SBJ/April 4-10, 2011/In Depth

Management eyes hard salary-slot system

As many teams in recent years increasingly embraced younger and cheaper homegrown talent over older, more expensive free agents, the draft has taken on greater importance and prominence.

Though still nowhere near the spectacle of the NBA or NFL drafts, in part because virtually no MLB draftee goes immediately to the majors without a stop first in the minors, the MLB draft nonetheless is now a prime-time, televised event. And the last two No. 1 overall selections, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, are both national names.

But once MLB draftees are selected, there are few rules governing how much they are paid, and management would like to insert more structure into the process, ideally through a hard salary-slot system.

The commissioner’s office currently issues slot guidelines to teams for top selections, but those looser recommendations are routinely flouted. Strasburg and Harper are national names in part because they signed for record bonuses for a pitcher and position player, respectively. And currently, players routinely move up and down the draft charts not because of talent, but rather “signability,” creating more headaches for small-market teams already struggling to compete for major league talent.

Much like the sport’s prior battles over a salary cap, the union likely will have significant issues over a hard-slotting system, with the conceptual concern being the presence of an artificial impediment to a player’s earning power. But there may be room for negotiation on this issue, particularly if it’s bundled with other related issues such as service-time thresholds for arbitration and free agent eligibility.

There also has been significant talk in recent years to expand the MLB draft, currently limited to players from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, to all international players, particularly as signing fees to land top Asian players have soared to record heights.

But creating an international draft is easier said than done. The logistics of scouting and processing the huge influx of newly draft-eligible foreign players would be challenging. And there is the difficult concept of the U.S.-based MLB controlling the right to work of a player from another country, particularly a less friendly one politically.

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