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August 12, 2009

Future Shock

Fixing the Draft, Part One

by Kevin Goldstein

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Now that we're less than a week away from the August 17 signing deadline, we can finally talk about the draft again. Sure, we could discuss it, but what good would it really do? There are still 19 unsigned first-round picks with just days to go, and there simply hasn't been anything to report on regarding negotiations, primarily because there are no negotiations. While MLB has finally lifted the veil on their recommended slots system a bit earlier than usual by allowing for several slot-busting deals in the latter rounds, that's really only because there are so many signings lining up to go down to the final hours and it's possible that MLB simply wanted to clear some of their potential workload during the last 24 hours.

When Major League Baseball instituted the new signing deadline (with the approval of the Players Association) to bring a halt to the number of year-long holdouts, they didn't anticipate this new mess, with one general manager commenting, "We often make rule changes without understanding the consequences." During the first year, the players that waited until the last minute were the player who got paid, so naturally, other players followed suit, leading to where we are now. Recommended slots and new signing deadlines or no, the draft is still horribly broken, only in a different way now.

So how to fix it? To answer that question, I surveyed a number of agents, scouting directors, front-office people, and general managers to get their ideas. They were wide-ranging, at times logical, and at times maybe a bit idealistic, but all agree that significant changes need to be made going forward. "We're in a bad system, no doubt about it," said one front-office official. "There has to be something in place where the worst teams sign the best players, not just in the first round, but all the way down, and that's not happening under this system."

So what to do? Nobody has a perfect answer, but everyone agrees on the issues themselves.

Money Changes Everything

For most teams the biggest problem revolves around the recommended slot system, primarily the fact that these slots are merely recommended. With more over-slot bonuses each year, the draft simply isn't fulfilling it's primary purpose, a balancing of talent. "Look, we can get really philosophical here, and I'm a capitalist," explained one scouting director. "But in the confines of a sporting league, in order for that league to be equitable, we need some kind of fairer distribution of talent."

Another talked about it in comparison to the drafts in other major sports. "Everyone should recognize the need for a major fix when there is serious discussion this spring over whether or not Washington is going to take [Stephen] Strasburg," explained one front-office official. "If we're going to have a draft, it should be based on talent. That there's any team not taking the player they think is the best shows that we need a major fix here."

The problem all along of course has been that the Players Association has never been open to any idea of mandatory slots or spending limits, believing that any talk on that level begins the slippery slope to a true salary cap. However, recent developments in the way teams are spending may be lining up a change in stance by the players. "The impetus for change is definitely going to come from the big leaguers," said one official. "These zero through six[-year] guys [in terms of service time] are so valuable, and that's where teams are spending all of their money," he explained. "The issue here is that the economic model now encourages teams to spend on player procurement instead of on established big leaguers. What we're seeing is a collapse of the middle class, and the union is likely understandably concerned by it."

That doesn't mean that that the union will go as far as agreeing to a true slotting system or any kind of spending limits. "Let's forget about the argument as to whether it's right or wrong for a second," said one prominent agent. "You really think that, in his first collective bargaining, that Michael Weiner will agree to do this? In terms of just coming into the job, he's not going to agree to something that [Marvin] Miller and [Donald] Fehr were so against."

Obviously, an agent would have a vested interest in maintaining a system that had no spending limits, but his reasoning for being against capped dollars were far more philosophical. "I think the draft still serves a very good purpose if you act under the assumption that everyone is scouting as well as they can and that they are picking the right players," he explained. "I don't think every team is doing that, and there's your real problem. Look at what the Rays and Marlins are doing with their drafts, hell, even the Red Sox; how many teams walked past Dustin Pedroia?"

That's the issue for many. Even with no slot system, the draft should be self-regulating. "The good thing about baseball is that the system itself rewards preparation and intelligence and scouting, and punishes those who don't do a good job," the scout continued. "Teams always have a right to say no to a player, especially with the compensation system. There are always teams that stick to slots, teams that go over, and teams that are a mixture-and there are more and more of those every year. It's an imperfect system, but trying to make it perfect is just going to screw it up more."

Tomorrow in part two, insiders talk about the trading of picks, a world-wide draft, thoughts of a combine, and what the draft might look like in the future.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

27 comments have been left for this article.

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