It was the big question mark, the great mystery facing the 2012 First-Year Player Draft: How would the new system work?
Would the fears of high school players being driven to college because of the tight Draft pools and inability to go way over slot in later rounds come to fruition? How, if at all, would both teams and players/advisors find ways to manipulate or use the system?
The biggest question, at least from the teams' perspective was: Would it accomplish the objectives of keeping spending under control and getting players signed quickly?
Many thought the industry would have to go through the entire process for a year or more before really having a handle on how it worked. But if what's happened in the week since the Draft concluded is any indication -- and most seem to think it is -- the new system is doing much of what it was intended to do.
With the July 13 signing deadline still nearly a month away, the immediate flurry of activity -- in terms of players coming to terms, especially with early-round picks -- has been unprecedented. As of Friday, a total of 16 of the first round's 31 picks have either officially signed or are expected to do so in the coming days. For others, like Tyler Naquin (No. 15, Cleveland), signs point to them joining the group in the very near future as well.
"I think [it's working]," said Diamondbacks scouting director Ray Montgomery, whose organization had signed nine of its 10 picks made in the first 10 rounds (the only unsigned player being one still playing in the College World Series). "I think it was a function of educating, and understanding the new system.
"It was a mutual explanation. We explained it to [the players], the advisors helped in that process. It was fairly straightforward and comfortable, but we spent a lot of time doing it."
While clubs may have spent much of the winter and spring digesting and then explaining what the new landscape would look like in terms of the Draft pools for each team and what they could and couldn't spend throughout the Draft, the good news is that the process appears to have paved the way for a quick and fairly painless signing season.
balancing the bonus budget
A look at the assigned value of first-round picks vs. the reported bonuses for those picks who have signed.
TOTAL (in millions)
What stands out even more than the early signings is that every single one of the 16 have signed at or below the assigned value for his pick. Teams not only are signing guys quickly, they're doing so under budget.
"It doesn't surprise me," Montgomery said. "The money is higher than it's ever been. The money was in the Draft. The top 50 guys, everyone is getting [close to] $1 million."
The new system assigned all 30 teams a Draft bonus pool for their selections in the top 10 rounds of the Draft, based on where they picked and how many picks they had. The Twins, by virtue of picking No. 2 overall while also having 13 total selections, had the largest pool to draw from. The Astros, picking No. 1 overall, had the second-largest pool.
Teams could spend that pool any way they saw fit across all of their selections, but going more than five percent over would lead to heavy penalties -- first financial, and then the forfeiture of future Draft picks.
The new system, at least in this first week, has removed the game of chicken that had become the norm with teams and advisors. There's bound to be some players who don't sign until just before the deadline, with both sides trying to maximize the value of the pick in both directions, but given how quickly players are signing now, the days of the entire top of the Draft waiting until the 11th hour might be a thing of the past.
"I think that's what had gotten away from the process," Montgomery said. "This is about going out and playing baseball. It had turned into a showdown of will."
And that fear of high schoolers running from pro ball to college because of this new system? Perhaps it led to more high schoolers being picked higher, as opposed to letting them slide and giving them over-slot deals, but so far, indications are that it might be much ado about nothing as well. Twelve of that group of 16 first-round signees are high schoolers. Another 11 comp picks who have reportedly signed hail from the prep ranks as well.
"It doesn't seem to be [a problem], based on what I've seen so far," Montgomery said. "The guys that wanted to play are showing they want to play. They're being compensated to play, but they're getting the opportunity to play."
Indeed, with short-season leagues set to begin play soon, this year's Draft class will have the opportunity to get a lot more professional playing time than many of their predecessors. The players who have signed are being almost immediately assigned to a roster so they can get their feet wet.
"The players that had a desire to start their professional careers, they expressed that," Indians assistant general manager John Mirabelli said. "It's worked out well so far. It looks like the values were assessed properly, along with their desires. That artificial deadline, why was it Aug. 15? Now we're finding out these kids want to play, and so far, so good. It seems like the values and the desires have matched up so far."
While early returns are largely positive on both sides of the team-advisor aisle, some concerns have been voiced. One agent reached by MLB.com said that he felt the system was still unfair for smaller-market teams who were previously aggressive in the old system, and that pre-Draft deals, expressly forbidden by the Commissioner's Office, were commonplace leading up to the start of the Draft.
"That's why guys are signing so quickly," said the agent, who asked not to be identified because he has a number of unsigned players he is advising. "A team had to know if a player was going to be signable at the number they were thinking or they risk losing it. We saw that play out at the top of the Draft."
In some ways, the agent implied, the new system's strict spending guidelines -- most notably the fact that the assigned value for a pick would be subtracted from a team's pool if a player at that pick is unsigned -- made such contact more necessary than in the past, despite the message to avoid such communication. In the past, a team might be willing to roll the dice more and take a chance, like the Pirates did with Josh Bell (second round) in 2011. That kind of pick wouldn't happen now without a team knowing exactly what it would take to sign him, according to the agent.
No one has claimed that the new system was the perfect elixir, of course. And perhaps some of these issues will need to be taken care of in the long term. Right now, though, it appears that Version 1.0 of the new Draft system is doing what all hoped it would.
"We agreed on a system; here it is, and it's playing out," Montgomery said. "The people who stand to benefit the most are the players. They're getting their careers started sooner, getting more instruction at a quicker pace, and they're still getting compensated for it. It's a win-win for them and for the organizations."
"Certain teams will value different players differently," Mirabelli added. "So far, they've matched that up and they've done their homework on signability. Could there be some instances where things blow up at the deadline? I'm betting there'll be one or two. But some things are working as they were intended to work."