The $10 Million Arm
The Detroit Tigers paid a record price for high-school pitcher Rick Porcello. Now he is making baseball rethink the way teams acquire talent.
By MATTHEW FUTTERMAN
May 30, 2008; Page W1
Last June, the Detroit Tigers made an enormous gamble. They used their first pick in baseball's amateur draft to choose Rick Porcello, an 18-year-old kid from suburban New Jersey. Then, to the shock of many in baseball, they offered him a $10 million contract -- a draft record for a high-school pitcher.
Major League Baseball's draft, which starts next week, is a famously treacherous enterprise where teams throw millions of dollars at a few dozen players in the hopes that one or two of them will someday make the big club. Betting top dollar on a right-handed high-school pitcher -- the most unpredictable breed of ballplayer -- is the equivalent of doubling down on a long shot.
One year later, Mr. Porcello is off to such a promising start in the minor leagues that the Tigers' investment might actually pay off. But even if he doesn't become a star, Mr. Porcello may long be remembered for another reason -- as the walking symbol of a baseball draft system some say is hopelessly broken.
"Rick Porcello is a problem," says Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations.
Like any pitching prospect, Mr. Porcello is no sure thing. Injury is the most common killer of precocious talent, followed by a lack of toughness or a destruction of confidence. But so far this season Mr. Porcello, who is pitching for the Lakeland Flying Tigers, a team on the lower rungs of the Tigers' minor-league system, is proving to be the kind of player teams dream about.
He can throw five pitches, including two separate fastballs -- a 97-mile-per-hour version that seems to defy the laws of physics by rising on its way to the plate, and another, thrown with a different grip, that dives down to the corner of the strike zone toward a right-handed batter's thighs. He has a change-up that, while thrown with the same calm, fluid motion as his fastball, wreaks havoc on a hitter's timing by crossing the plate as much as 20 mph slower.
At an imposing 6 feet 5 inches tall, Mr. Porcello looms over hitters on the mound and strides so far during his pitching motion that hitters say the ball appears to be falling directly down from the sky -- and seems to be halfway to home plate by the time it leaves his fingers. "All you can see is the top half of the ball," said Joe Coleman, Mr. Porcello's pitching coach. "Try hitting that."
This season, pitching against players with college and pro experience, Mr. Porcello has an excellent 2.48 earned-run average -- the sixth-lowest in the Class A Florida State League (no other first-year pitcher cracked the top 20). Even more impressive is his 1.14 ratio of walks and hits to innings pitched, which is fourth among pitchers with at least 58 innings. Mr. Coleman says Mr. Porcello is a rare combination of supreme talent (he compared him to a young Mark Fidrych, a Tigers phenom from the '70s) and a level of composure more typical in veterans. Andy Barkett, the Flying Tigers' manager, says Mr. Porcello's maturity level is "way beyond" that of New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez at the same age. "This kid's got it," he said.
Any outsider looking at the 2006 baseball-draft results might be shocked to see that 26 players were taken before the Tigers chose Mr. Porcello. But this wasn't a case of one team outsmarting the others.
In football and basketball, a player's draft position dictates how much he will be paid by the team that picks him. In baseball, there are only guidelines. The suggested bonus for the 27th pick last season was $1.7 million but Mr. Porcello was free to ask the Tigers for whatever he wanted. Under this system, teams with smaller budgets often pass on the best prospects because they know they will have trouble offering them enough money.
The result, critics say, is that rather than creating parity by giving the teams with the worst records the first crack at the best players, the draft has become another tool for wealthy teams to hoard the top talents. The Tigers weren't the only team that thought Mr. Porcello might be a great player -- he was widely considered by scouts to be the second-best amateur in the country. They were just the first team with the means, and the nerve, to make the bet.
"It's not that we didn't like him, sure we did," said Grady Fuson, director of scouting for the San Diego Padres. "It's just that we didn't know if he was going to be worth the money."
One Major League general manager, who asked not to be named, said the size of Mr. Porcello's contract, and his performance so far, has increased talk within baseball about changing the draft system. Jack Zduriencik, who oversees amateur scouting for the Milwaukee Brewers, said there are two sets of teams at the draft now -- those that can pick any player they want because they know they have enough money to sign them and those that keep to a modest budget. Last year, the small-market Brewers spent $3.2 million on singing bonuses for players taken in the first 10 rounds -- less than the Tigers paid Mr. Porcello.
When the owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association meet for their next round of collective bargaining, Mr. Manfred, baseball's chief labor lawyer, says he plans to ask for a fundamental change to the compensation system for drafted players -- a scale that limits how much drafted players can make depending on where they are picked.
While he believes the problem is bigger than any one player, Mr. Manfred said Mr. Porcello's case demonstrates the extent of the problem. "It's hard enough [for a team] to know who the second-best player in the country is," he said. "To then have to factor in whether you can afford to sign him just makes it that much more difficult." Greg Bouris, a union spokesman, said the players rejected a mandatory cap on draft compensation in the last bargaining round but expect to revisit the issue.
A top athlete who grew up playing basketball and attended Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, N.J., Mr. Porcello is an unassuming kid from the suburbs who talks to his mother on the phone every day. Even in the Florida State League, where about 800 fans show up to watch his games, he wears his stirrups high and pitches with an almost robotic calm. "I'm no different than any other guy in the locker room," he said. "I'm honored and blessed to be pitching anywhere in professional baseball."
In the fifth inning of a recent game against the Palm Beach Cardinals, Mr. Porcello settled in to face Donovan Solano, a second baseman with a .308 batting average. The pitcher wasn't having his best night -- in fact, it was his worst outing so far this year. He had allowed four runs, including a 390-foot home run off a curveball that didn't curve.
Most young pitchers, faced with an outing like this, will toss their glove and knock over a water cooler. But with Mr. Solano at the plate, Mr. Porcello rocked back and threw a diving 92-mph fastball that the batter missed by a foot. Next came a curveball that grabbed the corner of the plate. With two strikes, Mr. Porcello turned to the next pitch in his repertoire -- his devastating change-up. It fooled Mr. Solano so badly he nearly fell over backwards.
After inducing a double play, Mr. Porcello sauntered off the field without so much as a pumped fist. "There's been days when I don't have my best stuff and I just battle," Mr. Porcello said before boarding the team bus the next morning. "You never really know what you have until you're out there."
In the best case, Mr. Porcello will follow the path of Josh Beckett, the Boston Red Sox ace who was chosen with the second pick of the 1999 draft out of Spring High School in Spring, Texas. Mr. Beckett has won the World Series with the Marlins and the Red Sox.
Or maybe he ends up being Colt Griffin. In 2001, the Kansas City Royals chose Mr. Griffin, a high-school pitcher from Marshall, Texas, with the ninth pick and gave him a $2.4 million signing bonus -- largely because his pitches had reportedly touched 100 mph. His problem was an inability to throw strikes. Mr. Griffin's five-year minor-league career included 82 wild pitches, 278 walks, 44 batters hit and shoulder surgery.
"Just because you spend the most money on the players you draft doesn't mean you get the most Major League stars," Mr. Fuson said.
Write to Matthew Futterman at firstname.lastname@example.org