Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/15/14

Prior the announcement of new Collective Bargaining Agreement yesterday, many thought that one sticking point might be “hard slotting” of signing bonuses for draftees. While hard slotting did not literally happen, the system of penalties for teams going over the “draft cap” looks like it will have the same intended effect. I am far from an expert on the draft, but what is particularly interesting to me is that some seemed to have been surprised that the union would agree to this sort of provision. A bit of reflection makes it clear why the union not only let it pass, but was probably in favor of it. Amateurs, both domestic and international, are not members of the union. Money that is going to those non-members is not going to union members. Whether the new CBA is good for baseball overall (I tend to agree with those who think it is not) is one issue, the union’s self-interest is another. Rather than tackling it as a whole, I want to take at the look at the latter by focusing on some interesting quotes from a long-time internet favorite: Jeff Francoeur.

It is a bit uncomfortable to “pick on” Francoeur. It is not just that I am not worried about beating a dead horse. I have read and heard directly from people, people who are far from being fans of Francoeur’s game, that he really is a genuinely “good guy” (maybe it’s a front for the press, but if so, he maintains it quite consistently). He exceeded all reasonable expectations to have a good 2011 season for the Royals — something for which both he and the Royals front office that signed him should be commended. I am not a fan of the contract extension he received, but it was not awful.

However, none of that is really issue here. What piqued my interest in Francoeur last night was coming across this August 2011 article from the Kansas City Star about the (then-upcoming) CBA negotiations. The article rightly notes that the lauded Kansas City minor league system, which received a fair bit of mainstream national attention this season with the graduation of players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, was largely built on big draft-day bonuses not only for players like Hosmer and Moustakas, but also over-slot bonuses for players who dropped down because of signability concerns such as Wil Myers. The article discusses the well-known, record-setting draft spending in recent years (particularly 2011) of rebuilding, small-market franchises such as the Royals and Pirates, and how those franchises were “overspending” on the draft in order to make up for their inability to compete in free agency. It also has interesting quotes from Royals assistant general manager J. J. Picollo, who claims that the Royals have no problems with spending big in the draft, and general manager Dayton Moore, who says that while the Royals like the (now former) system, the team will have to adapt its strategies to the new context. Scott Boras is quoted saying what you would expect him to say: that spending restrictions are unfair because, among other things, they treat every draft class as equal, even though that obviously is not the case (simply compare the 2010 draft to the 2011 draft).

This article also contains statements such as this:

The general view among industry insiders is that the players’ union will staunchly oppose any “hard slotting” in the draft, rebelling against any policy that could be considered a salary cap — even if that cap is relegated to players who have never played an inning of professional baseball.

While we do not know exactly what happened during the negotiation of the new CBA, it seems fair to infer from the results that the union probably did not “staunchly oppose” the draft spending restrictions. Indeed, there are indications from the article in the Star that point in the opposite direction. While agents such as Boras have an obvious interest in not having draft spending restrictions, current major league players were not at one with agents like Boras in this case, as this quote from a member of the player’s association committee indicates:

“My problem sometimes,” Royals outfielder Jeff Francoeur says, “is that you get a first-round pick, and that’s a lot of money to pay a high school kid who’s 18, and you don’t exactly know what you’re always gonna get. But at the same time, that’s the great thing about baseball — the free-agent market — you can get what you can get.”

Francoeur is serving on a players’ association committee as both sides prepare for negotiation, and he’s thought about the options. Maybe you move the signing deadline up to the beginning of July, he says, and that would lessen the leverage of draft picks and get them out playing earlier.

This much is certain: The multimillion dollar signing bonuses are catching the eye of veteran major-leaguers.

“I think it’s just getting out of control now,” Francoeur says.

Were things “out of control” prior to the new CBA? It depends on your point of view, I suppose. From Francoeur’s current perspective as a journeyman veteran, they may have been. The Royals convinced local boy (picked fifth overall in the 2011 draft) Bubba Starling to sign with them rather than go to the University Nebraska to play football by giving him a $7 million signing bonus and a major-league deal. That is slightly more than the guaranteed annual salary players like Francoeur and Clint Barmes will get in their recent two-year deals. Maybe Starling’s sounded a bit familiar to Francoeur. After all, in 2002, there was a certain first-rounder the Braves wanted to sign. He was a local, two-sport star who had a commitment to play football at Clemson. The threat of leaving for college football meant that although he was “only” drafted at the 23rd spot, yet still received $2.2 million almost ten years ago (a record bonus for the Braves until they signed number seven pick Mike Minor in 2009). Whatever happened to that guy?

Of course, there is a difference between the fifth spot (where Starling was picked this season) and the 23rd, where Francoeur was picked in 2002. But Francoeur as an amateur did embody a couple properties of the sort of players that people are concerned are at issue with the new CBA: the multi-sport high athlete, and the player getting more than one might expect at a lower spot because he slipped due to a college commitment. One player is not a full study, but this does not indicate that things are now “out of control.” Francoeur received a $2.2 million bonus to sign with the Braves in 2002. In 2011, the 23rd overall pick was Alex Meyer, who received a $2 million bonus to sign with the Nationals. In fact, by my quick count there were ten players picked above the 23rd spot in the 2011 draft who received smaller bonuses than Francoeur did ten years ago. One might argue that the 2002 draft was “deeper,” (I am not making that argument, just to be clear) but that would grant Boras’s point about restrictions on draft spending not allowing for flexibility to account for such things.

This is not meant to call Francoeur out as a hypocrite (at least not any more than most of us), a bad person, or anything like that. His comments from August do put certain things into an interesting perspective, such as this anecdote from Lee Judge (whose Judging the Royals blog and accompanying Ron Polk points system deserve their own post or series of posts on NotGraphs) about Francoeur asking the team to take down a clubhouse picture of some of the minor league prospects. Judge took this as an example of Francoeur showing veteran leadership. Will McDonald pointed out at the time what is apparent after reading the August article: Francoeur’s request could just as easily be interpreted as an indication of unenlightened self-interest.

[Judge also writes: "If you want to know how to approach the game, teammates or life, watch Jeff Francoeur." I am not making this up.]

I would not want anyone to take away from this that I am anti-MLBPA or anti-labor in general. The opposite is closer to the truth. However, I do think that Francoeur’s attitude towards “out of control” signing bonuses towards draftees likely reflects that of his fellow MLBPA members: I got mine, and now I want it again. It is far from commendable, but it is sadly understandable.

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