Surprise Teams Spend On Draft

It doesn’t take Andrew Tinnish long to explain why the draft matters to the Toronto Blue Jays.

“Because we play in the toughest division in baseball with the two biggest spenders in baseball,” Tinnish told MLBTR. “It’s pretty simple for me.”

As the team’s amateur scouting director, he is responsible for infusing new talent into the organization. This year – the Blue Jays’ first season under Tinnish – the team spared no expense. Toronto signed its 2010 draftees for $11.6MM in bonuses, according to totals compiled by Baseball America. Joining the Blue Jays as the biggest spenders in the industry were the deep-pocketed Red Sox, the Nationals (who signed top pick Bryce Harper) and two others: the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Indians.

The Pirates, Indians and Blue Jays have pursued major league free agents cautiously, but each team spent big on draft bonuses this year. Each of those three clubs committed more to 2010 draftees than they did to last offseason’s crop of free agents. And before 2010, no team had ever committed as much in bonuses to one draft class as the Pirates ($11.9MM) and Blue Jays did this summer. Franchises that don’t or can’t spend their way to the top of the MLB standings are investing heavily in the draft because they expect top amateurs will lead to success at the major league level.

But as Tinnish points out, it’s one thing to spend and it’s another thing to find the right players.

“To me it’s not about spending,” Tinnish said. “Whether that’s an Aaron Sanchez, who obviously signed for a reasonable amount for where he was taken (supplemental first round, $775K bonus) or a Dickie Joe Thon, who signed for much more than the recommended amount for where he was selected (fifth round, $1.5MM bonus), it’s about acquiring talent.”

The Pirates haven’t had enough major league talent to post a winning record since 1992 and as an 18th-consecutive losing season unfolds, they are building through the draft. In the two months leading up to last week’s signing deadline, GM Neal Huntington committed more in bonuses than any team except the Nationals. The Pirates selected second overall, which meant they could choose any player not named Bryce Harper. But talented players with potentially intimidating demands fell to them well after the first round.

“We paid players fourth round money in the later rounds because we felt they were fourth round talent,” Huntington told MLBTR over e-mail. “And in effect, [we] added additional upper round talent to our system via this process.”

The Pirates also added top talent when they were expected to: in the first two rounds of the draft. Prep right-handers Jameson Taillon (first round, $6.5MM bonus) and Stetson Allie (second round, $2.25MM bonus) both signed for over-slot deals. Not every organization goes over-slot on its draftees and as Huntington points out, the Pirates rely on the flexibility to make those offers.

“Those resources have allowed us to aggressively add much-needed quality talent to the organization,” Huntington said.

Last summer, the Indians promised themselves that they would do the same.

“A year ago we sat down and decided that we wanted to be aggressive in the draft and try to add as much talent as we possibly could,” Indians amateur scouting director Brad Grant said. “Knowing that where we are right now as a major league organization, we need to infuse as much talent into our organization as possible.”

At that point, the Indians didn’t know they’d end up drafting Drew Pomeranz, their eventual first-round selection. They ranked potential picks based on talent, with players’ demands in mind – but only to an extent.

“We were ready to react,” Grant said. “We knew the players that we liked. We had a breakdown solely by ability and we tried to take the player we liked best.”

The Indians are prepared to spend on elite amateurs because they aren’t able to spend on elite pros.

“Especially with our market, we can’t afford to sign some of the higher-end major league free agents,” Grant said. “That gets out of our spectrum, so the best way to infuse talent into our organization is to acquire it, whether that be through the draft, whether that be through international signings, whether that be through trades, those are routes we have to take in order to acquire top talent.”

The Blue Jays drafted and developed Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero and Aaron Hill among others under former GM J.P. Ricciardi. The team is under a new regime now, but there’s no question that the Blue Jays continue to rely on the draft.

“The position we’re in, the division we’re in, I think this is an area where we need to be very aggressive and acquire as much talent as we possibly can,” Tinnish said. “[We] hope that that talent helps us in the big leagues or helps us to trade for big leaguers to eventually win the division.”

Before the 2010 season, Baseball America ranked Toronto’s system 28th among the 30 MLB organizations, but as soon as he took over for Ricciardi, Alex Anthopoulos vowed to invest heavily in scouting. Tinnish went into the draft with a willingness to commit to players demanding over-slot deals, but generally speaking, the Blue Jays are not going to out-spend the Yankees and Red Sox.

“We don’t have an unlimited budget, we don’t have unlimited payroll,” Tinnish said. “I think that for a team like us and the position we’re in … we need to draft well.”

The aftermath of the 2010 draft just concluded last week, but Tinnish has been scouting all summer and can already rattle off a dozen showcases and tournaments he has attended in preparation for the 2011 draft. The Blue Jays are not alone; other teams are doing the same.

“We’re well into 2011 already,” Grant said. ”It looks like it should shape up to be a very, very good draft year.”

Teams like the Indians, Blue Jays and Pirates are hoping so. For them, the draft is one area where they out-muscle their richer rivals.

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