The amateur draft is today. If you didn't hear about it, don't blame MLB: they're trying their best to promote it, even leaking the announcement of the first overall selection to their own site. The overall lack of publicity means that Tampa Bay's surreal achievement is going unnoticed by the average fan. Take a look at their picks in the first couple rounds:
24. Compensation for Boston signing Carl Crawford
31. Yankees signing Rafael Soriano
38. Yankees signing Rafael Soriano
41. Boston signing Carl Crawford
42. Oakland signing Grant Balfour
52. San Diego signing Brad Hawpe
56. Detroit signing Joaquin Benoit
59. Florida signing Randy Choate
60. San Diego signing Chad Qualls
75. Oakland for signing Grant Balfour
That's thirteen picks before the start of the third round. From their first selection to the end of the supplemental round tonight, they'll get the rights to over a quarter of the players taken. How did this happen? A combination of an antiquated compensation system and a front office smart enough to execute the plan before anyone else did.
MLB's free agent compensation is one of the few front-office aspects of the game left untouched by the statistical revolution. Baseball makes a weird formula to evaluate all of its players and sends it over to Elias Sports Bureau to do the math. The top 20% of players are "Type A" — if they're offered arbitration but leave for free agency, the original team gains two draft picks. The next 20% are "Type B" — same deal, but only one pick. The formula is based on the last two years of production, and not only does it fail to take into account age, park factor, etc., but the stats it does use are terrible: wins, saves, RBI, ERA, hits per inning, fielding percentage...the gang's all here.
The bizarre results create an inefficiency. Certain players can become more valuable for their draft picks than their actual value playing. It's the closest thing baseball has to the NBA's expiring contract phenomenon. The most overvalued players are usually relievers — a Type A setup man is, on balance, nowhere near the real quality of a Type A second baseman.
So when the Rays assembled an outstanding bullpen last year on the cheap, they were getting even more value than most people realized. Soriano, Benoit, Balfour, Choate, and Qualls netted a total of seven draft picks.
Why didn't anyone figure this out before? It's not as simple as it seems: the arbitration offer necessary to receive the picks is often a roadblock, especially for players coming out of large contracts: the team must ensure that the player will receive a larger offer on the free agent market than he will by going to arbitration. This offseason provided the perfect opportunity for relievers, as there was low free agent supply and high demand. The plan also required excellent talent evaluation: many of their relievers were unheralded scrubs before they came to Tampa. And let's not forget that signing a baker's dozen of high draft picks doesn't come cheaply: the signing bonus dent may have mandated a one-year payroll dip big enough to cost them to cost them a playoff spot.
Combine their picks and their history of drafting well, and the Rays are likely to be loaded in four years. By the time Evan Longoria and Wade Davis become unaffordable, Tampa will be able to replace them easily. And the team will get even more prospects for letting them go, be it through free agency or trade. Spending alone won't be enough to win the AL East: as of today, the Rays are the clear 2016 division favorites, and it might be too late for the Yanks and Sox to do anything about it.