Commentary

Sorry, but this slot machine is broken

Major League Baseball's draft, the worst in pro sports, is in dire need of a makeover

Updated: June 5, 2009, 6:18 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Fifty million bucks.

Roll that around your tongue.

Fifty million bucks.

That's not this week's Powerball jackpot. That's the unofficial, early-line, insane price tag Scott Boras has theoretically slapped on the forehead of the surefire No. 1 pick in next week's baseball draft, Stephen Strasburg.

Fifty million bucks.

What a farce.

You wouldn't think baseball would need a Richter scale bonus number like that to decide it's time to fix the most dysfunctional draft in professional sports. But since this sport has never done much to fix it before now, we can only assume everybody was waiting for something like this.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Darryl Dennis/Icon SMIThe (multi) million-dollar question: How much will it cost the Washington Nationals to sign Stephen Strasburg? We probably won't know until mid-August.

Well, Stephen Strasburg will be happy to serve as a one-man sport-changing earthquake. And our prediction is, that's exactly what he'll become.

Once he finishes collecting whatever preposterous bonus the Washington Nationals eventually give him, the landscape will be different. And the shock waves should drive the baseball draft toward a place it should have gone years ago.

Toward a cap on draft-pick bonuses.

Toward some sort of formal slotting system that predetermines how much money top draft choices will collect.

And/or, at the very least, toward a concept too many people have long been afraid of -- trading draft picks.

"It's time for us to be like every other sport," said an official of one club who was nervous about having his name revealed. "One, we should be able to trade picks like all the other sports do. It would create more excitement around our draft. And if you're the Nationals and you don't want to spend $50 million, this is a guy you could trade and get four great players back and rebuild your franchise.

"And two, there should be a slotting system for first-round picks like the other sports have. Ask the players about it. They'll tell you they don't want money like this going to kids who have never played a game."

Well, we've asked. And he's absolutely right. Big league players believe that the money in their sport should go to (who else?) big league players -- not to guys who are still hanging out at the student union after games.

Take a fellow like Ryan Howard of the Phillies. He's been a rookie of the year, an MVP, an All-Star and a two-time home run champ. And it's not as if he's been just another laid-back dude who took whatever contract his team felt like giving him. Just last year, he pushed for, and won, the highest arbitration award in history by a first-time arb-eligible player ($10 million).

But even after all that, he still hasn't even earned close to the money Strasburg will be asking for.

By the time this season over, Howard will have made a total of "only" $26.255 million in his career -- or $26.485 million if you count his $230,000 draft-pick signing bonus (as a fifth-rounder in 2001). So you think he believes a kid coming out of college should get twice that before he ever buttons a uniform?

"It's a crazy process," Howard said. "Obviously, this kid's got a rare talent, to be able to throw as hard as he does. But the bottom line is, you're not proven. Looking back on all the stuff I went through coming out of college and trying to get a nice bonus, the thing is still, you're not proven. Even when you get to the big leagues, you've got to prove you're worth whatever you're trying to get. That's why they've got those three years before you're arbitration-eligible. … You've got to go out and earn it like everyone else does."

We've heard that same sentiment over and over again -- for years.

"You should get paid for what you do, for what you've done," said Howard's teammate Jayson Werth, a onetime No. 1 pick himself, by the Orioles in 1997. "That's what free agency's for -- to get paid for what you could do, for what you might possibly do. It's not what the draft is for."

It befuddles the brains of many players that any prospective draft pick could feel he's entitled to ask for $50 million. Want just a sampling of players who have never even made $30 million in their entire careers -- let alone $50 million? OK, here's a list:

Hanley RamirezDavid WrightJose ReyesChase UtleyJimmy RollinsJoe MauerAdrian GonzalezTim LincecumCole HamelsJake PeavyBrandon WebbZack GreinkeCliff LeeJon Lester … aw, you get the idea.

So now tell us again why it makes sense to have a system that could pay any amateur player, no matter how talented or ballyhooed, more money than that bunch of All-Stars has made in their lives?

"He's [been called] a once-in-a-lifetime player," Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said of Strasburg. "But that's what they said about Big Ben McDonald in 1989, and a lot of pitchers since then. Hey, he's a terrific right-handed pitcher. But David Price was a terrific pitcher coming out of college. Matt Morris, coming out of college, was that kind of guy. Mark Prior. The list goes on and on and on."

