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In a year that has seen the NFL and NBA deal with acrimonious labor negotiations, MLB is on the verge of ratifying a new collective bargaining agreement without the slightest bit of rancor. However, there has been one point of contention: the escalating bonuses being paid to those selected in the Rule IV amateur draft.

Thanks to unprecedented labor peace, baseball fans are unlikely to face a work stoppage next season.

Back in March, I identified mandatory slotting as one of the main topics to be addressed by the new CBA, so it’s not much of a surprise that the issue has momentarily held up the deal. According to Buster Olney, although some points still need to be ironed out, progress is being made on a compromise. In Olney’s report, he identifies the following elements:

  • Slots will be recommended, not mandatory. However, if teams go over their cumulative slot recommendation for signings made during the first 10 rounds, a tax will be applied.
  • If teams exceed their slot recommendation for a second time, they will also lose a high draft pick.
  • In exchange for this concession, draft compensation will no longer be tied to free agent classifications.

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The games played over the next week will determine the order in next June's Rule IV draft.

At the beginning of the month, it looked as if baseball had a pennant race problem. With the exception of first place in the AL West, every other playoff position was secured by at least a five game lead. Included among those “safe” teams were the Red Sox and Braves, who each enjoyed a nine game loss column advantage over their league’s fifth best team (Boston actually led the A.L. East by a game). Since then, however, both teams have suffered a September slide, breathing life into what had been shaping up as one of the most mundane pennant races in the wild card era.

Not every team can enjoy the thrill of a pennant race, but that doesn’t mean their games are meaningless. The Houston Astros have been an afterthought for most of the season, but with one more loss, the team will clinch the first pick in the 2012 Rule IV draft. Don’t expect champagne in the clubhouse, but if a Stephen Strasburg-type talent emerges, the team might be popping a few corks in the future.

Teams “Vying” for the Top Slots in the 2012 Draft

  W L PCT GA
Houston Astros 53 101 0.344  –
Minnesota Twins 59 94 0.386 6.5
Baltimore Orioles 64 90 0.416 11
Seattle Mariners 65 89 0.422 12
San Diego Padres 67 88 0.432 13.5
Kansas City Royals 68 87 0.439 14.5
Chicago Cubs 68 87 0.439 14.5
Pittsburgh Pirates 69 86 0.445 15.5

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(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

Before embarking on a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, John Elway played a season in the Yankees’ farm system.

Thirty years ago today, the Yankees drafted a Hall of Famer, two-time champion, multiple-record holder, and iconic cultural figure. Unfortunately, the player they selected never appeared in a single major league game.

With the last pick in the second round of the 1981 June draft, the Yankees selected a 20-year old outfielder from Stanford named John Elway. In his sophomore season, Elway hit .361 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs, but his performance on the diamond paled in comparison to his exploits on the gridiron.

In addition to playing baseball, Elway also happened to be the starting quarterback for the Stanford Cardinal. During his second season leading the team, he racked up 27 touchdowns, 248 completions and 2,889 passing yards, all Pac-10 Conference records. For his efforts, Elway was named the conference player of the year.

The Yankees would be one of the few teams that I would have considered signing with this early in my college career.” – John Elway, quoted by AP, September 21, 1981

Because Elway had emerged as such a strong pro-football prospect, very few people even entertained the thought that he might actually play baseball. In some circles, the Yankees were ridiculed for wasting what was their first selection in the draft. However, when the quarterback/outfielder signed a minor league deal with the team in September (he had previously turned down a contract from the Royals after being drafted out of high school in 1979), the door was left opened to a baseball career.

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The Rule IV major league baseball draft used to be an afterthought, so it’s nice to see the process gaining more notoriety. One reason for the increased level of interest has been the proliferation of amateur baseball coverage. Once the exclusive domain of outlets like Baseball America, the field now includes a variety of respected observes, including Keith Law, Kevin Goldstein and countless others who specialize in keeping tabs on draft day prospects.

Before becoming a standout prep player in Florida, Dante Bichette Jr. starred in the Little League World Series.

Because more fans now have at least a cursory knowledge of the players being selected, it’s only natural that more attention would be paid to the draft. Sometimes, however, a small amount of knowledge can be even worse than ignorance.

As much as baseball would like to have its draft attain the same level of recognition as the NBA’s and NFL’s events, there are too many obstacles to overcome. For starters, even though more fans have heard of the names being chosen, very few have ever seen them play. What’s more, even the very best prospects are still ticketed for at least a year or two in the minors, which dilutes the event’s impact. Finally, unlike the NBA and NFL, actual games are being played at the same time, so when faced with watching their team or the draft, most fans probably opt for the former.

