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October 15, 2009

Tweaking the Talent System

Declaring the Basics

by Kiley McDaniel

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Last week, I kicked off this series by laying out the facts about the looming CBA negotiations and how the draft could be affected. When speaking with executives and agents, it quickly becomes obvious that the sides have different assumptions about what the draft should accomplish. There are clear-cut party lines where agents and executives will disagree, just like some small- and large-market clubs are sure to differ.

An AL executive put some of these assumptions in perspective: "The fewer restrictions there are for the club to get the player they want, the better. Trading picks moves us closer to that. If [Stephen] Strasburg isn't the best guy for the Nationals, they can trade down and get value as opposed to passing, getting nothing in return and being killed in the media." This sounds like what I talked about last week; if we assume hard-slotting is in place, teams like trading picks because it allows "smart teams to be smart" and leverage their valuations and strategies.

The exec took it a step further, "Players should also be able to dictate what team they want to go to. What's the problem with what Eli Manning did? He wanted to go to the better team with better management in the bigger market and the trade worked out for both sides." In fairness, this executive works for a large-market club, so his club would tend to have more to offer a player looking to dictate his landing spot.

The wrinkle of players dictating their ideal team, rather than just avoiding bad ones on rare occasions, is an interesting twist. With no bonus negotiations, agents will focus on getting their client in the best possible situation. This could mean avoiding poorly-run clubs, less desirable climates, deeper farm systems, or longer distances from family. Players would think more about targeting teams that will promote them quickly and start their arbitration clock sooner.

Admittedly, this probably would not be a widespread phenomenon, but points to a major effect of hard-slotting. With bonus negotiations non-existent, agents and players can look at factors other than money when similar situations are available. New loopholes and unforeseeable effects stemming from sweeping draft reform would come from agents reacting to the big changes. Dictating a player's destination is one horizon for agents to assert their power if hard-slotting passes; more on another horizon next week.

Declaring for the Draft

Another widely discussed reform is making players declare themselves eligible for the draft. This looks like another straightforward nail-in-the-agent/amateur-player coffin but, in tandem with mandated slots, opens a big can of administrative worms. The makeup of baseball at every level below Double-A could look completely different just because a seemingly simple set of reforms designed to spread out talent and take some power back from the agents.

Scouts like the idea of players declaring themselves eligible because it all but eliminates the need for pre-draft signability checks. The scout turns in his evaluation, the club communicates to the player the type of money he can expect, and the player decides whether or not to enter the draft. Players that are looking to only turn pro in an ideal situation (i.e., the players that cause signability headaches for clubs) would not want to risk stomaching a smaller than expected bonus or a less than ideal situation, and would go to school until they are ready to jump on the draft rollercoaster. This may lead to NBA-style promises from clubs to draft a player at a certain pick.

There is a catch with the previous paragraph, however. While clubs could indicate to families the information they need to make a wise decision, to put it plainly, many of these families have no idea what they are doing. They need an agent to educate and guide them through the process. Major league teams might not love agents, but they will put up with them if both sides are educated about the process. A chess master would rather play a medium-skilled player than a beginner, because the beginner will make stupid moves the master could never anticipate, possibly ending in disaster.

The NCAA is currently pitching a fit to try to keep their student athletes away from the supposedly evil agents. For the baseball draft, agents are referred to advisers and can only give advice to the family; they cannot talk to any club on the player's behalf (but they all do, for understandable reasons). This is already ridiculous, but in a situation where players have to get educated and process a lot of information from clubs to make a concrete, binding declaration decision, it would create a nightmare.

There are two solutions. One is a scouting advisory board, similar to that of the NFL, where players considering declaring for the draft are told by a league-run panel of former scouts where they can expect to be drafted. An adviser can help the family make a decision with this information and if the player declares for the draft, he loses amateur eligibility, and the "advisory" officially becomes an agent; the NCAA is appeased. The agent can then lobby for his player with clubs and try to maneuver him up draft boards (as they already do, of course).

