I feel bad for Kumar Rocker, but his draft situation was almost to be expected with the clown show which has taken up permanent residence in Queens. It takes a team as historically inept as the Mets to pull off something which may shed some light on a major blight on the sport. My original intention was to write about the fallout from the Major League Baseball trade deadline line last Friday, but this has my attention.
I will start by stating I hate the very concept of the draft in sports. Leagues have been selling for decades the idea the draft is designed to aid in competitive balance within their sports, when in fact the purpose of the draft is to limit the salaries and bargaining power of athletes as they enter the professional ranks. The Major League Baseball, Rule 4, or first-year player draft was instituted in 1965. The first player selected being Rick Monday, well before his days with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Prior to the institution of the draft, the player could sign with any team. This meant that in baseball, like in most industries, the more wealthy organizations could stockpile talent. More savvy sports fans are aware Americans love socialism in their sports, so the system was devised to spread the talent around, taking from the successful teams and allocating it to the less fortunate.
The Major League Player draft is its own special brand of bizarre. The current draft rules incentivize strategies where the most talented players do not end up with the teams with the worst records. This is largely due to the slotting system used to influence signing bonuses after the draft. Each pick is assigned a slot value in terms of a signing bonus. On top of this, each team has a pool of money to spread around to afford the bonuses of the players they select. The Pittsburgh Pirates had the largest bonus pool of $14,394,000. The Houston Astros had the smallest at $2,940,600. There is a strategy commonly employed where teams will seek to reach pre-draft agreements with certain players for signing bonuses that are below the slot value. This was the case with Henry Davis, the top overall pick in this years’ draft. The slot value for the first pick was $8.42M, but Davis agreed to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates for $6.50M. In theory, this would allow the Pirates to sign players in later rounds for a larger bonus than they were originally slotted. However, this runs counter to the idea the teams with the worst records were supposed to end up with the most talented players in the draft.
Under this set of draft rules, a team that does not sign their first round pick will receive another pick, one place later, in the subsequent draft. A recent example of this is the Houston Astros did not sign the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, Brady Aiken, over concerns his ulnar collateral ligament was not sound. This pick became Alex Bregman being taken second overall in 2015. Aiken ended up blowing out his elbow and was picked 17th overall by Cleveland in 2015.
This brings us back to Kumar Rocker. The New York Mets selected Rocker 10th overall. The pick had a value of $4.74M. According to reports, the Mets verbally offered Rocker $6M within days of drafting him. However, the Mets had concerns with what they saw in the medical reports from their team doctors with regard to Rocker’s arm. Rocker did not participate in the pre-draft physical, which is common for most players who are projected to go early in the draft. By Rocker not going through the pre-draft physical, the Mets could reduce his signing bonus to 40% of the slot value ($1,895,960). The Mets had signed all of their draft picks to below, or at slot deals in order to go above the slot value for Rocker. The trainwreck caused by not signing Rocker left the Mets with $878,500 in unused bonus pool money which could have been spent on over slot deals for more talented players, rather than the market rate they paid for college players chosen from rounds 11 through 20. They clearly did plan for not signing Rocker as part of their draft strategy. This is made more irregular since Rocker has not been injured and his camp states nothing is wrong with him. Rocker has said he isn’t returning to Vanderbilt University next season, so he is left to play independent ball or just work out on his own until the next draft.
On Sunday, Mets owner Steve Cohen tweeted “Education time-Baseball draft picks are worth up to 5x their slot value to clubs. I never shy away from investments that can make me that type of return”. This thought process lays bare the disconnect between the ownership class and the average fan. They view players as assets to be bought and sold, rather than flesh and blood human beings. With the Mets in particular, this rings hollow when the team employs Dellin Betances. He has earned the same $6M they promised Rocker in exchange for his one inning of work this season. Hard to find 5x the return there.
It is time for the Major League Baseball Players Association to take the draft (and the minors) seriously in the collective bargaining agreement. Any system which gives teams a way out of agreements with players is a bad one. Some of these draft picks are future members of the players’ union and should be taken care of. I implore fans not to think from the side of team ownership in these deals. Steve Cohen is the wealthiest owner in Major League Baseball. He is worth over $14 billion. So honoring an agreement and paying the player should not be that difficult. “This is clearly not the outcome we had hoped for and wish Kumar nothing but success going forward.” this quote from Mets general manager Zack Scott could be famous last words once Rocker becomes the Mets killer he will almost assuredly become if karma has anything to say about it.