For all the reasons cited above, the baseball draft is really a different animal. However, that hasn’t stopped many from reacting to various selections in a similar manner to followers in the other sports. The Yankees’ selection of Dante Bichette Jr. with the 51st pick in last night’s supplementary round is a perfect example.

When it finally came time for the Yankees to make their first pick of the night, most people were expecting, or hoping, the team would take one of the more high profile names, like Josh Bell and Daniel Norris, who had fallen into their lap. However, when the relatively unknown Dante Bichette Jr. was announced, the initial reaction was disappointment followed by anger. With certitude, so many people who had never even heard of Bichette were now convinced the Yankees had made a poor selection.

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Once conducted in relative obscurity, the MLB Rule IV draft has gained increased exposure over the last few years. However, because even the best prospects usually don’t surface in the majors for at least a year or two after being signed, the interest level in baseball’s draft continues to pale in comparison to the events held by the NFL and NBA

Dave Roberts debuted with the Padres one day after being drafted.

There are exceptions to this rule, however. Since the draft process was instituted in 1965 (in various forms including secondary events held in June and additional rounds held in January), 20 players have jumped right from the amateur level into the big leagues, including 13 within 30 days of being selected. However, no one’s transition was quicker than Dave Roberts, who needed only one day to sign a contract and make his major league debut with the Padres in 1972 (interestingly, three of the major league’s four Dave Roberts have played in San Diego). 

Players Who Have Appeared in the Majors within 30 Days of Being Drafted

Draftees Team Drafted Debuted Days to Majors
Mike Adamson Phillies 6-Jun-67 1-Jul-67 25
Steve Dunning Indians 4-Jun-70 14-Jun-70 10
Pete Broberg Rangers 8-Jun-71 20-Jun-71 12
Rob Ellis Brewers 8-Jun-71 18-Jun-71 10
Burt Hooton Cubs 8-Jun-71 17-Jun-71 9
Dave Roberts Padres 6-Jun-72 7-Jun-72 1
Eddie Bane Twins 5-Jun-73 4-Jul-73 29
David Clyde Rangers 5-Jun-73 27-Jun-73 22
Dave Winfield Padres 5-Jun-73 19-Jun-73 14
Tim Conroy Athletics 6-Jun-78 23-Jun-78 17
Bob Horner Braves 6-Jun-78 16-Jun-78 10
Brian Milner Blue Jays 6-Jun-78 23-Jun-78 17
Mike Morgan Athletics 6-Jun-78 11-Jun-78 5

Note: Dick Ruthven was selected by the Phillies in the second phase of the January 1973 draft and debuted on opening day of that year.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

After 1978, teams started taking a more patient approach with their draftees. Since that time, only John Olerud and Xavier Nady have bypassed the minors and played a big league game in the same year in which they were drafted. Otherwise, only Pete Incaviglia, Jim Abbott, Darren Dreifort and, most recently, Mike Leake have played their first professional game in a big league uniform, although each of those players needed to wait until the following season.

As evident from the names above, a quick burst on the scene doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term success. In fact, in most of the cases, the early promotions seemed to be more a case of wishful thinking than prudent expectations. Nonetheless, even though the impact of baseball’s draft lacks the immediacy of other sports, it has still become a day of new hope for teams badly in need of a talent infusion.

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(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

When the Pirates make the first selection in the 2011 MLB Rule V draft, Gerrit Cole is expected to be the name that is called. As many teams have learned in the past, however, making a selection is only the first step in the draft process.

Cole, a 20 year-old right hander from UCLA, should be well known to most Yankees fans because the young fire baller was the team’s 28th selection in the 2008 draft. Unfortunately for Brian Cashman, Cole eschewed the Yankees’ money and opted instead to go to college, making his loss a potential gain for Pittsburgh (or whatever team eventually drafts him).

Most Productive Active Players Drafted More than Once, Ranked by WAR

Player WAR Drafted Years Teams
Todd Helton 58.5 2x 1992, ’95 Padres, Rockies
Jason Giambi 53.1 2x 1989, ’92 Brewers, Athletics
J.D. Drew 46.9 3x 1994, ’97, ’98 Giants, Phillies, Cardinals
Tim Hudson 46.6 2x 1994, ’97 Athletics (2x)
Chase Utley 39.2 2x 1997, 2000 Dodgers, Phillies
Mark Teixeira 38 2x 1998, 2001 Red Sox, Rangers
Placido Polanco 34.7 2x 1993, ’94 White Sox, Cardinals
Barry Zito 31.8 3x 1996, ’98, ’99 Mariners, Rangers, Athletics
Michael Young 26 2x 1994, ’97 Orioles, Blue Jays
Cliff Lee 24 3x 1997, ’98, 2000 Marlins, Orioles, Expos

Source: Baseball-reference.com

If Cole eventually becomes the star that many predict, he won’t be the first Yankees’ draftee to spurn an offer and become a star for another team. Perhaps the most famous player to turn down the Yankees was Mark Prior, although among active players, Casey Blake has been the most productive. Otherwise, Daniel Bard is the only other notable player currently in the majors who was drafted, but not signed by the Yankees.

