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Giving teams the ability to trade draft picks remains a much-discussed measure, so let's revisit Gary's take, which originally ran as a "6-4-3" column on March 14, 2003.
Under current MLB rules, teams are not allowed to trade draft choices. It's not a new idea, but it is under consideration, and we spoke with an AL Central executive about the potential impact of a change in the rules that would allow clubs to trade draft choices.
"The more I think about it," he said, "the more I like the idea. But it won't make our jobs any easier. This isn't like football, where you have a shorter time span before you know whether or not a guy's going to pan out. It takes three to five years, I think. People underestimate how much money, time, and effort it takes to really prepare. We work like crazy for months, and we still never feel like we have all the information we need, and that's before taking signability into account. Even with all that, we don't positively know how well we did until down the road."
How did teams do? Looking back four years, here's how the first round of the 1999 draft went down:
Pick Player Pos. Team HS/College 1 Josh Hamilton OF Devil Rays High School 2 Josh Beckett SP Marlins High School 3 Eric Munson C/1B Tigers 4 yr College 4 Corey Myers 3B Diamondbacks High School 5 B.J. Garbe OF Twins High School 6 Josh Girdley SP Expos High School 7 Kyle Snyder SP Royals 4 yr College 8 Bobby Bradley SP Pirates High School 9 Barry Zito SP Athletics 4 yr College 10 Ben Sheets SP Brewers 4 yr College 11 Ryan Christianson C Mariners High School 12 Brett Myers SP Phillies High School 13 Mike Paradis SP Orioles 4 yr College 14 Ty Howington SP Reds High School 15 Jason Stumm SP White Sox High School 16 Jason Jennings SP Rockies 4 yr College 17 Rick Asadoorian OF Red Sox High School 18 Richard Stahl SP Orioles High School 19 Alexis Rios 3B Blue Jays High School 20 Vince Faison OF Padres High School 21 Larry Bigbie OF Orioles 4 yr College 22 Matt Ginter SP White Sox 4 yr College 23 Keith Reed OF Orioles 4 yr College 24 Kurt Ainsworth SP Giants 4 yr College 25 Mike MacDougal SP Royals 4 yr College 26 Ben Christensen SP Cubs 4 yr College 27 David Walling SP Yankees 4 yr College 28 Gerik Baxter SP Padres High School 29 Omar Ortiz SP Padres 4 yr College 30 Chance Caple SP Cardinals 4 yr College
The top of the 1999 cohort wasn't really in dispute. Hamilton was probably the most hyped highschooler since a certain Florida shortstop named Rodriguez, and Josh Beckett wasn't just another Texas fireballer; he was considered by many to be a better prospect than Hamilton, even with all the risks associated with high school pitching. Beckett had some very serious signability issues, but could "throw 97 comfortably," and that, combined with "projectability," had the hyperbole machine cranking full blast, and the inevitable comparisons to fellow Texans Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan flowed like water.
Have the selections panned out? Let's start with the obvious success stories:
Barry Zito's career line thus far for Oakland includes 47 wins, 536 innings, and a 3.04 ERA. Most clubs would be pretty happy with Zito's career at this point if all those numbers had been put up primarily in the minors. Josh Beckett, he of the incredible torque, has 131 innings in the majors, with a 3.62 ERA, and a 23rd birthday still in front of him. His blister issues of 2002 may turn out to be a long-term blessing, and more than one fantasy owner in keeper leagues is hoping he doesn't see the 175-inning mark for at least another year, and preferably two. Ben Sheets put up a solid 2002, and looks to be a solid middle of the rotation starter, something most teams would kill for. Jason Jennings pitched pretty much a full season as a starting pitcher in Colorado and posted a 4.52 ERA, which explains the blood oath Dan O'Dowd signed with the disembodied ghost of Ed Wood.
As is usually the case, injuries have been the biggest enemy of the cohort. In a group like this, consisting primarily of pitchers, you'd expect a pretty high injury rate, and you'd find it, even without any of the draftees being an overwork victim in the Kenny Baugh/Lance Dickson/Kirk Dressendorfer class. Just going down the list of pitchers from the first round in 1999:
- Josh Beckett: Intermittent "shoulder and elbow fatigue", no significant time lost.
