March 14, 2003
Draft Pickin', Grinnin', and Tradin'
Under current MLB rules, teams are not allowed to trade draft choices. It's not a new idea, but it is under consideration, and we spoke with an AL Central executive about the potential impact of a change in the rules that would allow clubs to trade draft choices.
"The more I think about it," he said, "the more I like the idea. But it won't make our jobs any easier. This isn't like football, where you have a shorter time span before you know whether or not a guy's going to pan out. It takes three to five years, I think. People underestimate how much money, time, and effort it takes to really prepare. We work like crazy for months, and we still never feel like we have all the information we need, and that's before taking signability into account. Even with all that, we don't positively know how well we did until down the road."
How did teams do? Looking back four years, here's how the first round of the 1999 draft went down:
The top of the 1999 cohort wasn't really in dispute. Hamilton was probably the most hyped highschooler since a certain Florida shortstop named Rodriguez, and Josh Beckett wasn't just another Texas fireballer; he was considered by many to be a better prospect than Hamilton, even with all the risks associated with high school pitching. Beckett had some very serious signability issues, but could "throw 97 comfortably," and that, combined with "projectability," had the hyperbole machine cranking full blast, and the inevitable comparisons to fellow Texans Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan flowed like water.
Have the selections panned out? Let's start with the obvious success stories:
Barry Zito's career line thus far for Oakland includes 47 wins, 536 innings, and a 3.04 ERA. Most clubs would be pretty happy with Zito's career at this point if all those numbers had been put up primarily in the minors. Josh Beckett, he of the incredible torque, has 131 innings in the majors, with a 3.62 ERA, and a 23rd birthday still in front of him. His blister issues of 2002 may turn out to be a long-term blessing, and more than one fantasy owner in keeper leagues is hoping he doesn't see the 175-inning mark for at least another year, and preferably two. Ben Sheets put up a solid 2002, and looks to be a solid middle of the rotation starter, something most teams would kill for. Jason Jennings pitched pretty much a full season as a starting pitcher in Colorado and posted a 4.52 ERA, which explains the blood oath Dan O'Dowd signed with the disembodied ghost of Ed Wood.
As is usually the case, injuries have been the biggest enemy of the cohort. In a group like this, consisting primarily of pitchers, you'd expect a pretty high injury rate, and you'd find it, even without any of the draftees being an overwork victim in the Kenny Baugh/Lance Dickson/Kirk Dressendorfer class. Just going down the list of pitchers from the first round in 1999:
So, even before considering quality of performance or development, only six of these 19 pitchers--first round selections--have even been capable of taking the mound consistently for the past three seasons. That's a hell of an attrition rate.
For a young hitter, injuries are only one part of the risk. Another is positional shift. A league average hitter who's a capable defensive shortstop is considerably more scarce and valuable than the same hitter who can only play 1B or a corner outfield spot. Among the 1999 first rounders, Corey Myers has made the textbook move from 3B to 1B, and his defense still isn't well regarded. Eric Munson's catching days are behind him (injuries and the rigors of playing full time can lead to these positional slides), and he's a long shot to produce at a level at 1B that'd push a team towards a title. The minors are chock-full-o-tweeners--guys who can't field well enough to play the "tougher" fraternal position (3B/1B, SS/3B, SS/2B, CF/Corner OF), but can't hit enough to hold a job at the "easier" position. Taken with injuries, lack of development, bad information, and just general miserable luck, this piles up the risk pretty high when it comes to draft choices.
So what does this imply about what we could expect under a system where teams could trade draft choices? We can safely make a few assumptions:
We can not safely assume that early-round draft picks will be more valuable than those later in the draft. Given the nature of signing bonuses and unofficial slotting, a second-round pick may actually be more valuable than a first-, if the distribution of available talent in a draft is particularly flat. A second-round pick with a 10% chance to be a star who costs $750,000 to sign may make more sense for a club than a first round pick with a 13% to be a star who costs $2,500,000 to sign. Of course, those signing bonuses may become more or less fluid in response to a change in the rules regarding draft choices.
Any new system that allows the trading of draft picks is going to have some unintended and unpredictable consequences. One thing that holds true for most complex rules and policy systems is that they're difficult to change in a way that makes things better for the least capable competitors. Usually, the actors in the system that have been smart and diligent enough to figure out the current system can turn the tweaks to their advantage, often to an even greater extent than before.
Considering that there exists no optimal way to run a ballclub that doesn't include an effective player development system, any proposed change to the rules regarding the trading of choices in the first year player draft could have profound and interesting consequences on the field. Such a rule change would add managerial knobs to turn, and smart agents like Scott Boras are already thinking about how they might be able to turn such rule changes to their clients' advantage, even if MLB has precisely the opposite goal. The smart money is that MLB's talent-rich would become talent-richer, and the laggards would simply fall further behind. My greatest fear is that such a rule change would result in somehow providing an incentive for egregious, Calvin Griffith-esque behavior, with bad clubs, protected and profitable because of revenue sharing, cutting their costs even further by punting early draft picks, either for cash, or to dodge hefty signing bonuses.