If [Drew] doesn’t agree to the numbers we have in mind, we won’t be able to sign him. I am not going to be a part of making the industry worse off financially than it is now.”– Phillies’ GM Bill Giles, Reading Eagle, June 4, 1997

Drew played in the independent league after refusing to sign with the Phillies.

Most of the time, the failure to sign a draft pick is the result of a club refusing to meet contract demands. The most famous case of a player sticking to his guns is J.D. Drew, who refused to sign with the Phillies for anything less than $10 million after being taken second overall in 1997 (Drew was also drafted by the Giants out of high school in 1994, but opted to attend college). At the time, bonuses for drafts picks were escalating, but Philadelphia GM Bill Giles refused to budge from his top offer of $3.1 million over four years. As a result, Scott Boras took his client to the independent St. Paul Saints, where Drew played for a year before being redrafted by the Cardinals in 1998. Although Drew didn’t get his $10 million asking price, the guaranteed $7 million deal more than doubled the Phillies’ best offer.

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Update: Minutes after this post was published, Law also released his top-100 prospect rankings. Angels’ outfield prospect Mike Trout topped the list, just ahead of 2010 draft wunderkind Bryce Harper and the Phillies’ Domonic Brown.

As for the Yankees, Jesus Montero ranked highest on the list at number four. According to Law, Montero’s ability to hit is without question (he invoked Frank Thomas as a comparison), but concerns about his defense as well as the durability of catchers his size remain. Also appearing in the top-100 were four other Yankees, most notably Manny Banuelos, who not only ranked 12th overall, but also fourth among pitchers. Despite his young age, Law stated that his advanced physical development means Banuelos isn’t far from helping the big league club. Perhaps, he will be the Yankees mystery fifth starter by midseason?

Also ranked in the top 100 were Gary Sanchez (68), Dellin Betances (73) and Andrew Brackman (88), while Austin Romine just missed the cut. Rounding out Law’s list of the Yankees’ top-10 prospects were Graham Stoneburner, Slade Heathcott, Hector Noesi and Adam Warren.

Keith Law’s latest MLB organization rankings have been posted at ESPN.com, and the Yankees find themselves inside the top-10. Law singled out the team’s catching depth, which includes Jesus Montero, Gary Sanchez and Austine Romine. Law was also impressed with the development of Dellin Betances and Andrew Brackman, both of whom made significant strides in their recovery from injury. Also mentioned were Manny Banuelos as well as a mystery player selected toward the end of last year’s draft. On Friday, Law intends to publish a profile on that player, so all readers with an ESPN insider account should mark it on their calendars.

Most Yankees fans are familiar with Jesus Montero, but fellow catching prospect Gary Sanchez is not that far behind.

Law’s high opinion of the Yankees’ farm system echoed Jonathan Mayo’s prospect rankings, which were unveiled at MLB.com on Tuesday.  The Yankees placed three prospects –Montero (9), Sanchez (32) and Banuelos (35) – on Mayo’s list of the game’s top-50 prospects, while Betances just missed the cut at 53. Like Law, Mayo also rated the Royals (six prospects) and Rays (four prospects) highly. On the other end of the spectrum, the Mets, Marlins, Brewers and A’s were the only four teams not represented.

Law’s and Mayo’s findings validate Brian Cashman’s strategy of paying almost as much attention to the minors as the major league roster. Even as the Yankees have been able to maintain a championship caliber team, Cashman has simultaneously gone about rebuilding and then fortifying the team’s farm system, which is why the general manager was so reticent to surrender a first round draft pick with the signing of Rafael Soriano. The strength of the farm also provides insight into why Cashman has been so patient this offseason. As Steve S. at TYU noted in his excellent recap of Cashman’s WFAN breakfast chat, the Yankees’ general manager believes Banuelos and Betances both have “Phil Hughes or better ceilings”, and all levels of the minors will feature legitimate prospects in their respective rotations. Cashman even relayed Gene Michael’s belief that David Phelps and Adam Warren could be better than Ivan Nova.

Although Mayo’s list is available in its entirety at MLB, Law’s work (which is probably the most exhaustive and informative in the field) remains behind ESPN’s pay wall. So, listed below is a brief and select summary of his conclusions.

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