Ever since the new collective bargaining agreement was announced in November 2011, people speculated as to how the newly-formulated signing bonus budgets for the MLB Draft would affect draft strategy.
Signability became extremely important. Teams could not afford to fail to sign a pick because it caused them to forfeit their pick and the bonus money allotted for that pick, ultimately lessening their overall spending pool. That focus on signability resulted in an influx of college seniors getting drafted in earlier rounds than their talent would have otherwise dictated.
Drafting college seniors in the top ten rounds allowed organizations to sign those players — who lack negotiating leverage due to their inability to return to college — well under the prescribed slot value and bank money to utilize elsewhere.
Most teams drafted a college senior or two in the first ten rounds, but the Toronto Blue Jays took the strategy to a whole different level. In rounds four through ten, Toronto drafted seven-consecutive college seniors, and not one of those players has signed for more than $5,000 — including outfielder Alex Azor out of the United States Naval Academy, who signed for a mere $1,000 in the tenth round. Azor saved the Blue Jays $124,000 against their overall signing bonus allotment.
The massive savings accumulated in rounds four through ten was then disbursed to the quintet of high school players drafted between the supplemental and third rounds. Of those five prep players, only right-hander Tyler Gonzales signed below slot value. The other four players necessitated above-slot bonuses, especially left-hander Matt Smoral, who was a first-round talent who fell to the supplemental round due to signability concerns. Smoral reportedly signed for $2 million — or $1 million over slot value.
Toronto engaged in a fascinating strategy, in which they essentially punted rounds four through ten in order to acquire more top-end talent in the earlier rounds. In short, they opted for quality rather than quantity in the draft.
That strategy stood in stark contrast to the one practiced by the Milwaukee Brewers, for example. They did not draft a single collegiate senior in the first ten rounds. While the Blue Jays signed their tenth-round pick for $1,000, the Brewers signed left-hander Anthony Banda in the tenth round for $125,000, which was exactly slot value.
The Blue Jays took a huge chance with their draft strategy because it limits their opportunities to reap tangible benefits from their draft picks. At the same time, their draft picks have more upside and a better chance of developing into impact talent at the big league level — at least, according to scouts at this point in their respective professional careers — and in the difficult AL East, the Toronto Blue Jays desperately need to develop impact talent from their farm system to compete. They simply do not have the payroll to load up elite free agents like some of their division rivals.
In some ways, the Brewers and Blue Jays both walked into a casino with $100 to spend. The Brewers pulled up a chair at the nickel slots, maximizing their plays and odds of winning modest payouts. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, spent their money on the dollar slots. Their number of plays is more limited, but their potential payout is much, much higher. It will be interesting to see which strategy proves more effective down the road.
With Alex Anthopoulos at the helm, the Blue Jays have become one of the more creative teams in Major League Baseball. Their strategy in the 2012 Draft is just another example of that creativity at work.
(Individual signing bonuses can be found via Baseball America’s impressive Draft Database.)