Money affecting Marlins’ drafts?


Mike Berardino of the Sun-Sentinel makes the case that while Jim Fleming is partially to blame for the draft woes of the decade for the Marlins, he has not necessarily had it fair:

"According to an analysis by Baseball America, the Marlins spent a total of $12.7 million on their past three drafts. That ranked fourth lowest in the game and represented less than a third of the Nationals’ total draft outlay ($38.4 million).The Marlins’ maxed out at $4.4 million in 2010. The Pirates spent $17 million this year."

I for one totally support this idea that the Marlins may have had problems in the draft because of their issues with signability. Draft picks often want more than slot, and if the Marlins are unwilling to go along with their demands because they have put (likely unnecessary) restraints on their draft budget, then the team will naturally have difficulty picking up better talents. The mere data can attest to that. From 2008 to 2010, the Marlins spent the fourth lowest amount on the first round of the draft among major league teams.

RankTeam$ milRankTeam$ mil
2Red Sox28.327Marlins13.9
5Royals24.530White Sox12.8

However, some of those numbers have circumstances surrounding them. The Marlins, much like the Atlanta Braves and to a larger extent the Philadelphia Phillies, drafted closer to the middle or bottom of the order, where fewer big-name talents demanding larger bonuses were available. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington NationalsBaltimore Orioles, and Kansas City Royals, on the other hand, drafted closer to the top of the draft order and had their pick of high-caliber talents available to them. Some of their strategies were, of course, organizational in nature (the Pirates in particular under general manager Neal Huntington have made it a point to pay overslot to ensure they secure draft talent), but some of it simply was the nature of the beast; you cannot sign Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper by going on the cheap.

In addition, looking through the seasons being discussed, it is actually pretty interesting to note that, while the Marlins have spent little on talent compared to others in the league, it is not as if the team has been entirely outclassed by the teams drafting behind them in terms of going overslot. Indeed, every year there were only a few names that were taken past the Marlins order in the first round that signed for more than the Marlins player signed for.

An example and overslotting

Berardino mentions some of the draft follies that the Fish have undergone since the early 2000’s. He mentions that prospect Matt Dominguez may yet turn out to be a useful piece but was drafted ahead of superstar prospect Jason Heyward. In that case, the decision (correct or incorrect) may have been one more based on talent than money; Dominguez signed for $1.8 million while Heyward signed for $1.7 million two spots later.

Beyond that, it was not as if the Marlins stuck hard to the estimated slot bonuses suggested by Major League Baseball. The Fish went over slot with every draft pick (outside of 2008, data for which I do not have) since 2007. Dominguez, Chad James, Christian Yelich, and likely Jose Fernandez (the team’s 2011 pick) all received overslot bonuses. Compare that to teams like the Phillies, who stuck to slot in each of those years, or the Braves, who went over for Mike Minor but otherwise avoided spending more than recommended.

Fishing for over slot talent

The Marlins did pay over slot for their draft picks, but there are always a few players who fall to teams late in the first round who are willing to pay well over slot for upper first round talent. In 2011, for example, there were three players who were drafted past Jose Fernandez at the Fish’s position that earned bonuses higher than Fernandez’s $2 million. However, none of them were projected to go earlier than Fernandez in Baseball America’s last mock draft, thought that does not necessarily mean that any of them were less talented. Similarly, in 2010 three players past the Marlins’ spot also signed for more bonus money than the Marlins gave Yelich, and in 2009 the same number saw bigger bonuses than James received. In 2007, only one player past Dominguez received a larger bonus.

Yes, this could be a disadvantage in the team’s strategy or a problem in their finances that is holding them back from receiving premium talent in return. Of the seven players who signed for more money past the Marlins’ draft pick from 2007 to 2010 excluding 2008, all but one (the New York Yankees’ Slade Heathcott) were on the 2011 Top 100 prospects list on Baseball America. If there is one area in which the Marlins could take advantage, it is here; many of these players seem like talents that were worth the risk of paying between $1 million and $3 million more than slot, and the team’s frugal ways may be preventing them from picking up good talent that slipped due to signability concerns. The Pirates stopped worrying as much about signability in their draft picks, as have the Orioles. Perhaps the Fish should do the same, especially with their typically annual position in the later parts of the round. Every once in a while, perhaps the team should take a chance on a prospect that may be difficult to sign.

Still, this does not entail that the Marlins are simply throwing in the towel on drafts because of money. They are paying over slot to ensure players are signed and that the team gets their draft picks in their organization on schedule. They are picking up talents that are at least first-round worthy. It may be a strategy that is more risk-averse, but the results that Berardino happily spews out in the article linked at the top of this post could just as easily been a slew of bad luck choices rather than complete scouting blunders. So much goes into making a prospect pan out that blaming Fleming or the fact that the club pays less money into the draft may be pointing the finger at only one aspect of the problem.