December 3, 2012
Does the Way the Draft Works Now Hurt Bad Teams?
The Winter Meetings start today in Nashville. It's a time for major-league executives to get together, chat about the game, and maybe play "let's make a deal." It's nice, because in a world starved for baseball for more than a month now, there's actual baseball news being made. Or at least rampant rumor-mongering, which is almost the same thing. There are mystery teams and... OMG, was that Theo Epstein walking by with a cup of coffee?
One thing that doesn't often draw headlines (but should) is that while in the neighborhood, executives often discuss the state of the game more broadly, including issues of competitive balance. How can baseball be sure that all teams not only feel that they have a chance most years, but also actually have one. Not in that "you can't predict baseball" sense, but to actually have a team that, at least on paper, could be the proverbial "force to be reckoned with."
So, let's talk about the draft. It's been a focus of a lot of the discussion around competitive balance. The draft represents a chance for an organization to infuse talent into its system, talent that will hopefully become a cost-controlled source of production. That's vital to competing, because it means that a team doesn't have to go out into the (pricey!) free agent market as much. And now with draft bonuses somewhat capped, there's less reason to avoid certain players because of "signability" issues. But I want to talk about the draft more generally. And by that I mean the very form and idea of a draft.
Why does just about every major sporting league have a draft in which, usually in reverse order of record from the previous year, everyone lines up and takes turns selecting players? The idea is that the weaker teams get a chance to go first and (presumably) end up with better players. Intuitively, it feels fair. But are there unintended consequences of such a model?
I propose that, like a lot of other things in life, drafts work great until you consider the actual facts on the ground. First, we're talking about players who are 22 at the oldest. Many of them are 18. It's generally accepted that a player peaks in his late 20s, so we can be talking about seven to nine years between the time that the team selects a player and when we expect the full measure of his potential to be realized. Even if we set the goal as having a good contributor on the MLB roster at age 24, drafting a high school senior means that a team has to wait six years, or as I like to think of it, 25 percent of his lifetime. A lot can happen in six years. To show you how much, here's Kevin Underscore Goldstein's Top 101 prospects from 2011, which for those of you without a calculator nearby was a mere two years ago. See any names on that list that look kinda silly now? You'll note that Kevin was so awful at this that we fired him. I wonder whatever happened to that guy.
Which brings us to the team with the first pick. The worst team in the league. They have a grand total of one chance to get this right. What should they do? The stock answer is to take the best available player (but of course, how to gauge that?). We know that we're already we're working in uncertain waters, but teams do their due diligence and it's not like they're completely in the dark. There are some years where the answer is perfectly obvious. Other years, not so much. One big problem is that there are different types of players who are available within the draft. Consider Smith, the toolsy 18-year-old with lots of raw talent vs. Jones, the polished, if unspectacular 22-year-old college player.