I’m not an MLB draft expert – not sure I’m an expert on anything – but I know folks who are. This week I spoke with J.J. Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, and his comments/predictions regarding the Atlanta Braves and this week’s draft will be coming soon on MyAJC. But in delving into what can be a fairly complex mechanism, it struck me that you might have some of the same questions I did. The answers, as best as I can discern, are offered below.
Can teams “trade up” or “trade down” in the MLB draft? No and yes. Compensatory picks – awarded to teams that made a qualifying offer to a free agent of the first rank only to the see the free agent sign elsewhere – can be dealt. The first compensatory pick in the 2016 draft is the 24th overall, which belongs to San Diego, which saw Justin Upton sign with Detroit. Lottery picks can also be traded, but these aren’t the NBA-style lottery picks. These are for “competitive balance” and are awarded to small-market clubs; they fall at the ends of Round 1 and 2. Those are the only kinds of picks that can be dealt. There can be no five-for-one swoops to move up 21 spots to grab Julio Jones in the baseball draft.
How did the Braves wind up with five of the top 80 picks? Three are theirs – Nos. 3, 44 and 80 overall. The 44th overall selection was a Lottery A pick gained from Miami in the three-way trade that sent Alex Wood and Jim Johnson and Jose Peraza and Luis Avilan and Bronson Arroyo’s contract to the Dodgers for Hector Olivera. The Dodgers also got Michael Morse from the Marlins. The Braves-Marlins link in that exotic deal was this pick. The Braves hooked the 76th overall selection – a Lottery B type – from the Orioles last month when they acquired reliever Brian Matusz’s contract and then designated him for assignment.
Didn’t the Braves do something similar last year? Yes. They had five of the top 75 picks, three of those coming from elsewhere. The 28th overall pick (Canadian pitcher Mike Soroka) was compensation for Ervin Santana signing with the Twins. The 41st pick (third baseman Austin Riley) was acquired from the Padres in the Craig Kimbrel deal. The 75th pick (Texas A&M lefty A.J. Minter) was landed in a deal you’ve probably forgotten if you noticed it at all: In a ride-along to the trade with the Diamondbacks for Trevor Cahill, the Braves sent outfielder Victor Reyes to the Snakes for their Lottery B slot.
The Braves really like their draft picks, don’t they? Yes, they do.
Why? Because young talent is, in the grand scheme, cheap talent. Because surplus young talent can be used as trade chips. Because you never know which young players will blossom and which won’t. And because the “slotting” aspect of the MLB draft makes it possible to get creative with the money allotted to a team’s top picks.
What exactly is “slotting”? Here’s where some eyes will glaze over. The Braves have $13.2 million to spend on bonuses for draftees taken in the top 10 rounds. (The draft lasts 40 rounds.) That’s the third-highest allocation for this draft, trailing the Phillies and the Reds, who pick ahead of the Braves. (That’s another reason to acquire extra picks at/near the top of the draft: The more selections you have, the more money you’re allowed to spend.) Their allocation for the Round 1 pick (No. 3 overall) is $6.5 million. If they can persuade their No. 1 to take a bit less than $6.5 million – slot money, see, is more a suggestion than a fixed price – they’ll have more to spend on, say, their second (slot value of $1.6 million) and third picks ($1.5 million). Here’s a primer on how this might work from SB Nation’s Purple Row.
What’s the point of under- and over-slotting? “Under-slot” is when a player agrees to less than his slotted value. “Over-slot” is when a player gets more. Most of the time, an over-slot deal is a way to offer more money to a high school player, seeing as how high schoolers have leverage. If they don’t like what’s offered, they can go to college and be redrafted in three years or spend a year at a prep school and reenter next year’s draft.
Can trying to play the slots, as it were, backfire? Yes indeed. The Astros wound up losing Brady Aiken, the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, because an iffy MRI induced them to reduce an already under-slot offer. A miffed Aiken wound up not signing. (He has since had Tommy John surgery; he was drafted 17th overall by the Indians last year.) Because they spent none of their pool money on their No. 1 pick, the Astros couldn’t pay Round 5 pick Jacob Nix the $1.5 million they’d offered, which was contingent on Aiken signing. (Technically, a team can choose to spend above its bonus pool allocation, but there’s a monetary penalty involved.) Nix declined to accept less than half that much and didn’t sign, either.
Can playing the slots work? Yes again. The Astros were able to pay over-slot money to pitcher Lance McCullers and third baseman Rio Ruiz – who’s now a Gwinnett Brave; he was acquired in the Evan Gattis trade – because shortstop Carlos Correa, the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, agreed to sign for $4.8 million when his slot value was $7.2.
Why are guys willing to sign for under-slot? Some just want to get their professional careers started. Some prefer a big bonus in hand to waiting for another draft, by which time they might have gotten hurt and seen their value plunge. Most draft-eligibles have a number in mind, which is why teams take pre-draft soundings from agents. It’s widely held that the Astros picked Correa No. 1 at least in part because they knew he wouldn’t demand full slot money.
So who are the Braves apt to pick in Round 1? According to Cooper, the choice could be high school lefty Jacob Groome or one of two college bats – either Kyle Lewis of Mercer or Corey Ray of Louisville. (Here’s a rundown on the relative merits of Lewis and Ray from Christopher Crawford of Baseball Prospectus.) When we spoke, Cooper was leaning toward Lewis. (So is John Manuel of Baseball America in this mock draft.)
And who’s Kyle Lewis? He’s from Snellville. He graduated from Shiloh High. He was named Baseball America’s college player of the year Tuesday. He hit 20 homers in 61 games for the Bears this season. Can’t imagine this organization would have any use for a power hitter, can you?
Further drafty reading: