At a stroke or two before the deadline to sign drafted players, the Washington Nationals signed first overall pick Stephen Strasburg to a four-year contract worth at least $15.1 million. That's a lot of money for a guy who has never thrown a professional pitch, but it seems like a lot less when you take into account the fact that he's still under Nats control for the fifth and sixth years of his career and that, with Jordan Zimmermann out for a year or so following elbow surgery, the most promising pitcher in the organization.
Not everyone agrees with that take, instead choosing to play Chicken Little and scream about how baseball's draft is horribly broken as a result of Strasburg's contract. Jayson Stark of ESPN.com takes up the banner and runs with it in a column bemoaning the fact that Strasburg's deal pays him more than Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz are making combined this season. That would be a fair complaint, if there was a shred of truth to it.
Strasburg got a $7.5 million signing bonus and the rest of the $15.1 million is paid out in annual salaries over the next four years. Only $400,000 of that money is made this season, and the salary peaks at $3 million in 2012. Johnson signed an $8 million contract this year, Smoltz had a base salary of $5.5 million and Martinez is getting $1 million from the Phillies for two months of work. Strasburg's total salary (remember, we're not talking bonus here) is actually much less than what the three men get combined and, assuming all goes well, he'll be a major bargain come 2012 when all three of those men will be making tee times and making sure the kids have their lunchboxes.
And, even with bonus, is there a G.M. on the planet who wouldn't trade any of those three pitchers for Strasburg, even with this awful burden of a contract? If there is, please send his name this way so we can agitate for his immediate ouster. Stark, and any other detractor of Strasburg's contract, also conveniently ignores that Strasburg's contract is actually a bargain. There's only one Strasburg and 30 teams would have done whatever they could to get him, but only the Nationals had the right to actually sign him which gave them an immense advantage.
Craig Calcaterra of Circling the Bases points out that the 30 MLB teams spent $180 million total in draft bonuses this year. That amounts to $6 million a team, or a mediocre starting pitcher's salary equaling 50-odd players with nothing but upside. That's a pretty good deal for the teams,
That said, a strict slot bonus is an idea with merit. Strict slotting (i.e. the bonus for a draft spot regardless of what player is taken there) would help assure that the best players go to the worst teams, although that wasn't a problem this year. It wouldn't be the cure-all to competitive imbalance that many believe it to be, however, and the effects would be more diffuse than just the top of the first round. Still, you have to wonder how teams that find the deep pockets to sign the likes of Jose Guillen, Kerry Wood and Barry Zito to massive contracts can complain about the relative pittances paid to youngsters.
You don't have to think that hard, actually. Players at the beginning of their career are much more profitable for teams than they are later on, see Tim Lincecum's $1 million in salary for the 2008 and 2009 seasons combined, so why wouldn't they try as hard as they can to keep as much money on their side of the table. That's another reason why it's ridiculous to compare Strasburg's salary to established players, because only a fool believes that the same owners would turn around and spend that money anyway. It's going right into their pockets, presumably next to Stark's cell phone number.
The draft could be better, but only because everything short of bacon could be better. The idea that Strasburg is one of the problems, however, is one that just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.