SEATTLE — The preliminaries are out of the way, which means the parameters have been set for negotiations between the Mariners and outfielder Alex Jackson, their top pick in the recent draft. (He played catcher primarily in high school, but the Mariners already list him as an outfielder.)
And let’s say up front: It will be astounding if Jackson doesn’t reach an agreement with the Mariners prior to the July 18 signing deadline despite the apparent leverage, as a high school senior, of pursuing college, junior-college or the independent leagues as an alternative.
Nor does it matter (much) that he is represented by Scott Boras, whose legacy includes turning stall-and-ignore into a negotiating art form.
Look, that’s not a knock on Boras. For years, high-end talents who had the nerves for brinksmanship, could do little better than having Boras as an agent. He routinely succeeded in securing the best possible financial deals for those players. (It’s also fair to say those tactics were less successful when applied on behalf of players who were less than premier talents.)
Anyway, baseball’s slotting system, which has been in place since 2012, significantly diminishes that approach. The penalties for exceeding a club’s signing bonus pool escalate quickly and soon become prohibitive. Clubs might willingly pay the financial penalty, effectively a fine, for small overages. But they’ll think hard before forfeiting future draft picks.
A club’s signing bonus pool is the sum of the assigned slot values for picks through the 10th round. (All picks after the 10th round must be signed for $100,000 or less, or that overage is applied to the pool total. It’s rare that a player picked after the 10th round gets more than $100,000.)
Here’s the point: The Mariners have reached deals with every pick, except Jackson, through the 10th round. That means we know (as do Jackson and Boras) how much money the Mariners have available to sign Jackson.
There are three figures to keep in mind:
1. The slot value for Jackson, as the sixth overall pick, is $3,575,900.
2. The amount remaining in the Mariners’ signing bonus pool is $3,882,900. Anything over that will be subject to a 75 percent fine. For example, if a club exceeds its pool by $100,000, it then receives a fine of $75,000. The 75-percent threshold is in place up through a 5 percent overage. If a club exceeds its pool by more than 5 percent, it starts losing draft picks.
3. The amount the Mariners can spend before they start losing draft picks is $4,221,295.
Now, add these assumptions:
1. The Mariners want to sign Jackson. They’re not going to low-ball him (i.e., offer a bonus below the slot price.)
2. The Mariners won’t be willing to lose a draft pick.
3. Jackson wants to sign. (Virtually every drafted player wants to sign. There might be a couple every year — no more than that — who genuinely want to experience college life and whose family is sufficiently well-heeled to make that a viable alternative.)
Some players choose not to sign because they believe they can cash in later on a richer deal. These are typically high school seniors drafted after the first round who believe a year in junior college or three years in a four-year college will boost them toward the upper end of the first round.
That’s not an unreasonable gamble.
For example, the first pick in the third round, No. 75 overall, had a slot value this year of $748,600. Compare that to the slot for Jackson, as the No. 6 overall pick, at $3,575,900. Maybe that’s worth a gamble. (And that’s a mere example: the actual 75th pick, Cal State Fullerton third baseman J.D. Davis, has already signed with the Astros for the slot amount.)
But Jackson is the sixth overall pick. Is it worth gambling one-to-three years that he could climb a little higher? Yes, the money gets better. The slot this year for what clubs call the 1-1 (first pick, first round) was $7,922,100, but it’s a lot dicier betting you can climb six to one than from 75 to, say, 15.
Also, if Jackson chooses college, he forfeits one-to-three years of future earnings power in what would be the prime of his career because even the best prospects, college or high school, generally take at least two-to-three years to reach the majors.
If Jackson goes to a four-year college, he’ll be entering the draft in 2017 — a year when, if he signs now, and is as good as scouts believe, he might be big-league ready.
The argument, in effect, is this: If a player believes he’s good enough to make more money on the front end by waiting, why wouldn’t he believe he’s good enough, if he signs now, to reach the majors in the two-to-three years?
By signing now, the player begins knocking years off his service-time requirements. He would reach eligibility for arbitration and free agency that much faster. The money escalates far quicker on the back end than the front end. Also, the money he receives now would be there in his hand, should an injury or anything else interrupt his career track.
So, yes, Jackson figures to sign and probably at a price that exceeds slot but doesn’t cost the Mariners a draft pick. Want a guess? Let’s put the over/under at $4 million.