The Texas Rangers draft bonus pool for the 2021 MLB Draft will be $12,641,000, per Baseball America. That will be the third highest bonus pool, behind the Pittsburgh Pirates (at $14,394,000) and the Detroit Tigers (at $14,253,800). The slot value for the Rangers’ #2 pick is $7,789,900.
If you are wondering why the Tigers, who have the #3 pick in the draft, have a higher bonus pool than the Rangers, who are picking second, its because the Tigers have a competitive balance pick at #32. The slot value for that pick is $2,257,300. That means that the Tigers have a bigger pool than the Rangers, and just barely lower than the Pirates, whose competitive balance pick at #64 has a $1,050,300 slot value.
The first five slot values are:
Pirates — $8,415,300
Rangers — $7,789,900
Tigers — $7,221,200
BoSox — $6,664,00
Orioles — $6,180,700
The drop in slot values are not as steep as they were when the bonus pool was first implemented, but there are still significant stepdowns, and those stepdowns present certain strategic decisions that teams and players will have to make.
In this particular draft, the consensus as of right now is that there is a top tier of three players — Jordan Lawlar, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter — and then a dropoff after that. That may not continue to be the case — someone from that tier could move ahead of the others or drop back, and well regarded players could end up getting into the top tier mix — but for the purposes of illustrating how this could play out, let’s assume it there is a clear top three, and the Pirates take one of those three players.
If the Rangers view the two players left on the board similarly, they likely will go to each player and see how far below slot that player is willing to go to accept a deal. The extent to which a player is willing to play ball is going to depend on what the player and his “advisor” (since amateurs technically can’t have agents) believe the number would be to sign with a team behind the Rangers. If the player knows the Tigers will take him if he’s there at three and will pay him full slot, the Rangers’ leverage is somewhat lessened, since slot at #3 is just $568,000 less than slot at #2.
However, if the Tigers are wanting to go below slot at #3 so they can, say, give a $3-4 million bonus to a mid-first-round caliber player they like who they think will drop — think Cole Wilcox in 2020, who signed for $3 million as a third rounder with the San Diego Padres — then the calculus changes. Or if the Tigers would prefer, say, an Adrian del Castillo at #3 — a college player who is seen by many as a top 5 talent — at a bigger discount from slot than signing whichever of the top tier guys is on the board at #3 for slot or a slight discount, then there’s more leverage for the Rangers in negotiating with players at #2. If the choice is, say, $1 million below slot at #2, or dropping to #4 and the Boston Red Sox, the player would have to hope the Red Sox would go above slot at #4 to sign the player.
The flip side is that if one player makes himself a clear cut number one choice, he has some leverage in terms of what he will sign for or where he would go. Jack Leiter, for example — a redshirt freshman college pitcher* who has plenty of leverage and the ability to re-enter the draft as a redshirt sophomore next year — could say that he wants $9 million to sign. If there’s a team willing to give him $9 million to sign — if the Tigers, say, were willing to give him the equivalent of their second round slot money on top of their first round slot money and take someone in the second round who will sign for a nominal amount, or if the Red Sox were to acquire a competitive balance pick** from the Cincinnati Reds or Milwaukee Brewers or someone and use that to increase their pool enough to offer such a sum — then the Pirates would have to decide whether to meet his asking price, call his bluff and offer full slot but nothing more, or take someone else who is willing to sign at a lesser price.
* Leiter is draft-eligible as a redshirt freshman because he turns 21 in April — when he was first draft eligible as a high school senior in 2019 he had already turned 19.
** Regular draft picks cannot be traded, but competitive balance picks can.
Also of note — the Rangers have shown a willingness to spend money to improve their farm — the Elvis Andrus/Khris Davis trade involved them eating money in the deal to essentially buy Jonah Heim and Dane Acker, the Austin Jackson trade was a similar move to acquire Jason Bahr, and they traded for a competitive balance pick they used on Davis Wendzel in the 2018-19 offseason. I would not be surprised if the Rangers looked to acquire a competitive balance pick from another team prior to the draft to increase their flexibility in a draft where they are drafting high.
But the bonus pool structure, particularly at the top of the draft, allows for a certain amount of creativity in terms of who you pick and how much you pay them, and incentivizes teams at the top of the draft to offer less than full slot. There have been discussions on LSB where folks have suggested that the Rangers should take whoever they have graded highest and pay him full slot if necessary, and the Rangers may in fact do that. That said, I expect the reality in terms of how things go down to be more complicated and nuanced than that.