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August 13, 2009

Future Shock

Fixing the Draft, Part Two

by Kevin Goldstein

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While money and the slotting system is always the number-one issue when it comes to the draft (see Part One), there are a variety of other draft-related subjects than many officials would like to see addressed in relation to the draft.

Changing The Date

While Major League Baseball instituted the August 15th deadline (or August 17th this year to avoid the weekend) with the best of intentions, It has led to a new kind of problem. Gone is the day of a player not signing until 51 weeks after his selection, but the number of holdouts has increased astronomically, as drafted players know that those who wait the longest get paid the most. Most team officials are willing to give in to the costs of the current system, but it's the loss of development time that is the most jarring. "With the August 15th deadline, all we're getting out of kids this year is an instructional league," said one scouting director. "Every year now, we have more and more kids who can't have a meaningful summer."

Moving the date back one month to July 15th seems to be the most reasonable solution here, as it would get kids the all-important adjustment period out of the way, and it wouldn't change the money aspect in any way. "We're not accomplishing anything this month, and neither are the players," said one team official. "It's just a month of us staring at each other so if we're going to pay the kid anyway, and least we can get them out there playing."

There is also some thought about keeping the signing deadline as-is, but moving the draft back one month to the All-Star break. "Let's face it, we draft before the college season is over, and we're always scrambling around late to get more looks at kids in the northeast," said one scouting director. "I'd love to move it back a month, as we'd just get more information." In order to address the late signings, various insiders had some radical ideas, including extending the seasons of short-season leagues into the end of September. One general manager who discussed taking an advanced circuit like the New York-Penn and Northwest leagues to 110-game seasons that begin in May for players who sign late and aren't ready for current full-season leagues.

Even agents agree that the current window isn't necessary. "I'd have no problem with a quicker signing date," one advisor said. "I had guys sign quickly, and I have guys who are unsigned, and frankly there's not a lot going on in between."

Adding The Trade Factor

Surprisingly, nearly all people within baseball supported the idea of trading picks, with more than one person mentioning the excitement factor. "One of the most exciting things during the NFL and NBA drafts is when a trade goes down," said one scouting director. "I'd love to add that to baseball."

While everyone has their concerns about the idea, especially with teams just dumping picks, nearly everyone had a solution to that, or just plain didn't care. "Teams are big boys," said another official. "If they're silly enough to give their pick away for nothing, that's their problem."

The biggest concern would be where teams would simply sell their picks to increase revenue, and basically turn into modern versions of the Kansas City A's by selling off their picks every summer. One team simply suggested a system in which picks could be traded, but draft picks could not be included in any deal that includes monetary compensation, with an official saying, "I wouldn't want to see teams simply trading talent, or potential talent, for money they pocket."

Agents were also in favor of some kind of trading system, but one noted that while the general feeling would be that teams willing to spend money would end up with the most picks, he also felt like such trades would be rare. "If you're the Rays and you're loaded in the farm and gunning for a playoff spot, why not see if you could move that pick to a team out of it that can help you now?" he asked, while also suggesting a limit to the number of picks a team can deal. "You still want to encourage teams to build through the draft," he added. "People are going to be hesitant to trade high picks, because they can scream until the cows come home about the bonuses, but they're still a relative bargain, and I don't think teams will want to deal those bargains away."

Time For a Combine?

The NFL has Indianapolis, the NBA has Chicago, but baseball has yet to implement any kind of draft combine. The most interesting thing here is that many team officials who spoke on the subject had little interest in watching the players lift weights and run fast, as much as they want to get the know the kid and make their own judgment about his health. "There's definitely a push to have a medical combine, and it's long overdue," said one scouting director. "A place where we can have a player checked out by a doctor and have personal interviews, that's all I'm asking."

Another scouting director seconded the thought. "Clubs should have the right, where if I'm going to spend seven-figures on a first-round pick, I have the right to have my doctor claim him physically sound and just get ten minutes to sit down and talk to him," he said, while adding that there would be an onus on Major League Baseball to assure attendance. "The NFL has created a culture where players want to go to the combine, and we'd have to do the same," he added.

One agent saw a combine in the future as inevitable, and also thought it would eventually become more like football, with various physical tests as well. "We already have pseudo-combines on a high school level with things like Perfect Game and the Area Code games, so why not?" he asked, adding that he would even be fine with the medical aspect, assuming that the league would address client confidentiality. "If I was a general manager and I'm thinking about taking a big-name arm, I'd certainly want to bring him in on the QT and do an MRI," he added. "That's fine as long as the player is insured total privacy."

Adding an International Flair

The thought of a true international draft has been bandied about for years, but there have been too many hurdles to overcome. One of the main issues involves legality, but both the NBA and NHL have overcome those issues, so baseball certainly could as well. In the past, there were concerns with the imbalance in scouting resources leading to an unfair advantage for teams with more resources, but one small-market club's general manager said even he doesn't believe that's the case anymore, adding, "Look, the days of finding Andruw Jones in Curaçao for $40,000... that just doesn't happen anymore."

One agent also went as far as to suggest that the international market is where Major League Baseball would be best served to try out any combine system, which could also help clean up the system. "There's just so much corruption internationally, maybe a draft would help limit it," he said, adding, "Maybe that's where you test out the combines as well. Between a draft and combines you might be able to knock out the buscones."

So Where Do We End Up?

That's still the big question. Nobody has a good answer for what the draft will look like, other than the fact that it will certainly be different, and soon. If you really think Bryce Harper left high school two years early based on pure talent, you're only kidding yourself, as it seems clear to most that the decision was more based on his desire to be selected under the current rule set.

When asked to predict what the draft will look like, three front-office officials answered in a way that fully covers the range of possibilities, which is a wide one.

"I think we'll have some form of slotting and at least a medical combine."

"I have no idea, because I don't really have a good feeling for how far the union will push back on changes, or how much they'll use it as a carrot to dangle out there in order to get something else they want."

"With MLB's current leadership? I don't expect anything."

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

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