The Szczur Confusion


Late last week we learned that the Cubs will have to place 2010 draft pick Matt Szczur on the forty man roster by the Rule 5 draft, or risk losing him. At first this might look like a colossal mistake on the part of the Cubs, but really we should be looking at this as much ado about nothing. This occurrence is due more to the drafting and signing system than it is to any mistake by the Cubs front office. If anything, the Szczur deal demonstrates that when the Cubs talk about their focus on developing from within, they mean it.

The Cubs drafted Szczur in the fifth round knowing that he was a two sport athlete. Had he opted for football he would certainly have drawn interest in the later rounds of the NFL draft as a return specialist (at least, he would have prior to the recent rule changes). The Cubs signed him for $100,000 up front plus an additional $500,000 if he stayed with baseball and did not go to the NFL.

The only reason Szczur was available in the fifth round was because teams were afraid he would go to the NFL. The Cubs were basically offering to pay him $100,000 just to give professional baseball a try. Szczur took the bait and promptly went on a 21 game hitting streak for Boise. So far, so good.

However, Szczur returned to football in college without committing to the Cubs over the NFL. As the day drew near when he would have to choose one sport or the other, the Cubs front office decided they really did not want to loose their potential center fielder and lead off hitter of the future to a different sport, so they upped their offer to a total of $1.5 million.

That number made a lot of sense. Had Szczur never signed with the Cubs at all and gone back into the 2011 draft, that’s about what he would have gotten as a first round pick anyway. And he would have been a first round pick, of that there is virtually no doubt. By raising their offer, all the Cubs really did was pay him what he was worth. Szczur signed the deal and the Cubs had their second best outfield prospect on board.

Except, there was a problem. The Cubs couldn’t just drop another million onto that first deal. The rules didn’t allow it. In order to close the deal with Szczur and lure him away from the NFL for good, they had to make that original deal go away. That was easy enough to do; they simply released Szczur and then promptly resigned him to a new contract with the new bonus.

Unfortunately, when they released and resigned him, they activated a clause in the baseball rulebook that moved Szczur’s eligibility for the Rule 5 draft from 2014 (I think) to 2011. That meant that if Szczur is not on the 40 man roster by the time the Rule 5 draft takes place during the Winter Meetings, Matt Szczur would almost certainly be the first player taken in that draft.

The solution to the problem? Place Szczur on the 40 man roster. It is not uncommon for draft picks to go directly to the 40 man roster anyway. A few draftees every year sign major league contracts and move directly to the roster. Szczur’s case is slightly odd in that he will move on the roster have a year and a half in the minors and without a major league deal, but the situation is certainly not without precedent.

Nor will his presences on the forty man roster shorten his development time. Just like Jeff Samardzija (who received a major league deal) Szczur will retain all his options. That means in addition to the time he spent in the minors in 2010 and during the upcoming 2011 season, he will still be able to stay in the farm system until (I think) the end of the 2015 season. In five years he should have time to recover from two major injuries and still make it to the majors. If he hasn’t had his first call up by the end of 2013 (barring injury) I’ll be very surprised.

At the end of the day, the Cubs paid a fair price for the player they wanted and will have have five and a half seasons for him to develop into a major league player. Adding him to the 40 man roster should pose no great challenge either. He won’t have to be added to the roster until after free agents have been removed from it. At least three guys (Reed Johnson, Kerry Wood, and Carolos Pena) will be off the roster due to free agency leaving it at 37. There will be plenty of room to add Szczur thereby protecting him from being claimed by some other team.

I think the 2011 draft will be the last one in which this sort of situation could occur. Changes are likely coming to the draft in new collective bargaining agreement that will be hashed out this winter that will probably make this strange situation all but impossible to repeat.