The slotting rules instituted last year under baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement made manipulating the draft much more difficult, although as teams like the Toronto Blue Jays showed, it’s not impossible.
Exhibit A on that front is the selection at No. 50 and signing for $1 million above the spot’s assigned value of pitching prospect Matt Smoral, a projected first-rounder whose stock plummeted because of a stress fracture in his right foot.
Under the old system, any team with deep pockets could have drafted and signed the 6-foot-8 left-hander for any sum they felt worthwhile. But with spending capped, Smoral figured he was bound for the University of North Carolina since no team would be able to meet his $2 million asking price.
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“Initially, I went, not into panic, but said, ‘Oh crap, I’m going to college,’” Smoral recalls in a recent interview. “(The new rules) definitely changed the game but the way I looked at was, I went in there with a number that me and my family and my agent got together, and I was good with going either way.
“I felt like I was prepared for pro ball, but also I felt like I made a great decision to go to UNC. When Toronto came along, I knew they had a great player development system and a good overall organization, so I felt like it was the right fit.”
The $2 million price tag he ended up getting was the same figure assigned to the 17th overall pick, and teams can only exceed their assigned draft pool money by five per cent before they begin forfeiting draft picks (teams are taxed on bonus totals in excess of 0-5 per cent of their pool).
So how did the Blue Jays make the numbers work?
They essentially punted their picks in Rounds 4-10, spending $31,000 out of a possible $1,244,800 on those seven picks, and using the remaining money to go well above slot to land Smoral, third baseman Mitch Nay, right-hander Chase DeJong and outfielder Anthony Alford.
Of the seven players they drafted to create that financial wiggle room only one — right-hander Tucker Donahue — advanced out of rookie ball this season. Donahue is 2-1 with a 5.40 ERA over 21 games for single-A Lansing.
Outfielder Ian Parmley and first baseman Jordan Leyland are the only others remaining in the farm system and are currently at extended spring training awaiting assignment.
Harrison Frawley retired, Alex Azor entered the navy while Brad Delatte and Eric Phillips are out of the organization.
All that is worth keeping in mind as the 2013 draft plays out.
The Blue Jays don’t have the extra compensatory picks they did last year — those are much harder to come by as the rules to obtain them have also been tightened up — but if someone slips the way Smoral did, teams can certainly create value.
The risk is in the lack of diversification, as sometimes decent players can be found in Rounds 4-10, although the odds of obtaining a big-leaguer are far, far higher when picking in the top 100. Injuries and mistakes are more costly when an overall draft class’s depth is reduced.
So though high school players in similar positions to the one Smoral was in last year are more likely to end up going to college with the aim of increasing their value while gaining an education, they can still get their number.
“The night of the draft, I was in my living room thinking I was going to school because the Blue Jays didn’t call me before the pick,” recalls Smoral. “I found out on TV, and I was so surprised and very happy. After the draft we talked a lot, it was pretty normal negotiating after that, they wanted to make sure my physical and everything was good, they held up their end of the bargain and I was ready to sign, I was ready to get going.
“The way the new draft worked, I knew after the first day I probably wasn’t going to get drafted just because of my number. At the time it was a little bit of a let-down because I was ready to go to school if that was the case, but I was so happy Toronto picked me, and thankful to the organization.”
Teams like the Blue Jays will be on the hunt for players just like Smoral as this year’s draft plays out.