La Velle E. Neal III's Sunday Insider: MLB draft runs teams dry

The cost of signing top young talent took another monumental leap this year, raising more red flags for Bud Selig.


North Carolina shortstop Levi Michael was the Twins’ No. 1 draft pick this year. Like so many other players, he took his negotiations down to the final hours.

Photo: Gerry Broome, Associated Press

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There's a number being talked about in baseball circles these days. It has nothing to do with Jim Thome joining the 600-home run club.

The number is 17. No, it's not the number of grand slams the Yankees might hit this year, or how many times the Twins might use the disabled list this month.

Major league teams this summer committed $236,059,050 to players selected in the June draft. That easily beats last year's record of $201,832,830. It's a 17 percent increase.

"That's a tough pace to keep up," said Paul DePodesta, the Mets' vice president of player development and scouting.

Within that, the Pittsburgh Pirates spent a record $8 million to sign No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole. Then they signed second-round pick Josh Bell for $5 million, a record for a non-first-rounder.

MLB has bonus recommendations for the first several rounds of the draft. Few teams are paying attention to them. That includes the Twins, who went over the league's recommendation with their first three picks.

A chunk of the money was dished out during the final hours of the draft. The Twins, for instance, announced 11 signings after the deadline passed, with negotiations with first-round pick Levi Michael and supplemental-round picks Travis Harrison and Hudson Boyd going down to around the final hour.

Agents know that if their clients wait until the last minute, they can get more money.

So $236 million left MLB bank accounts and went to unproven talent. That has led to plenty of talk about what to do with the escalating signing bonuses.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig wants slotting for each pick as a way to control spending. The league is expected to ask for restrictions on bonuses during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement, which ends after this season.

Signing bonuses were a topic this past week in Minneapolis, where the 2011 International, Farm and Scouting meetings took place.

Officials point out how scouting is an inexact science, and they have to remember that many prospects will never reach the majors. So, no matter how much is spent, some of their investments will never pay off.

Some have argued that they need the flexibility to keep high school players from going to college, that the Harrisons of the world would go to USC instead of signing with the Twins for more than was recommended. DePodesta argued that, in the end, if a player wants to go pro he will sign as soon as he knows he can't get a higher bonus.

No one is sure how the player's association will respond to MLB's concerns. Indications are that the league has never pushed for slotting the way it is expected to push for it this time.

"It will certainly be interesting to see what happens out of this collective bargaining negotiation," DePodesta said. "I don't know if anyone was terribly happy with the escalation of the signing bonuses."

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