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August 20, 2010

Future Shock

Do We Really Need to 'Fix' the Draft?

by Kevin Goldstein

Another year, another draft signing deadline, and more deals than ever not getting announced until the final hours, and in the end, more money than ever being spent on bonuses. There are no real shocks here, no big surprises, as in the end, San Diego selection Karsten Whitson was the only first-round pick not to come to terms for purely monetary purposes.

So now we prepare for next year's draft, the final one under the current collective bargaining agreement. Expect even more holdouts next August and, therefore, even more spending. But what about 2012? Here are some modest proposals, but for now, I'll stay away from the word 'fix.'

Eliminate the concept of slots, be they recommended, or hard

The current slot system is a joke, as they are merely recommended by Major League Baseball, with no true means of enforcement, other than their ability to fine a team if they do not go through the over-slot process, which involves telling MLB about your intention to go above the slot and then getting yelled at in return. In addition, a true hard-slot system that would restrict what teams could spend with every pick would be flat-out bad for baseball in every way. The argument here is not one of rich vs. poor or fairness, but a much larger for-the-good-of-the-game one. Hard slots mean that Major League Baseball has decided to steer players away from the game, as without the ability to exceed even recommended slots, a large number, if not a majority of, high school players selected after the first two or three rounds would elect to go to college or, even worse, attend college and pursue another sport. The minor leagues would quickly be stripped of talent, and MLB would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. It's time to let the market rule here, and let teams be treated like adults who can make their own decisions about what players are, or are not, worth. The bigger question, of course, is why does MLB put so much effort into the draft, when even with their inflation, the overwhelming number of bonuses amount to less than what most teams pay for the 11th man on their pitching staff?

Move up the deadline, and no more holding back announcements

When first instituted, the August 15 signing deadline was designed to end the year-long holdouts that were becoming disturbingly more common. A sound goal to be sure, but at the same time, they've created a monster that sees more players waiting until the deadline each year as history tells them that those who wait are those who get the most money. Teams and players simply don't need two months to work out a deal; often they only need two days. Let's get the players off their couches with a PlayStation controller in their hands and onto the fields. A July 15 deadline provides plenty of time to get a deal done while also allowing players to get between 30 and 40 professional games under their belt, as opposed to simply participating in fall instructional league and waiting seven months for an official debut. Another contributing factor that prevents players from hitting the field is MLB's misguided policy of withholding approval of above-slot deals until the last possible moment under the belief that such announcements would simply drive up bonuses. There is absolutely no evidence to support that belief, as bonuses and total spending rises at the same rate, so it's time to end the charade. When a player and a team have a deal done, regardless of money, it's in the best interest of everyone to get him playing.

Allow the trading of draft picks

I shared some of these theories with a baseball insider, and his first reaction was, “How will this keep bonuses down?” My answer: it won't. That's not my goal here, and as we've already seen, MLB's attempts to achieve less spending have created more problems than solutions, while stricter measures have the potential to be damaging to the game itself. That said, certainly there will be teams that don't want to match the spending ways of others. To counter that, it's time to allow for the trading of picks just like any other team asset. If a non-spending team has the third pick in the draft and doesn't want to pay the prevailing rate, nothing should prevent that team from marketing that pick in return for existing, more proven commodities. Such a system would help balance the distribution of talent in its own way.

Many believe that the draft will, for the first time, no longer be the red-headed stepchild in collective bargaining, and many major changes are being discussed in order to help curb spending. As one big-league executive said to me last year, “Every time Major League Baseball tries to 'fix' the draft, they just create more problems.” So, in reality, the best way to fix the draft just might be to stop trying to fix the draft.  

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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