Say what you will about the current draft system in terms of limiting talent for teams like the Pirates. Prior to the changes in 2012, the Pirates could draft anyone and go over-slot on any of those players. They could take a big bonus prep pitcher in the first round, a big bonus prep hitter in the second round, and keep adding players for as long as they wanted, even including beyond the tenth round.
This didn’t always work out, and not just from a scenario where prospects busted. Sometimes the players just didn’t sign. The 2010 draft was largely empty as most of the top ten round players opted not to sign — although that was in part due to MLB delaying a few of the signings and players changing their minds and going to college.
The 2011 draft saw the Pirates go big on over-slot deals, including $5 M to Josh Bell in the second round and $1.2 M to Clay Holmes in the ninth round — both records. But they still couldn’t get Trea Turner to accept $500,000 in the 20th round.
The old system allowed for teams to add as many over-slot players as they wanted. The new system still allows for over-slot players, but only in certain rounds. If you want a Tyler Glasnow (6th round in 2011, $600,000 bonus) or a Holmes, you need to take them in the first few rounds, rather than the later rounds. Mitch Keller may have been a guy in previous drafts who was taken in the sixth through ninth rounds, and given $1 M to sign. Instead, he was drafted in the second round in 2014, where the Pirates could easily afford to give him that same $1 M, only needing to create $113,000 elsewhere in the draft (which actually came mostly from Cole Tucker signing for $125,500 under slot).
The current system allows for teams to sign guys to over-slot deals, but it’s much more of a juggling act, and takes a big picture view now. In order to sign a second round pick to an over-slot deal, you need to know that the money is coming from one of the other picks. That means you need to know exactly what every other pick is going to take. And the trend since the current system has been in place is that teams know this amount before the player is drafted — almost like having a pre-draft deal in most cases.
This process puts a lot of emphasis on area scouts building relationships with the player and the family, and knowing whether they will sign and what they will sign for. We’ve already heard a bit about this with the two players that have agreed to deals (or the two that we know about). Shane Baz described area scout Wayne Mathis as “awesome”, and the relationship between Mathis and the Baz family was mentioned by scouting director Joe DelliCarri as a strong one. Baz was considered hard to sign, but has already reached a deal, and is expected to officially sign tomorrow.
Everything written about Cody Bolton was that he was unsignable, which made it questionable to take him in the 6th round with only $255,900 in slot money available. But he almost instantly agreed, and DelliCarri mentioned that area scout Mike Sansoe had developed a strong relationship with the player and the family. That means that while everyone else perceived Bolton to be unsignable, the Pirates knew he would sign.
I asked DelliCarri if the importance of area scouts building that relationship has changed with the current draft system, but he didn’t seem to think so.
“It’s really always been important,” DelliCarri, a former area scout himself, said. “There’s always a great story behind every player you sign, and it’s usually because of the relationship of the area supervisor on the ground, and the connectivity. That’s just always been my standpoint.”
That’s true when you think about previous examples. Josh Bell submitted a letter to every MLB team telling them not to draft him, as he intended to go to college. Pirates’ area scout at the time, Mike Leuzinger, had a good relationship with Bell and with the family, and knew that he would sign for the right price. That was very important, as other teams apparently didn’t have the same relationship. The Red Sox, for example, were upset that Bell signed with the Pirates, despite having four picks before he went off the board. They were interested, and had the money to sign him for $5 M. But they obviously were scared away by the letter, and the Pirates knew better.
So I guess the role of an area scout is the same, and still important. They’re the ones who find out who will sign, what price they will sign for, and they’re the ones who convince the players that signing with the Pirates is a good choice. They’re almost salesmen for the organization, letting the players know what to expect, and letting them know how they develop players, to try and get them on board.
“I think it matters to young men and families, our representation on the ground,” DelliCarri said. “Our guys do a terrific job of representing the organization. I think they walk the walk and live out who we are. I think that just shows when they get in front of these young men and share about who we are and opportunity here.”
So maybe the role or the importance of the area scout hasn’t changed. But it’s hard to look beyond how incredibly important that process is as a collective across the board. The current draft system is a house of cards. You need to know the prices and signability for every single pick in the top ten rounds. If you’re wrong on one player, you could throw off the plans for the rest of the draft (which happened to the Astros a few years ago, although for injury-related purposes, rather than signability).
This means you need to have those relationships in place with every single pick, and you need to know ahead of time what those picks will take. The area scouts play the biggest role here, and a good relationship can lead to easy negotiations and a full plan coming together — even when players are perceived by everyone else as tough or impossible to sign.