- Josh Girdley: Missed most of 2001 and 2002 with various arm problems.
- Kyle Snyder: Tommy John surgery wiped out 2000 and 2001 seasons. 100 good innings in 2002.
- Bobby Bradley: Recurrent elbow problems and eventual reconstruction.
- Barry Zito: No significant health problems.
- Ben Sheets: Some shoulder tendonitis and back spasms, but nothing devastating.
- Brett Myers: No significant health problems.
- Mike Paradis: No significant health problems.
- Ty Howington: Shoulder tendonitis most of 2002.
- Jason Stumm: Tommy John surgery after blowing out elbow in 2000.
- Jason Jennings: No significant health problems.
- Richard Stahl: Missed much of 2001 and 2002 with shoulder and arm problems.
- Kurt Ainsworth: No significant health problems.
- Mike MacDougal: Strains and a fractured skull, no significant shoulder or elbow injuries.
- Ben Christensen: Rotator cuff surgery, reconstructed elbow.
- David Walling: Missed much of last two seasons with unusual compulsion to throw to first base.
- Gerik Baxter: Passed away in 2001 car accident.
- Omar Ortiz: No significant health problems.
- Chance Caple: Missed most of 2001 and 2002 seasons after Tommy John surgery.
So, even before considering quality of performance or development, only six of these 19 pitchers–first round selections–have even been capable of taking the mound consistently for the past three seasons. That's a hell of an attrition rate.
For a young hitter, injuries are only one part of the risk. Another is positional shift. A league average hitter who's a capable defensive shortstop is considerably more scarce and valuable than the same hitter who can only play 1B or a corner outfield spot. Among the 1999 first rounders, Corey Myers has made the textbook move from 3B to 1B, and his defense still isn't well regarded. Eric Munson's catching days are behind him (injuries and the rigors of playing full time can lead to these positional slides), and he's a long shot to produce at a level at 1B that'd push a team towards a title. The minors are chock-full-o-tweeners–guys who can't field well enough to play the "tougher" fraternal position (3B/1B, SS/3B, SS/2B, CF/Corner OF), but can't hit enough to hold a job at the "easier" position. Taken with injuries, lack of development, bad information, and just general miserable luck, this piles up the risk pretty high when it comes to draft choices.
So what does this imply about what we could expect under a system where teams could trade draft choices? We can safely make a few assumptions:
- Different teams will have very different perceptions of the relative value of comparable draft picks.
- Identical picks will have different values, because some clubs are simply better at developing players than others.
We can not safely assume that early-round draft picks will be more valuable than those later in the draft. Given the nature of signing bonuses and unofficial slotting, a second-round pick may actually be more valuable than a first-, if the distribution of available talent in a draft is particularly flat. A second-round pick with a 10% chance to be a star who costs $750,000 to sign may make more sense for a club than a first round pick with a 13% to be a star who costs $2,500,000 to sign. Of course, those signing bonuses may become more or less fluid in response to a change in the rules regarding draft choices.
Any new system that allows the trading of draft picks is going to have some unintended and unpredictable consequences. One thing that holds true for most complex rules and policy systems is that they're difficult to change in a way that makes things better for the least capable competitors. Usually, the actors in the system that have been smart and diligent enough to figure out the current system can turn the tweaks to their advantage, often to an even greater extent than before.
Considering that there exists no optimal way to run a ballclub that doesn't include an effective player development system, any proposed change to the rules regarding the trading of choices in the first year player draft could have profound and interesting consequences on the field. Such a rule change would add managerial knobs to turn, and smart agents like Scott Boras are already thinking about how they might be able to turn such rule changes to their clients' advantage, even if MLB has precisely the opposite goal. The smart money is that MLB's talent-rich would become talent-richer, and the laggards would simply fall further behind. My greatest fear is that such a rule change would result in somehow providing an incentive for egregious, Calvin Griffith-esque behavior, with bad clubs, protected and profitable because of revenue sharing, cutting their costs even further by punting early draft picks, either for cash, or to dodge hefty signing bonuses.