Rick Porcello and the MLB Draft: The Story Everybody Got Wrong

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Rick Porcello and the MLB Draft: The Story Everybody Got Wrong
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Rick Porcello

With the MLB Draft rapidly approaching, it’s safe to assume that a lot of baseball writers will be submitting articles about how the MLB Draft is broken and bonuses to amateurs are out of control. We saw these types of articles in at least two different MLB previews, and the MLB Draft is likely to be a point of interest in the next MLB labor negotiation.

Perhaps everybody’s favorite recent story related to this theory is of Rick Porcello, who was selected by the Detroit Tigers with the 27th pick in the 2007 Draft. Porcello, a prep pitcher from Orange, New Jersey, was considered by many to be the top high school arm available in the draft that year. However, he also had a scholarship to North Carolina waiting for him if he so chose, which gave Porcello the negotiating leverage to demand a record-tying bonus from whatever team that drafted him.

This demand (orchestrated by legendary agent Scott Boras) essentially scared off every team at the top of the draft. The Royals (and numerous teams behind them) decided to pass on him with the second pick, as did the Cubs, Pirates, Orioles and numerous other teams that would have loved to have his arm in their system. 

Porcello wound up getting taken by Detroit with the 27th pick—supposedly to keep the Yankees from scooping him up three picks later. The Tigers then signed Porcello to a Major League contract that guaranteed him $7.28 million, a figure that also included a $3.5 million bonus. It was the largest contract ever handed out to a prep pitcher, breaking the record set by Josh Beckett in 1999.

To most, this was another example of Boras manipulating the draft by making sure that the best talent does not go to the weakest teams. The big-money Tigers (and by extension, the Yankees and Red Sox) could afford to spend whatever it took to get their guy, keeping the small-market teams in a perpetual state of mediocre-to-poor play.

That’s the story we’ve been getting since 2007. And it completely misses the point of the issue.

The Truth

Rick Porcello was more than just a good prospect: He was the Gatorade National Player of the Year and someone that scouts thought could be in the Majors in a relatively short amount of time. He was also an excellent student who was very interested in going to school and playing college baseball. Asking for a huge contract was his way of trying to resist the temptation of going to the pros.

Why is this a bad thing? Porcello was using negotiating leverage (which all prep players have, though perhaps not necessarily as strong) to get himself a better deal, and if it failed he could go along with the plan he wanted all along.

The more important issue, however, is this: Rick Porcello’s demands should have scared off no one, as they were not at all unreasonable.

Porcello was not asking for an earth shattering contract; he was asking for a record-tying contract. And the record he was looking to tie was signed by Josh Beckett…back in the 1999 MLB Draft.

I’ve pointed out before that the rise in signing bonuses for MLB draft picks is an issue that has been dramatically overblown, and that they have merely paralleled the rise in both player salary and revenue.  While this holds true for the average bonus, it is not as strong for the maximum bonuses. Case in point:  Beckett’s deal came in a year in which MLB generated approximately $2.7 billion in revenue. Porcello’s deal occurred in a year in which MLB cleared $6 billion. And keep in mind that Beckett’s deal was with the Marlins—a team about as far from being a big-market club as can be.

So to recap: Rick Porcello—the top prep pitcher available, according to most scouts—was asking for a record-tying contract that had been set eight years prior, and during that time MLB had more than doubled in total revenue.

Why would any team, regardless of revenue, be scared off by this contract demand? 

It isn’t the Tigers (or Yankees) we should be upset with; it’s the teams who had the previous 26 picks who refused to spend the money. They are the ones who passed on what looked like an elite talent because they did not want to pay the (totally reasonable) sticker price. 

The Draft is one area where small-market MLB teams should look to spend money. Unlike free agency, no team is priced out of draft talent. Sure, sometimes the best talent costs more, but that is equally true for all MLB talent. 

On the other hand, draft talent is considerably cheaper. Last year, MLB spent approximately $194 million (about $6.5 million per team) on draft bonuses—which is approximately 7.2 percent of the total amount spent on player salaries last season. 

In other words, prices for draft picks—even an expensive pick like Rick Porcello—are still a bargain when compared to MLB veterans.

People across baseball have the Rick Porcello story completely backwards. He did not manipulate the MLB Draft to get a big contract from a big-market club. It was most of baseball that manipulated itself by refusing to pay top dollar to a great prospect—one who has proven to be worth every penny. Had the Royals selected Porcello with the second pick and then signed him to the same contract, there would be no controversy.

This was an example of a top player getting paid what he was worth. What is the problem with that?

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