We could still see hard-slotting without a declaration mechanism, since players still have the option to simply not sign for the mandated bonus. That being said, this system would quell the tantrum the NCAA is throwing while further taking any leverage out of the hands of the amateur players and agents. If MLB is trying to move to a more regulated system with less wiggle room for agents to exploit, it may as well go the whole way and leave no wiggle room.

Going back to the first paragraph, the hard-slotting movement is not about drawing a philosophical line between an amateur player's rights and those of the club. It is not about fairness to amateur players, it is about fairness among the clubs. The players' association will clearly see this, and may be alright with the controlled bonus spending, hanging agents out to dry and taking money from amateur players, but they will need something sizable in return. I will cover that later.

Reforming Draft Basics

A clear pro-club byproduct of the hard-slotting system is that many more high school players will be going to college. There were 42 millionaires in the 2009 draft, and 30 recommended slots calling for a seven-figure bonus. There were scores of well-over-slot six-figure deals that would not exist in a slotted draft. One agent characterized the ramifications: "The top 20-30 high school players will sign, and once you get out of the first few rounds, it will be all college kids [being drafted]." This would, in turn, change the face of college baseball and the low minors. This is a hard-slotting byproduct that no one seems to be talking about, and one that I will go in to more detail about in the coming weeks.

The talent influx would move college baseball toward a new golden age. Most players being drafted will be two or three years older than they are now. Combine that with a possible draft date change, and short-season minor leagues are probably dead. With less roster spots to fill, the draft can (finally) be shortened from 50 rounds. With so much talent playing in college, the exposure and popularity would climb, although it likely would happen slowly. Eventually, college baseball will get to the point where baseball fans may actually know many of the players being drafted. The draft could become a true off-season event like it is for every other sport. This would allow for more evaluation time from scouts, and would create more fans and revenue, helping make baseball more of a year-round media story, like the NFL.

Minor league reform is not just an innocent bystander to the hard-slotting carnage, either. There have been rumblings of minor league reorganization for years, prompting an AL scouting director to comment, "The draft and the minors need some work. We might as well rip the band-aid off and address both at the same time." This issue is one that could benefit both players and clubs and deserves a much longer discussion that I will get into later.

As for the changes to draft basics, these specifics can be tweaked, but here are some proposed changes and observations:

  • A post-World Series, pre-Winter Meetings primetime televised event (roughly November 10th with the current schedule, which could be changed) with a pre-Winter Meetings signing deadline of December 1st.

  • With the fluid, year-round evaluation period, it would be wise to let four-year college players declare for the draft any year. Junior colleges may lose talent, but baseball would gain a true developmental league of the best domestic amateur players in one place. More players would take the opportunity to go to college and with this influx of talent and solution to the agent issue, MLB could lean on the NCAA to add more scholarships to accommodate the talent bonanza for the college game.

  • These developments would cause some smaller market, high school-focused clubs to bemoan the loss of what they consider a competitive advantage. Potential late-round picks with over-slot deals would be going to college in droves to allow other clubs to gather more information about them. You could give these clubs back some of this advantage with the return of the draft-and-follow system, which I will also get into next time.

  • There would be much more information about high school players. We would have the pre-season showcase circuit, high school season, months of post-season scouting events, and only the best high schoolers declaring themselves eligible. The certainty surrounding the youngest draftees will go up. Having a full summer of wood-bat leagues to evaluate college players before the draft would seem to raise the certainty of college players as well. Along with lower costs, the clubs have to be thrilled with this possibility. The agents are still upset.

  • To the end of more and more standardized information on players, some have advocated for a medical combine. It was originally an idea for a proposed international draft that was also applied to high school players and could also include college players. All eligible players would gather after summer/fall leagues at the last pre-draft event to go through uniform medical and psychological testing, with optional showcase-style physical elements.

Along with the cliffhangers, I haven't even covered possible draft reforms that are not hard-slotting, not to mention the international draft. Speaking of which, I am heading to the Dominican this weekend to cover a high-profile showcase featuring Cuban left-hander Noel Arguelles, free-agent outfielder Wagner Mateo, and a number of other top talents. Stay tuned to my twitter feed (http://twitter.com/kileymcd) for periodic updates from the island. I will be back next week with full reports and video from the showcase, along with another dive down the draft reform rabbit hole.

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