And what do all those phenoms have in common? Well, let's put it this way: Strasburg would be the 14th pitcher -- and 11th college pitcher -- taken with the overall No. 1 pick. The previous 13 have combined for no Cy Youngs, no 20-win seasons and no 200-win careers. And remember, that's a track record that's held up for over four decades.

So explain to us again how anyone can think 50 million bucks is a sensible price tag for any draft pick. Please. Explain it.

For the ultimate proof of how players feel, we need look no further than the Nationals' clubhouse. On one hand, these men would be happy to see any pitcher with a 195-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio bolt through their door. On the other hand, that doesn't mean they don't think the whole draft system is a train wreck.

"I don't really care what other players get," Adam Dunn said. "If it comes down to money, money doesn't rule my world. So whatever. But it would be a lot easier if the draft was slotted, like every other sport. I think that would take away a lot of headaches as far as drafting players, all that stuff about, 'We can't draft that guy because of this reason.' Then your team would be able to draft the best available player and not have to worry about it. And that's what the draft is supposed to be."

Hey, exactly. But it sure isn't the way the draft is working now. Is it?

"Instead," one frustrated club official said, "we've got this stupid informal slotting system that nobody pays attention to anyway. What's going to happen this year, when the No. 1 pick blows up the whole thing -- by millions of dollars?"

Good question.

At least, in Strasburg's case, we won't be looking at a Rick Porcello scenario, where a top-of-the-draft talent falls to the 27th pick because of (ahem) signability issues. But when Strasburg signs -- and the Nationals have no choice but to sign him, right? -- the inevitable howling that will follow has to lead to a massive push to revamp the draft. Doesn't it?

Even Michael Weiner, general counsel of the Players Association, admits that "if you were going to create a [draft] system from ground zero, you wouldn't create this one. That, I agree with."

But what should baseball do to fix it? That's where the disagreements erupt.

Going back two labor deals ago, to 2002, the union has been proposing the idea of trading picks -- either before the draft, after negotiations stall or even in the first year after one of those picks signs.

Amazingly, it's management -- especially a core group of small-market owners -- that has fought that idea, apparently out of fear that the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox will wind up with all the good players. But step back and think for a second. Does that make any sense?

The GMs of the teams with the six lowest payrolls this year are Larry Beinfest (Marlins), Kevin Towers (Padres), Neal Huntington (Pirates), Rizzo (Nationals), Billy Beane (A's) and Andrew Friedman (Rays). They're six of the sharpest baseball people we know.

"So why," Weiner wonders, "would you assume that these small-market teams are going to make bad decisions? [Trading picks] just gives them more options. They can pass on a player and take a guy who's more signable. Or they can trade the pick. Or they can draft him and see how negotiations go. Or they can take him and sign him. It seems to me that smart operators should be able to make those decisions and do just fine."

No kidding. Plus, it would instantly transform the draft from a cult, seamhead-only production to must-see TV. And shouldn't a sport with its very own network be in favor of any concept like that?

But when the talk turns to capping bonuses, or instituting a formal slotting system, that's where the union has always balked. The philosophy of this union has never wavered -- whether the topic was a big league salary cap or a draft-pick bonus cap:

Individual players should have the right to negotiate their own contracts and get paid what teams think they're worth, in a free-enterprise system. Doesn't matter whether they're CC Sabathia or a kid coming out of Azusa Pacific.

That's the stance. But will players rise up to oppose that stance if Stephen Strasburg gets his $50 million? It wouldn't shock anybody -- not after an offseason in which a bunch of major stars (Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez, Trevor Hoffman, Bobby Abreu, Dunn, etc.) sat around for months, groveling just to get a job. None of them got $50 million. Only Manny even came close.

"If that happens," said an official of one club, "I think guys are going to get ticked. I think you'll see that bridge get burned real quick."

We think so, too. But we'll let you know Aug. 15, after Strasburg signs 11 seconds before the deadline. In the meantime, another irrational episode of the baseball draft is coming to a cable channel near you. Let the madness begin -- one more time.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com