June 7, 2007
My anticipation for this draft is higher than it has been for a number of seasons. First, we're going to see the initial attempt at televising the draft, as ESPN.com broadcasts the first four hours this afternoon. The lack of stars (in the way the NBA and NFL drafts have stars) and the relatively lighter coverage leading up to the draft-coverage of the 2008 NFL draft actually begins tomorrow-may make it harder for the average fan to connect to the process. On the other hand, you have a chicken-and-egg effect, where the interest generated by television should, over a period of years, raise fan awareness of the draft and the players being picked.
We also seem to be moving into a post-Moneyball era where there are no hard and fast rules about which players, or category of players, return the most value. Rany Jazayerli's draft series shows that a number of the tenets I'd personally come to subscribe to, such as the superiority of college pitchers over high-school pitchers, are no longer true. It would be an exaggeration to say that the draft has reached a complete equilibrium, but it does seem as if we can worry less about the category of player and more about the individual players. Whether this manifests itself in more balanced drafts-some teams have gone almost exclusively college on the first day in recent years-remains to be seen. If nothing else, the "market inefficiency" of collegians appears to be gone.
The draft rules themselves have changed this year in two significant ways, both shifting leverage to teams over players. There's a hard deadline of August 15 to sign players, which will prevent the extended negotiations and always-entertaining "he registered and walked onto campus but didn't go to class" stories that spiced up the late summer. This rule might not affect more than a handful of players each year, but they're likely to be high-value players. Combined with the rule that awards compensation picks to teams who fail to sign a player-slotted just behind the same selection in the next draft-teams should be more willing to take players perceived to be difficult signs, as they have more leverage and less risk.
The latter rule does have one negative effect: it eliminates the concept of draft-and-follow, whereby teams would take a high-school senior headed to junior college, or a college junior they weren't entirely sure of, and watch him play for a year before deciding whether to sign him in advance of the next draft. Whereas teams once retained rights for nearly a year, now they have them for just a bit more than two months, so every draft pick needs to be used on a player the team intends to sign.
I strongly suspect this is going to lead to teams bailing on the draft much earlier than the 50 scheduled rounds. Like the talent pool in the majors, the draft pool is not distributed normally, with the high-value players at the top and a long tail of similarly-abled players on the back end. There's not going to be that much reason to select from this pool, or research it, when the vast majority of these players are alike and can be signed as free agents after the draft.
Over time, this should lead to a shortened draft, as teams recognize the futility of the last 10, 15, or 20 rounds. These are mostly used to fill out rookie and short-season minor-league teams, and while we tend to talk about the low-round draft picks who made it, the investment required to scout and sign these players is likely not going to be worth it. I wouldn't be surprised to see a level lopped off of the affiliated minor leagues at some point in the next few years, as the draft gets truncated.
As far as the specifics of today's picks, I leave you in the talented hands of Kevin Goldstein and Bryan Smith, who will be providing real-time analysis of the proceedings here at Baseball Prospectus. I make no secret of the fact that I do not track amateurs nearly as closely as I do professionals. This is largely a concession that evaluation of collegiate and high school baseball players is more about skills analysis than performance analysis. I believe you can apply analytical thought processes and use performance data as part of a draft-day approach, but by and large, today is about scouts and what they bring to the table.