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THE BIZ: PLAYING THE SLOTS

5/22/2008
George Diebold Photography/Getty Images

STRIKE ONE
Limiting bonuses Every year, the commissioner's office tries to hold down the cost of contracts and bonuses by distributing a list of suggested "slot money," the amount the MLB recommends that teams spend on each selection. The list is unofficial (owners can't impose it without MLBPA approval) and silly (with revenues soaring past $6 billion, all salaries are bound to rise), but most teams stick to it.

As a result, signability is as important as talent. Agents can steer clients away from particular clubs simply by demanding above-slot bonuses. Teams that are willing to disregard Bud Selig and invest in the draft (Tigers, D-backs) pay up; teams that aren't (Pirates, Royals) get poor value for their picks. And top-shelf players often fall to better, and better-off, teams.

Notably, Detroit has paid above slot for OF Cameron Maybin (No. 10 pick in 2005), LHP Andrew Miller (No. 6 in '06) and RHP Rick Porcello (No. 27 in '07), all of whom dropped because of salary demands. The Yankees, Red Sox and Angels regularly spend above slot, and the Mets, with three of this year's top 33 picks, may be about to join them.

STRIKE TWO
Restraint of trade Unlike the NBA and NFL, MLB doesn't allow clubs to deal draft choices. If a team is scared off by the demands of a player, it must choose someone else rather than trade the pick.

STRIKE THREE
Limited reach The MLB draft covers residents of the U.S., plus U.S. territories and Canada. Turning the development of international talent into a free-for-all helps only the wealthiest teams.

It's time to do away with the slot system, allow teams to trade picks and make inter-national players subject to the draft. Then the worst clubs would really have access to the best amateurs. Right now, all too often, the rich get richer and the poor get caught looking.