“So how much over slot did you pay?”
That was a frequently overheard question among owners and team executives at these August meetings, which have turned in part into an annual scolding from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig on draft pick compensation.
The 30 clubs spent a total of $236.1 million on draft pick bonuses and other guarantees, according to Baseball America, easily a league record. Just eight teams — Detroit, Colorado, Oakland, both Los Angeles teams, Atlanta, Texas and the Chicago White Sox — spent less than the MLB slot recommendation on their picks from the 2011 draft’s first 10 rounds.
At the top of the list, Pittsburgh spent more than $17 million in bonuses, including records for No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole ($8 million) and second-round selection Josh Bell ($5 million). The Pirates also outspent the other 29 clubs on bonuses last year.
“Yeah, we got our wrists slapped again,” said one team executive speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s the same thing every year now.”
Selig acknowledged he is worried about the continued escalation of draft pick compensation. He continues to stump for a hard-slotting system similar to basketball in which picks would have preset compensation based on their draft position.
“The spending is a concern to me,” Selig said, though he has little other recourse to punish slot offenders.
The draft pick compensation issue is among the most prominent subjects in labor talks between MLB and the MLB Players Association. The union, however, historically has held a dim view of hard slotting. Union chief Michael Weiner last month said, “It is not this union’s job to take away individual bargaining rights.”
But the continued blatant disregard for the slot recommendations indicates many clubs are in a different place ideologically.
Long-struggling teams such as Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Washington — the three most flagrant offenders this year relative to slot recommendations on a percentage basis — strongly believe the draft is still the most cost-effective and far-reaching opportunity to rebuild, even amid the rising spending. That means going all out in search of top-flight talent.
“What we did this year is simply a continuation of the plan we put in place in 2007,” said Pirates owner Bob Nutting, referring to the year he took control of the club. “We’ve maintained a very consistent approach. And at the major league level, you’re now starting to see the results of our significant emphasis on player development and the draft. We did what was the right thing for Pittsburgh.”
Nutting said there was no particular discord between the Pirates and MLB headquarters as a result of this month’s outlays by the club. If a hard-slotting system does arrive, he said, the Pirates would comply and quickly seek to maximize efforts within that structure.
“I feel very comfortable with where we ended up this year,” he said.
n SPOTLIGHT ON THE HALL: The Cooperstown setting for the owners meeting, the first time MLB has held such a gathering here since 1999, provided the rare opportunity for the nearby Baseball Hall of Fame to showcase its facility and mission to visiting executives. The hall dedicated a new archives and research center devoted to MLB commissioners and named after Selig, and the team owners and executives spent an evening touring the museum and several exhibits that have opened in the past year.
“This is really important for the owners to see what we’ve built here,” said Jeff Idelson, Hall of Fame president. “Many of them haven’t been here ever, or in quite some time, and this is their history, their legacy. It gives them a chance to see that history and legacy they’re helping caretake come to life.”
In particular, Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick spent part of the session proudly showcasing to his colleagues a collection of rare and valuable baseball cards he lent to the museum. Within the collection is one of three known Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps rookie cards in absolute mint condition (Kendrick also owns a second), and a Honus Wagner T206 card from 1909 that has sold for as much as $2.8 million and is the most coveted card in the industry. Only eight of the Wagner cards exist.
“What would I do if they were just sitting around my house?” Kendrick said. “This is a lot more fun, and I’m proud to share them.”