Lake Mary (Fla.) shortstop Brendan Rodgers could be the first overall pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Major League Baseball Draft on Monday.
Other than Rodgers and a select few, though, high schoolers likely will not hear their names called as Round 1 progresses. Since the change in the collective bargaining agreement three years ago, teams have selected a decreasing percentage of high school players in the first round because of certain financial restrictions.
In the last draft before the new agreement in 2012, 55% of the first-round selections were high school players, followed by 45% in 2013 and 35% last year, the lowest percentage since 2008.
While some observers say the decrease is a random fluctuation that is cyclical, the financial implications put in place in the new agreement have been a factor.
“You can always dream on the high school guy, but the college player, in theory, is the always the safer pick,” Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “But the right high school guy beats the wrong college guy every single day of the week.”
Signability has always been an issue for teams deciding whether to draft high school players in the early rounds, but the rules instituted placed a hard cap on the amount a team could spend on their picks in the first 10 rounds and allocated a certain amount for each pick. If a player does not sign, the team cannot reallocate the money to another player; the amount allocated for that pick is subtracted from the initial total pool.
Previously, teams had loose recommendations of slots but could sign a player to a contract more than that value with the permission of the commissioner’s office. Now severe penalties are in place if a team exceeds the total allotment for its draft picks.
Every draft has six star players and probably a dozen players who will have promising big-league careers, MLB.com scouting expert Jim Callis said. But succumbing to monetary restrictions will make pinpointing future stars even harder than it already is.
“If you start saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to take high school guys,’ you might be eliminating half those guys right off the bat,” Callis said. “Some teams do take that approach, but you can’t be too far on those lines or it’s just going to make your job that more difficult.”
When teams have questions about signability for high schoolers, they also might take a player lower than his ability suggests.
In 2012, Carson Fulmer was taken in the 15th round by the Boston Red Sox because he was likely to attend Vanderbilt. In order to convince him not to go college, a team would have had to offer him more than the recommended amount for that pick.
But three years later, he’s arguably the best pitcher in the draft and could be taken by the same team with the seventh overall pick if not higher. The Diamondbacks have looked at him possibly as the No. 1 overall pick.
“You know you could draft a kid later on in the draft who had that kind of ability, but say his signability was tough or say he wanted to go to college, you could throw that money at him later on so there’s a lot less risk in not signing your first-round pick then,” said Greg Sabers, national scouting director for Perfect Game, which has been evaluating high school players for more than a decade.
Beyond money, other reasons could be impacting the trend in the number of high school first-rounders.
Although teams rely on their scouts and personnel departments to do multiple in-person evaluations of players under consideration, statistics can play a role in the players who get seen. College statistics among players are easier to compare based on the level of play of specific conferences or opponents. That is not the case with high school statistics with a wide disparity in level of competition nationally.
Injury concerns also often harder to decipher among high school athletes than college athletes.
Last June, Brady Aiken was selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Astros. Aiken, a left-handed pitcher from Cathedral Catholic in San Diego, agreed to a contract worth $6.5 million despite a slot value for the overall top pick of $7.9 million.
The Astros said they found an “abnormality” in Aiken’s elbow when they tested him after the draft. Subsequently, the Astros drastically reduced their offer. The Astros bumped the revised offer up to more than $5 million on the deadline for draft picks to sign, but Aiken declined and the No. 1 overall pick went unsigned for the first time in 31 years.
“It’s real important that that first pick is signable,” Sabers said.
Aiken’s plan was to showcase his ability at IMG Academy in Brandenton, Fla., this spring, but he lasted just 13 pitches in his only appearance. Six days later, he had Tommy John surgery. Aiken is eligible for the draft this year.
This year’s group of high school talent is relatively deep, but Sabers said there are fewer high-end, can’t-miss high school players than in the past.
In 2012, teams may have thrown first-round money at a high school player who this year would be selected in a later round. But with the financial risks under the bargaining agreement, the downward trend of the past three years may continue on Monday.
“I do think there has been some fallout because of that,” said Melissa Lockard, an MLB anlyst for Scout.com. “It makes it a lot more difficult for teams to jump after some of these guys that are going to be going way over slot for their bonus demands.”
Contributing: Bob Nightengale