June 5, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
Right now, 30 major-league organizations are making decisions that will impact the success of their franchise over the next few years, and in some cases, for a decade or more. Unlike the football and basketball versions, though, the annual draft of young talent doesn't receive national television coverage or make men with good hair and strong opinions famous and wealthy.
The structure of baseball also means that the draft does not have to be the primary means of talent acquisition. It is much easier to acquire players through free agency and trades, and the minor leagues allow a team to acquire and keep talent in a way that organizations in other sports would only dream of doing.
That said, the draft is an important part of a well-run franchise. It is often the only route to the kind of franchise-caliber player around whom a team can build a perennial contender. It is the best way to acquire players who will spend their prime years in your organization. Quality player selection will give the major-league team options for replacing its players at a nominal cost. Good drafting will also provide a base of talent for trades to fill holes at the major-league level.
Let's get any illusions about the draft out of the way. Laughably, MLB tries to present the notion that the draft is about competitive balance, about giving the worst teams the first crack at young talent. This ESPN.com story quotes MLB's brief in the Rolando Viera case:
In a response filed with the court on Thursday, an attorney for baseball...cited the desire to "ensure competitive balance among the teams and (prevent) wealthier teams from cornering the top talent."
That sure sounds reasonable, but all the nominal "competitive balance" reasons for the draft pale before its real raison d'etre: saving money. The draft exists to prevent players from negotiating with multiple teams and therefore garnering market salaries for their services. It grew out of the bidding wars for amateur players in the 1950s and 1960s, and was damn effective at its job: it would 16 years until an amateur player got a bonus as high as Rick Reichardt had in 1964, before the draft was instigated.
Whether the draft is good or bad pretty much depends on whether you're a supremely talented 18-year-old. The draft costs the top few players subject to it millions of dollars, as evidenced by the contracts given to Travis Lee, John Patterson, Matt White, and Bobby Seay when they were made loophole free agents in 1996.
Whatever side of the argument you take, you have to understand that the draft exists to drive down labor costs, not to make sure bad teams get talent. For 60 years, baseball had doormats the likes of which we can't even imagine, and no one sat around a table and concocted a scheme to make things better for them, It was only when "help the bad teams" turned up as a side effect of "save us money" that it started to sound real good. What, you think Walter O'Malley was sitting around pondering ways to make the Athletics competitive, and just happened to stumble into something that saved everyone millions?
So when talk turns to the Twins passing on Mark Prior because of his price tag or the Devil Rays not being able to draft Roscoe Crosby, remember that the system in place saves these teams millions of dollars compared to what an unrestricted market would force them to pay the top talent coming into their industry.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.