The Major League Baseball draft can be a complicated process, with restrictions around signing bonuses and “slot value” assigned to each pick, creating a situation where teams often must get creative to afford front-line talents. It’s not as straightforward as the NBA or NFL, where teams typically pick the best player available or directly address roster need.
The Milwaukee Brewers just signed third-round pick Eric Bitonti and sixth-round pick Cooper Pratt, both well above their slot value with signing bonuses of $1.75 million and $1.35 million, respectively, and the buzz around those players makes them the highlighted players in the 2023 draft class. Which might not make logical sense; after all, neither of those players were chosen on Day 1, when the team drafted Brock Wilken in the first round, Josh Knoth in the compensation-A round and Mike Boeve in the second round.
Why are both Bitonti and Pratt making more in signing bonus than some players taken ahead of them, and does that mean there’s less excitement around the first-round pick Wilken or others taken on Day 1? Here’s the explanation:
We have to start with the basics; what exactly is the slot system?
Starting in 2012, Major League Baseball began using this draft system, with each pick in the first 10 rounds assigned a dollar amount or “slot value.” Every pick after the 10th round is simply slotted at $125,000. The idea was to keep top players from demanding massive bonuses that only the wealthiest teams could pay.
But it doesn’t mean a player taken at a certain slot will ultimately sign for that amount of money. Instead, all the amounts from the first 10 rounds are added up for each team, and the teams are given the pool of money to disperse how they choose among the players.
That includes those taken in the top 10 rounds but also applies to players in the 11th round or later if the club wants to give one of those players more than $125,000.
But there’s a catch; you have to actually sign the players to keep the money at each slot. You can’t just draft six players nobody has ever heard of, not sign them, pocket the cash and beef up what you offer to picks 1-3.
This isn’t about teams being cheap; if they go over that allotment by a dollar, they’ll wind up paying some penalties. If they go over by 5%, they’ll wind up losing next year’s first-round draft pick. They can lose more draft picks if they go up even more beyond the pool. No team has ever gone over 5% since the system was implemented.
Here’s how the Brewers used the slot system last year
Last year, among Brewers selections in the first 10 rounds, one signed exactly at slot value, one signed for over slot and the rest signed for under slot.
The underslot players included first-round pick Eric Brown, who signed for $2.05 million signing bonus, which was $651,900 under slot value.
All the savings from the underslot players meant the Brewers could afford to pay Jacob Misiorowski, the second-round pick, $2.35 million, which was $1,218,500 above slot. Yes, Misiorowski signed for even more than it cost to sign the Brewers’ first-round pick. The savings also helped the Brewers sign 12th rounder Luke Adams, who was given $282,500, counting another $157,500 against the pool.
Misiorowski has immediately become one of the top pitching prospects in the minor leagues, so the strategy of building their draft with an eye on landing him seems to be paying off.
These are the players the Brewers have drafted and signed in the first 10 rounds in 2023
18th overall pick: Brock Wilken, third baseman (signed for $3,150,000). His slot value was $4,021,400; the Brewers saved $871,400.
33rd: Josh Knoth, right-handed pitcher ($2,000,000). His slot value was $2,543,800; the Brewers saved $543,800.*
54th: Mike Boeve, third baseman ($1,250,000). His slot value was $1,546,100; the Brewers saved $296,100.
87th: Eric Bitonti, shortstop ($1,750,000). His slot value was $796,200; signed for $953,800 over slot.*
119th: Jason Woodward, right-handed pitcher ($247,500). His slot value was $557,900; the Brewers saved $310,400.
155th: Ryan Bichard, right-handed pitcher ($322,500). His slot value was $329,400; the Brewers saved $6,900.
182nd: Cooper Pratt, shortstop ($1,350,000). His slot value was $309,900; signed for $1,040,100 over slot.*
212th: Tate Kuehner, left-handed pitcher (signing bonus unknown). His slot value is $242,400.
242nd: Craig Yoho, right-handed pitcher (signing bonus unknown). His slot value is for $196,700.
272nd: Mark Manfredi, left-handed pitcher (signing bonus unknown). His slot value is $176,700.
302nd: Morris Austin, right-handed pitcher (signing bonus unknown). His slot value is $166,800.
*Indicates high-school player
Total known savings in draft pool: $2,028,600
Total overslot money handed out: $1,993,900
Known savings remaining: $34,700 (likely to increase based on bonuses of final four picks)
Why in the world would draft prospects willingly sign for less than slot value?
Most of the time, they already agreed to the dollar amount before they even got drafted.
Consider Brock Wilken, who signed for nearly $900,000 below slot value. The Brewers almost certainly had a deal in principle with Wilken before making the 18th pick, having consulted with him to see if he’d accept that deal.
The $3.15 million that he signed for is slightly more than what the 26th pick in the draft would be slotted. If he had passed on Milwaukee’s offer (and the Brewers drafted someone else), he ran the risk of falling past that pick 26th pick and missing out on cash.
