6 years before free agency, and you’d have to look back into the 90’s to figure it out. On a quick look, over 25% of the first round picks in the 90’s never even made it out of the minor leagues, and over 50% of the players who made it to the ML never accrued enough service time to qualify for free agency.

    the idea that

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  18. han says:

    If over 75% of first round picks never make it to free agency, how can you use free agent prices to ascribe any sort of value to a first round pick?

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  19. Michael says:

    I’m interested in the variance of the surplus value for each set of picks, since I think risk should be a consideration as it is in free agency. For each big FA starter that signs you have a Pedro Martinez who pitches 1.5 healthy years of a 4 year deal. I wonder if the draft pick average surplus is skewed by a few big performers.

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