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The Curious Fan’s Guide to the 2016 MLB Draft

AP Images
AP Images

Tomorrow kicks off a process by which more than 1,000 amateur baseball players from across the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico will be allocated to the 30 major league franchises. Far from the monthslong media circuses that promise immediate franchise saviors in the other three major American sports, MLB’s draft flies under the radar. While college football and basketball players are already national superstars — and able contribute to their new employers quickly — amateur baseball players are relatively anonymous and take longer to develop. Only college baseball diehards and people with extremely long-term keeper leagues know A.J. Puk or Corey Ray as well as a casual basketball fan knows Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram.

The MLB draft is a complicated process at best, made even more byzantine by the nature of this year’s class. So unless you’ve got such an unhealthily close relationship with baseball that you’ve developed strong opinions about the life on Zack Burdi’s fastball — it’s alive, by the way; it’s so alive it experiences pain and is one evolutionary step away from learning to use tools — you probably have some questions.

Who’s going No. 1?

This draft is weird because there’s no consensus star like Bryce Harper, or even Gerrit Cole, to take first overall. So while the Philadelphia Phillies seem to have narrowed their options to University of Florida pitcher Puk, University of Louisville outfielder Ray, Mercer University outfielder Kyle Lewis, and California high school outfielder Mickey Moniak, which one they pick might depend as much on who represents the best bargain as who they think the best player is.

Wait, a bargain?

Normal sports leagues set a fixed rookie salary scale based on draft position and allow teams to trade draft picks. In the MLB draft, each pick comes with a recommended bonus — just over $9 million for the first pick and down to $100,000 per pick from the 11th round on. If a team convinces a player to sign for less than slot, as the bonus cap is called, the team can then use the savings on later picks. For example, last year the Astros had the second, fifth, and 37th picks in the draft. They signed no. 2 pick Alex Bregman and no. 5 pick Kyle Tucker for less than slot, then threw a couple million extra dollars at Daz Cameron (projected to be a top-five talent) at no. 37. A team can exceed its total bonus cap, but all overages are taxed, and overages of more than 5 percent are punished by loss of draft picks, so it simply doesn’t happen.

Why do teams play these incredibly complicated games with bonus money?

With very few exceptions, teams are not allowed to trade draft picks. It’s an extremely stupid rule, but it’s a rule nonetheless. So shifting bonus money to one pick or another is the equivalent of trading up or down. Sometimes teams with multiple first-round picks will target an under-slot player early, then tell a second player to up his bonus demands, with the intention of making him fall to the team’s second pick. It’d be a lot easier to just let teams trade draft picks, but unfortunately I don’t run baseball.

How will that affect this year’s draft?

This is all hypothetical, but let’s say the Phillies come down to Puk (who’s been mocked to them by ESPN’s Keith Law and MLB.com’s Jim Callis) and Moniak (who was the first pick in Baseball America’s mock draft). If Moniak asks for $1 million less than Puk, the Phillies could take Moniak and turn around and call another California high school outfielder, Blake Rutherford, and tell him that if he scares teams out of taking him, a big over-slot signing bonus would be waiting for him when the Phillies pick next at no. 42.

The problem with this strategy, and one that makes it much riskier than just trading down, is that between the first and 42nd picks, 11 other teams have multiple picks, and the Dodgers, Padres, and Cardinals pick three times, so if the Phillies try to force a player to fall, at least one of those clubs could snatch him up.

That seems convoluted … and kind of shady.

It is. But MLB at the very least tacitly condones this kind of bonus-swapping, because if anyone in the league or MLBPA objected that seriously, it would be comically easy to put an end to it and marry draft positions to their bonuses. The truth is that the draft isn’t about competitive balance so much as it’s about putting an artificial cap on wages by limiting the players’ negotiating options. The Phillies, Reds, and Braves all have in the neighborhood of $13 million to spend on the first 10 rounds of the draft, while the Red Sox paid $31.5 million to Yoan Moncada, a comparable international amateur, plus another $31.5 million in penalties from signing him. In short, MLB doesn’t care how its teams spend their $13 million as long as they don’t spend more.

On Thursday, that second wave — players, like Rutherford, with top-15 talent who get persuaded to bump up their bonus demands and fall as a result — will wind up shaping the draft.The lack of a knockout top tier in this draft means that the draft won’t unfold in strict order of “best player available” — it’s about timing, whose backroom deals hold up, and more than a little luck.

Who’s going to fall?

The Phillies seem to be out on Jason Groome, a left-handed pitcher out of Barnegat, New Jersey, with a mid-90s fastball and an elite curveball. I think Groome is the best prospect in this draft, but he’s scary for a few reasons. First, he’s a high school pitcher, and high school pitchers have both a long way to develop and a long time to stay healthy before reaching the majors. The only three high school pitchers ever taken first overall are Brady Aiken (oops), Brien Taylor (legendary oops), and David Clyde (at least he pitched in the majors!). Groome has bounced back and forth between his local high school in New Jersey and the elite IMG Academy in Florida, collecting dreaded “makeup” questions along the way. And by virtue of playing against weaker competition, Groome also has to answer questions about his game that Puk, who pitched three years in the SEC, doesn’t. Between that and higher bonus demands (because he’s younger and arguably better than Puk), Groome could fall quite a ways — Baseball America has him dropping to Cleveland at no. 14, which would’ve been unthinkable only a couple months ago.

Earlier this week, Groome reportedly decommitted from Vanderbilt, and — if he doesn’t go pro — he’ll now attend Chipola College, a junior college, in Florida. According to MLB draft rules, if a player goes to a four-year school, he can’t be drafted until after his junior year or until he turns 21. Meanwhile, junior college players can be drafted at any time. (This is why Bryce Harper, after getting his GED at 16, went to a junior college for a year instead of a Division I program.) So if Groome goes to Chipola, he can reenter the draft next year, instead of going to Vanderbilt and waiting until 2019. The timing of the news — a few days before the draft, and not after the signing deadline on July 15 — suggests that Groome is willing to play figurative hardball rather than sign up to play literal hardball at a discount. Don’t be surprised if he goes to junior college for a season and tries again in 2017.

Things are even worse for Puerto Rican shortstop Delvin Pérez, another player with the talent to challenge for the top pick, but who will go way lower for reasons not really all that closely related to baseball. Last week Pérez failed his predraft drug test, which will likely cause some teams to take him off their boards altogether. And unlike Groome, who has a scholarship waiting for him should he choose not to sign, Pérez has no college commitment, which leaves him with almost no negotiating leverage.

And what about that anthropomorphic fastball??

Perhaps the most fully developed player in this class is Burdi, the Louisville closer with a triple-digit fastball and plus slider that looks even better when you consider that a high-80s slider is harder to hit when you’re looking for a 101-mph fastball. The book on Burdi (whose older brother Nick was also a Louisville closer with a big fastball and was picked in the second round in 2014 by the Twins) is that he could contribute in the majors soon — as in, by the end of the year if necessary. Usually, spending a first-round pick on a college reliever is a sucker’s bet when you could instead select a guy who could become a starter down the road, but Burdi’s stuff is so special that a team in the 20s or 30s, particularly one with multiple picks, could snatch him up for bullpen help now. For the rest of this major league season, Burdi is probably the only name you need to know.