“It’s not that he’s not good or he shouldn’t have gone there (at his pick in the draft),” said Jim Callis, senior writer with MLB.com who reports heavily on the draft and minor leagues. “The agents are pretty much on top of this and Brock Wilken’s representation knew if they don’t take $3.15 from the Brewers … he might get full slot, but it might be less if he goes 32nd in the draft or whatever. You have to figure out how guys are going to fit in the bonus pool to make it all work. They have a pretty good idea what it’s going to take to sign each guy before they pick them.”
Wilken is still a player ranked ahead of Pratt and Bitonti on most analysts’ draft boards and still a first-round caliber pick. But the Brewers identified him as a player they coveted and also had a chance to save pool money for other picks later, given that he projected perhaps as more of a late first rounder.
It’s no coincidence that the Brewers drafted several players who are at the end of their college careers and don’t have the leverage of going back to school. Fourth-rounder Jason Woodward is coming off Tommy John surgery; again, it doesn’t mean the Brewers don’t like him as a prospect, but they can take the risk of using a pick on him and give him more money than he probably expected to make otherwise, all while saving more than $300,000 toward the pool.
“Not every player has a number,” Callis said. “I might tell you it’s gonna take $2 million to sign me, you might draft me and say you’ll give me 1.5 and we’ll see if it can work out. You pretty much have to tell the team, in most cases very specifically … if you sit there and don’t say anything (when teams ask about a signing number), the team isn’t going to take you.”
In other words, so much of the offering and negotiating is done before the draft. But even taking a “cut” from the slot value, many players are making what they would have been slotted to make just a few picks later in the draft.
Could the players just change their mind after getting drafted, and ask for more?
Theoretically, yes, and it would put the team in a bind since they’re thinking of the top 10 picks as a holistic venture — save on this pick to spend on that one. But it’s highly uncommon. Frequently, when players don’t sign, it’s related to health issues.
This makes it sound like a team knows all the players it’s taking before the draft
In some ways, that’s a little true, though it’s more likely that the team has identified a range of players for its various picks.
More often than not, a player with a lot of leverage (such as a top high-school player with a college commitment) will be gone in the first three rounds. After that, teams will figure those players’ asking price won’t work in the framework of the draft pool.
Many high-end talents instead get taken as flyers in the later rounds just in case something crazy happens in their own circumstances and they’d be willing to sign for cheap, but not with the serious expectation that the player will sign.
Cooper Pratt wound up being an interesting case
“We literally had gotten to the point of the broadcast (on the draft) at the end of the fifth round when I said, ‘Look, if guys hadn’t been drafted by now, the big-name guys, they probably aren’t going to sign.'” Callis said. “Teams aren’t going to have money to sign them. They might get drafted real late on day 3, but at this point, they’re heading to school, and within 5 or 10 minutes (of me saying that), the Brewers had drafted Cooper Pratt.”
Callis said the Brewers’ maneuver to get Bitonti in the third round and Pratt in the sixth “just blew me away.” He immediately texted sources with the Brewers and Pratt’s advisors to see if this would indeed result in a contract and learned that yes, it was happening.
Remember: teams will lose slot money if a player in the top 10 rounds doesn’t sign, so it would be too big a risk to simply take a shot on a player and hope you can negotiate a deal. If Milwaukee was drafting Pratt in the sixth round, even if he was rated as a top-100 prospect and getting drafted well below expectations, it meant the Brewers felt they had the framework of a deal in place.
“Cooper Pratt is one of my favorite players in the draft,” Callis said. “He’s from the deep south, private school background, 6-foot-4, lot of parallels between him and a right-handed version of (Orioles rookie) Gunnar Henderson, who was probably a little bit of a better prospect at the same stage but comparable. He’s intrigued me as much as anybody in this draft.
“My guess is he had an asking price and it was too high for someone to take him on Day 1,” Callis said. “I thought he was legitimately like a supplemental first round, early second round pick. … My guess is at some point, the family said, ‘Look, Cooper wants to sign, we have to make this happen.’ So they lowered the asking price and the Brewers said, ‘We’ll try to make this work.'”
It perhaps explains why the Brewers closed out the rest of their top-10 rounds with college pitchers likely to agree upon values less than slot. Milwaukee needed some pool space to make sure it had the money for Pratt.
All told, the Brewers landed five of the top-100 draft prospects on Callis’ list going into the draft.
Here’s why the 11th round is also interesting
This process makes the 11th round an intriguing one in the draft. Teams play out their rounds 6-10 to find guys who might be willing to take money below slot value, but the process changes thereafter, where slot value for each pick is $125,000.
Signing a player for more than that counts against the pool, but there’s no penalty for not signing that player. That means teams can take players who might be difficult to sign and employ a wait-and-see approach on savings within the draft pool.
So, the next intriguing question is whether the Brewers are able to save enough to also sign their 11th rounder, Bishop Letson, a highly regarded high-school pitcher out of Indiana. The deadline to sign this year’s draft picks is Aug. 1.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Explaining why Brewers third and sixth rounders are so important
Source: Yahoo Sports