Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: Signings a Good Signal

The signings of pitchers Jack McGeary and Josh Smoker will save the Nationals from baseball oblivion.

Overstatement? I think not.

No, I don't have a crystal ball, nor have I been having any late night chats with Miss Cleo. In fact, the salvation of the Nationals does not even hinge on the future careers of the two recently-inked left handed high school pitchers, taken by Washington in the most recent draft.

Forget for a second that McGeary was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Massachusetts after going 6-1 with a 0.88 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 40 innings as a senior at Roxbury Latin High School. Ignore for a moment that Smoker was awarded the same sports drink-related honor in Georgia after fanning 152 batters in 73 innings, while posting a perfect 13-0 record for Calhoun High School. Also overlook, just for now, the fact that Smoker has the most apropos name for an athlete since Alge Crumpler first donned a pair of shoulder pads for the Falcons.

The reason the signings of McGeary and Smoker are monumentally important is not about their talent. The importance rather lies in the simple fact that the Nationals' new owners were willing to cough up the money to get these two signed at all.

In many ways, the Major League Baseball draft is a sham. Sure, the team with the worst record gets the first pick and so on down the line, but the best players don't always go to the teams with the top picks. For example, North Carolina State pitcher Andrew Brackman was widely considered to be one of the top three pitchers in this year's draft. Did he go in the top three? No. Top five? Nope. Top 10? Keep going. Brackman ended up going to the New York Yankees with the 30th pick. Top prep pitcher Rick Porcello, viewed as a once-in-a-decade gem by some scouts, was taken 27th by the American League Champion Detroit Tigers. How's that for dispersing the talent.

The reason for the drop is a simple one. The catchy term for it is “signability,” which translates rather directly to “money.”

The truth of the matter is that small market teams like Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Florida or Cincinnati can't afford to throw several million dollars at high school kids, or even their more polished college counterparts that might never even see the major leagues. When the Pirates had Porcello/Brackman fall to them at the four pick, they instead took left-handed pitcher David Moskos and signed him to a contract with a $2.47 million signing bonus. Twenty-four picks later, Porcello, a Scott Boras client, signed with the Tigers for about three times that figure.

Major League Baseball has no restrictions on the money teams can shell out in signing bonuses to draft picks. Instead, they have a suggested bonus for each slot in the draft, essentially recommending that each successive pick receive slightly less than the previous one. The majority of owners, and the Commissioner, tend to frown on teams that pay above that recommended figure, as they feel that it throws the competitive balance of the league off kilter. It would have made some sense for the Lerners, the newest members of the ownership fraternity, to play by the “rules” and balk at any demands by sixth-round selection McGeary for first round money, even though he was thought a first round talent to scouts. Instead, they did what was in the best interest of their team and gave McGeary a bonus of $1.8 million and agreed to pay for his tuition at Stanford University. Because of that decision, the Nats now have three left handed starting pitchers (Smoker, McGeary and No. 6 overall pick Ross Detwiler) that will combine with a formidable staff at Single A Vermont to  anchor the Nats now-reborn farm system.

After the signings, GM Jim Bowden told, “I've never seen pitching depth like this in my career.” It should be noted that Bowden's previous stop was in Cincinnati, whose pitching staff has all of the depth of a puddle in the Sahara desert. Still this is a very encouraging sign.

The practice of either not paying to sign prospects, or flat out passing on them, is one that has long kept the aforementioned mid-market teams in the cellar. With these signings, it appears that the Nationals' owners are proclaiming that Washington will not be lumped in with those other teams.

For those that have followed the Nats since their relocation to D.C., it's a small first step towards rewarding that faith, a statement that shows the payroll cuts were more than just penny-pinching.

You don't have to spend like the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets to compete for the World Series year in and year out, but you do have to throw around some cabbage. Signing a couple of high school kids may be of little immediate importance, but in my mind, these moves are the difference between following in the footsteps of an organization like the Atlanta Braves, or taking a long-term lease for the basement apartment next to the Pirates.