The 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates changed the way the MLB draft works, ironically by spending more money than everyone else
The Major League Baseball draft has been around for a long time. The very first player selected in the draft was Rick Monday out of Arizona State University, who went on to have a 19-year career, become a two-time MLB All-Star, and an American patriot after saving a flag from being burnt on the field. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ first-ever draft pick was Wayne Dickerson, who was an outfielder taken out of Ensley High School in Birmingham, Alabama, but never made the big leagues.
How teams draft has drastically changed throughout the years. However, the Pirates are a major reason for the current iteration of the draft we have today. The specific instance that changed MLB’s draft to what we have today was the 2011 draft, in which the Pirates took full advantage of the rules of the time.
The Pirates changed it, ironically, through spending money. They had the first overall pick, selecting Gerrit Cole out of UCLA. Cole set the all-time signing bonus record, inking a deal for $8 million. The previous record was held by Stephen Strasburg from the 2009 draft, for a whopping $500,000 less ($7.5 million). Cole’s signing bonus was $1.65 million more than Danny Hultzen, who was taken second overall for $6.35 million. The Kansas City Royals signed Bubba Starling to a $7.5 million deal with the fifth overall pick.
Cole’s signing bonus record stood for eight drafts until 2019, when Adley Rutschman and the Baltimore Orioles handed him $8.1 million. The Pirates were far from done handing out a ton of money. Then in the second round, the Bucs picked Josh Bell out of Dallas as a high schooler. Bell and the Pirates agreed to a whopping $5 million deal. That is still a record held today. The second-highest signing bonus from the second round of the 2011 draft was Austin Hedges, who was picked by the San Diego Padres with the 82nd overall pick, and signed for $3 million. For reference, the Chicago Cubs gave the highest signing bonus from the second round of the 2022 draft to Jackson Ferriss for $3,005,000.
The Pirates set yet another record that still stands today, with that coming in the ninth round. They selected Clay Holmes out of Slocomb High School in Alabama. Holmes signed for a whopping $1.2 million. Not a single player in the 2011 draft, not even the 2022 draft, has signed for over $1 million. Heck, only one player even comes $400K within Holmes. Dominic Pipkin, who the Philadelphia Phillies took with their 9th-round selection in 2019, is the next closest with $400,000.
The Pirates spent $17 million in the draft, which far surpassed the Washington Nationals’ 2010 signing bonus draft total of just over $11.4 million. Yes, the Pirates have previously set a spending record by about 67% more than the previous one. However, the Pirates 2011 draft caused the overall draft to change.
The 2011 draft was the last draft, not to include the bonus pool system we have today. After spending $17 million the previous season, the Pirates were limited to just $6.6 million of untaxed that they could use on players. Their first-round bonus was just $2.9 million, only 36.3% of the amount they handed Gerrit Cole the year prior. Both players and owners agreed on the bonus pool system during the collective bargaining negotiations that happened in the 2011-2012 offseason.
Now sure, it’s not explicitly stated the reason the draft enacted its new signing bonus system was directly a response to the Pirates and their 2011 draft. However, there’s no doubt it played a large hand in negotiations. It’s not a coincidence the Pirates spent the most money in the MLB draft by over $5 million and making the largest signing bonus by a large margin, and then new rules to are negotiated and implemented the following offseason during CBA negotiations that would prevent it from happening again.
But even with the new rules, the Pirates still set a record recently, with Termarr Johnson signing the largest signing bonus for a player selected with the 4th overall pick. They could out-do themselves again this summer if they select Dylan Crews, who may break Cole's signing bonus record.