Mark Appel - Image Courtesy: Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t shy away from the potential of spending money in the 2012 draft. With the new bonus pools in place to restrict spending, and harsh penalties if teams go over their total allotment, it was a big question mark how the Pirates would approach the draft this year.

In previous years they weren’t shy about going after players who would be tough to sign. But they also had the advantage of the old draft system, where they could spend whatever they wanted in order to make those tough signings. Even with a restricted budget this year, the Pirates didn’t shy away from the tough signings. And they were faced with difficult negotiations from the start of the draft, when they saw Mark Appel fall to them at eighth overall in the first round.

Appel was expected to go in the top three or four picks, and was a candidate to go first overall. In those spots he would have easily commanded $4-6 M in salary. The slot price for the number eight pick is $2.9 M, and the Pirates only have $6.6 M to spend on all of their top ten round picks. So that rules out any chance of Appel getting paid like a top four pick. Where the negotiations end up is still undetermined.

On one side of the equation, it’s hard to see any leverage for Appel. The only way he could get more money next year is by getting selected higher, or having a team spend all of their money on him. Teams aren’t doing the latter this year, so it would be unrealistic to expect that next year. As for getting selected higher, Appel fell to eighth overall in a weak draft. Next year is a stronger draft. If Appel fell to eighth in a weak draft, then he wouldn’t have much chance of moving up in a stronger group. And it’s not like he can do much to improve on his 2012 numbers — a 2.27 ERA in 119 innings, with a 9.6 K/9 and a 4.9 K/BB.

On the other side of the equation is Scott Boras, Appel’s adviser. Boras always has some tricks up his sleeve, which means we can’t say that Appel has absolutely no leverage at all.

Appel will command at least $2.9 M due to his status as a top prospect who fell to eighth overall. The big storyline for the next month will be the amount he eventually settles for.

“It’s a jumping off point,” Huntington said of the $2.9 M slot price for Appel. “Does it come in above that? Does it come in below that? As with every negotiation, the slot is a starting point. It is not a set stead fast number. In some cases we’re going to go over slot in our system, in some cases we’re going to come in under slot throughout the draft this year. Every organization is going through the same process. Every time you go over slot in the first 10 rounds, you’re got to make up for the money somewhere else. Every time you come in under slot, you’ve got money that you can play with somewhere else in the draft. It’s all taken into consideration.”

A lot of teams took signable college seniors in the top ten rounds, in order to add some flexibility to their draft pools. The Pirates took the same approach in rounds 6-10 of the draft.

“We’ve created some flexibility with the pre-seniors that we took seven, nine and 10,” Huntington said, referring to Jacob Stallings, D.J. Crumlich, and Pat Ludwig. “We’ve also selected some high school players that their signability may change after the draft as compared to before the draft so there is some money that we can use. Whether it’s to go to Appel. Whether it’s to go to one high school player or five high school players outside, or even some college players outside the top 10 rounds.”

The Pirates have already agreed to terms with Stallings and Crumlich, although bonus information is not yet available. They’ve also agreed to terms with sixth round pick Eric Wood for $100,000, which frees up $88,800 for other picks. But Appel wasn’t the only guy the Pirates took who could command extra money. They also took some talented prep players after the tenth round. The cap for each pick after round ten is $100,000. Anything above that amount counts against the total bonus pool.

The big name is Walker Buehler, who was rated as the 50th best player in the draft by Baseball America. The Pirates took Buehler in the 14th round. The right-hander throws 90-94 with an outstanding curveball and a good changeup. The Pirates could probably come up with an extra $500,000 in rounds 6-10, and if they gave that to Buehler, the total bonus would amount to second round money.

There are also several other players in the later rounds that are talented, and could be tough to sign. Max Moroff, taken in the 16th round, has the defensive skills to stick at shortstop, and has some power potential. Taylor Hearn, taken in the 22nd round, is a left-handed prep pitcher who missed the 2012 season with an injury, but is a very projectable pitcher at 6′ 5″, 190. Jackson McClelland, taken in the 35th round, throws in the upper 80s to lower 90s, and some reports have him touching 94 this year. The Pirates have already started talking to some of these players, as well as others in the later rounds. But their flexibility to spend will be limited.

“In some cases the signability became clearer more quickly,” Huntington said. “In other cases, it’s still a challenge. It was a first time through the cycle for advisors and for the clubs. I think were all learning about it, what the impact was. Clubs took different perspectives that’s for sure. Some clubs drafted seven seniors in the first 10 rounds. Some clubs drafted no seniors in the first 10 rounds. We took eight overall, three in the first 10 rounds.”

The Pirates didn’t go with a lot of signable players before the sixth round. Second round pick Wyatt Mathisen has already signed for the slot price of $746,300. Third round pick Jon Sandfort probably will command slot as well. Each player reflects the difference between the old draft and the new draft. Mathisen and Sandfort probably would have been taken in rounds 6-10 in the old draft, due to signability issues. They probably would have received similar bonuses to break those commitments. Under the new system, teams can still sign the players for that amount, but need to draft them where they’re actually ranked in order to avoid going over-slot.

Compensation pick Barrett Barnes has a slot price of $1,136,400, but was also Baseball America’s 41st best prospect in the draft. Fourth round pick Brandon Thomas has a slot price of $336,700. Fifth round pick Adrian Sampson has a slot price of $252,100, and a commitment to Oregon. None of those players are guarantees to sign under slot.

“Each pick we’ve selected we knew that there was risks that we’d get the players signed,” Huntington said. “In the first two rounds you know you’ve got same slot compensation. In the third round you get a pick at the end of the third round so that’s always in the back of your mind. It’s not the ideal situation but it is the worst case scenario. We much prefer to have a player sign. We much prefer to add that talent to our system.”

The Pirates will have a limited amount of extra money to spend on over-slot signings, and they’ll have a lot of directions to go with that money. The key player will be Mark Appel. The closer they can sign Appel to the $2.9 M slot price, the more flexibility they will have with guys like Buehler and the other prep players in the later rounds.