Scouts on the road looking for the next great prospect can't just evaluate bat speed or fastball velocity anymore. New rules have made signability and financial considerations more important than ever.
There was a time when a team could draft the best players available and spend whatever it took to bring them in. Every pick was its own entity. Money was only so much of an object.
In past years, the Boston Red Sox performed only cursory checks into players' bonus demands for the draft. If they ended up spending $500,000 more than they'd planned to get a draftee to sign, that wasn't a big deal -- especially in the context of a $175 million major league payroll.
"We were much more liberal in our interpretation of signability in years past," assistant amateur scouting director Gus Quattlebaum said.
Ryan Kalish was going to play football at Virginia before the Red Sox gave him a $600,000 signing bonus as a ninth-round pick, almost 10 times more than they'd offered their eighth-rounder. Will Middlebrooks was going to play football at Texas A&M until the Red Sox drafted him in the fifth round and offered him $925,000 to make a career change.
Casey Kelly would have gone to play baseball and football at Tennessee if the Red Sox hadn't ponied up $3 million to sign him, almost three times the sum paid to the player drafted one slot ahead of him. Kelly wound up being one of the centerpieces of the trade for Adrian Gonzalez.
All three were the best players on the board when Boston's turn came up, so those were the players the Red Sox picked.
But with the Red Sox holding the seventh overall pick in the June draft, their highest selection in 20 years, it's overly simplistic to say they're going to take the best player left on the board. Strict new spending rules mean finances have to come into play.
As their scouts fan out across the country, the Red Sox can't think about just the seventh pick. They have to think about their second-round pick -- 44th overall. Specifically, they have to think about the money allotted to the seventh pick in tandem with the money allotted to the 44th pick.
Under the previous system, the Red Sox might just have had seven to 10 players under consideration for the No. 7 pick in the first round, and they'd have taken the best player left. Now money has to be a consideration.
And if the Red Sox decide to take a player who's easier to sign at No. 7 -- the way the Houston Astros did with shortstop Carlos Correa at No. 1 last year -- it might free up money for them to overspend in middle rounds on the next generation of Kalishes, Kellys or Middlebrookses.
That's in some ways what the Red Sox did when they drafted hard-throwing college righty Pat Light 37th overall last year and paid him almost $400,000 below the slot recommendation. That $400,000 -- and savings from drafting college seniors in rounds five to 10 -- allowed the Red Sox to pry high-upside high schooler Ty Buttrey and his mid-90s fastball away from a commitment to Arkansas.
Strategies like that have to be kept in mind as players are evaluated over the next three-plus months.
"If you just say, 'We're going take 10 players and scout those 10 players, and we're going to take the best player on the board who's next,' well, that next player might ... want $5 million," amateur scouting director Amiel Sawdaye said. "So now you have to go to your next-best player -- and then your next-best player. At some point, you might say, 'What's the drop-off? What's the drop-off between Player X and Player Y, and what's the difference in money?'"
"Maybe you're better off taking the strategy of, 'Let's just find a player we can cut a deal with because we don't think the drop-off is that big' because then we can spend some money and get a guy like Ty Buttrey, guys a little bit later on."
Each team now is allotted a budget by Major League Baseball based on what picks it has. Each team faces steep penalties for going over that allotted budget. Spending even 5.0001 percent more than its bonus pool can cost a team a draft pick the following year.
And if a draftee insists on a bonus well above his slot value and the team refuses to pony up, the team loses both the pick and the money allotted to that pick.
No team can afford to take risks like that anymore. Scouts have to know the parameters under which a potential draft pick will agree to sign a pro contract.
"It's a must that we are accurate with these kids' signability," cross-checker Quincy Boyd said.