If Tuesday started with the Pirates surrounded by uncertainty in regards to how they’d handle the signing of Mark Appel, Wednesday is starting with everyone having a pretty good idea of what the Pirates plan to do in their negotiations with Appel and his advisor, Scott Boras. They’re not going to stake their whole draft on signing Appel and they’re going to try and use the new draft rules to force Boras’s hand.
After picking Appel and Barrett Barnes yesterday, the Pirates followed up today with Wyatt Mathisen, a high school catcher from Texas, Jonathan Sandfort, a high school pitcher from Florida, Brandon Thomas, an outfielder from Georgia Tech, and Adrian Sampson, a junior college pitcher. That means that in the Pirates’ first five rounds, they picked six players and they can probably only dream of signing two of them, Barnes and Thomas, for under slot. Both guys are fairly decent prospects, though, so if they do sign for less than their slot allotment, it won’t be a whole lot less. The high schoolers will either sign for the most they can or go back to school; either way they won’t affect what the Pirates can offer Appel.
In rounds 6-10, the Pirates went for some signability. Eric Wood is an off-the-map JuCo third baseman, Jacob Stallings is a senior catcher for a little university in Chapel Hill, North Carolina that I’m vaguely familiar with, ninth rounder DJ Crumlich is a senior at UC-Irvine, and Pat Ludwig is a senior relief pitcher from Yale. All four of those guys will sign for less than their slot values (eighth rounder Kevin Ross is a high school player, so he’d likely sign for slot), which should give the Pirates some extra money to spend on Appel, but how much?
Baseball America has the slot values for the Pirates’ picks here: their sixth round pick has a $188,800 cap, the seventh rounder is $148,000, ninth round is $129,100, and the tenth round is $125,000. It’s noticeable that their sixth round pick, Wood, was way, way off the map (as in, not in Baseball America’s top 500), which means the Pirates are probably hoping to save in excess of $100,000 with that pick, assuming Wood signs. If they can bank $100,000 on Wood and $200,000 from the other three picks to round out the top 10, then sign every other player they picked in the first ten rounds for slot on the nose and are willing to pay a 75% tax on their entire draft spendings in order make the biggest offer possible, they can offer Appel in the ballpark of $500,000 more than their $2.9 million slot recommendation for him without having to give up next year’s first round pick for him (forgive me if my math is off here; I’m sure Pirates Prospects can do a better analysis of this particular situation than I can).
That’s only $3.4 million. According to Tom Krasovic, Appel told the Astros he wanted $6 million. So why would he sign with the Pirates? The reality for Appel, I think, is that there’s just not much first rounders can do inside of this new draft system. If Appel doesn’t sign, he’ll either go back to Stanford for his senior year or spend a year in winter ball. Most guys that do that don’t improve their stock hugely; Aaron Crow is the last highly-touted college pitcher I can think of that went this route and he dropped from the ninth overall pick in 2008 to the 12th in 2009. When you consider that Appel wasn’t the consensus best talent in what was widely considered to be a weak draft, you have to think that both he and Boras know that chances of him getting selected lower than eighth have to be at least as high as his chances of getting selected higher. He might get drafted by a team with a bigger draft pool in 2013, but he’d also have to hope that that team was willing to follow him with nine college seniors to offer him the biggest bonus possible. I doubt many GMs these days would be willing to do that kind of thing, though that’s an unknown at this point. In fact, it seems pretty likely to me that the way that the Nationals handle Andrew Giolito will probably affect the way Appel and Boras expect the Pirates to handle their negotiation.
That means that the Pirates’ pitch to Appel is something like this: “Mark, we know you’re disappointed you weren’t drafted first. We think you deserved to be picked there and honestly, if it were up to us, we’d pay you the $6 million tomorrow. It’s not up to us anymore now, and it won’t be up to the team that picks you next year, either. $3.5 million is a lot of money, though, and we can offer you something else: a fast track to the big leagues. Sign with us and you’ll be in West Virginia this year. If you’re in West Virginia in July, you’ll be in Altoona by next July and if you’re in Altoona by next July, you’ll be in Pittsburgh by 2014. Maybe earlier if we need you in the bullpen for a pennant run next year. If you’re in Pittsburgh in 2014, that arbitration clock starts ticking. Maybe you’ll hit arbitration in 2017. That’ll make you a free agent before the 2020 season. You won’t even be 30 and you’ll have a huge payday coming. It’ll be more than $3 million. You sit out this year, though? You’ll be in short season ball when you sign in 2013 instead of Double-A with us and maybe you’re not even in the big leagues until 2016 or worse. Maybe you’re not a free agent until you’re 31 now. That’s what the Pirates are offering you. It’s up to you if you want to leave it on the table.”
The caveat here, of course, is Boras and what he plans to do with the new draft arrangement. He won’t make this easy for the Pirates and he’s tried in the past to just blow the draft process up entirely, with varying degrees of success. The Pirates’ leverage exists in other teams not being able to offer Appel more money in 2013. So long as that’s the case, signing him should be a relatively straightforward process, even if he is disappointed today. If Boras’s goal isn’t to sign Appel, but rather to use him to challenge the league’s new drafting dogma in a way that removes it for 2013, things change substantially. I’m not saying this will be the case, of course, or that it’ll even work. I just wouldn’t underestimate Boras here; it may not seem like he’s got a ton of options, but I seriously doubt he’ll go down without a fight.