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.
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An even better option might be to give each team an draft cap based on the number of picks and spot of each pick. Kind of like the hard slotting approach, but it applies to all picks combined, rather than each pick separately. Players ang Agents could still make the case for above-slot deals, because obviously a team won't sign every player they draft. Plus, if $150k is allocated for all later picks, that also leaves some wiggle room for negotiations with earlier picks.
Another idea might be for MLB to limit the number of draft signings it will process in one day, to encourage teams & players to sign earlier. That is kind of draconian though, since it would screw teams & players that came to an agreement, but were just too far back in the queue on deadline day.
It would seem strange that one person's bonus will be so directly related to the quality of potential teammates agents...
Another big thing that could help would be requiring players to declare for the draft, like they do in other sports. If a HS player declares, then he wouldn't be holding out and using potentially going to college for leverage.
Also, don't misunderstand my motivations. I'm fine with amateur players getting lots of money to sign. With the attrition rate amongst draftees so high, this might be their one payday for years of hard work and toil. So my suggestions aren't really meant to limit the amount players are signing for. Rather, I'm just making suggestions to hasten signings (which is both in a team's best interest (keep the player in shape, start coaching him their way, etc.) and the player's best interest (quicker path to the majors, better coaching, don't try to start pro career out of baseball shape)). But as long as there is absolutely no cap of any kind, players and agents will have at least some financial incentive to drag things out until the end, hoping the team caves out of nervousness.
Then, if Kansas City doesn't want to spend $6 million on the top guy, but the Yankees do, KC can trade that pick for something tangible rather than just picking someone else they can sign for less and letting the top pick fall while getting nothing in return.
Letting the teams trade draft picks solves all of these problems. Looking for other solutions only muddies the waters and might convince MLB there's another option. But there isn't. Trading picks is the only way to fix this in a way that will have predictable consequences and serve to solve the problem we actually have.
Here's a better question for you to ask - who is more entitled to a large pay day, Strasburg or Lerner? Lerner's made $40-50M profit every year on the Nationals, but has done absolutely to add value to the club - he didn't build the stadium, he doesn't spend on free agents and doesn't spend on prospects, etc. Nobody comes to the ballpark to see Tom Lerner.
So why is it more justified for him to make $50M than Strasburg, when Strasburg's someone that WILL actually bring people to the park and help generate revenue?
Regarding Lerner, didn't drafting Strasburg add value to the club? He might not have laid the bricks, but the stadium is there (and might not have been if it weren't for Lerner's efforts). Strasburg throws a baseball, does that make him entitled to 50 mil? Lerner invested a LOT of money buying the team and he should expect some sort of return on that investment.
Back to Lerner, drafting Strasburg adds nothing to the club if he doesn't sign him. And yes, the stadium would absolutely be there with or without Lerner. Financing and groundbreaking had already occurred prior to Lerner owning the club. He added nothing to the process.
If Strasburg throws a baseball and it brings in more than $50M in revenues, then absolutely he's entitled to the vast bulk of that money. Certainly much more so than Lerner who has done absolutely nothing to add any value to the club or attract fans.
Fundamentally, the draft is about taking away an amateur player's leverage: instead of negotiating with 30 clubs, you get to negotiate with one. For six weeks. If you don't sign, you get to do it again next year, with a different team and even less leverage. Good luck! And since amateur players don't have a union, they've got no leverage in changing the system.
Honestly, what do you think owners care more about: (1) saving $10 or $20 million a year on prospect salaries/bonuses or (2) making sure amateur talent is fairly distributed among all the teams? If you say 2, that's adorable, I want to put a red ribbon in your hair and drive you around town with the teddy bear in the basket on my bicycle.
If you approach this from the perspective of "what's fair for the players" the answer is "abolish the draft". But to fix the draft - to make it more equitable while realizing that yes, the players are getting screwed - trading draft picks fundamental.
Can't wait to see the thoughts on a potential world draft. Even beyond a hard slotting system and trading picks, putting in a world draft would create better talent distribution right away.
Heck, look at what's going on in the other leagues right now. By all accounts, the NFL does a good job in terms of distributing talent - but the owners still might try to lock out the players to force them to take a lower salary cap because they want to make more money. If it's about talent distribution and not profits, then why is that?
Same in the NHL. The lockout forced players to take huge reductions on pay, but did nothing to fix the massive revenue disparities, with the result that the truly poor teams still can't afford good players, but most of the owners are guaranteed larger profits.
Owners don't care about competitive balance. The worst team owners don't care about whether their team is good or not - just whether they make the maximum profit.
One impression (and maybe a wrong impression) I got from reading Lords of the Realm was that until only (relatively) recently have owners ran baseball like competent businessmen (at least some owners).
And really now, are comments like, "I want to put a red ribbon in your hair and drive you around town with the teddy bear in the basket on my bicycle." necessary?
'Course, then you have teams playing more games with service time and such....
Either way, allofasudden, that 4th or 5th year player is going to cost you basically the same as that 10-year vet, so why not get the "solid regular" vet instead of the younger kid? So you get your "middle class" back.
I'm of the opinion that the MLBPA has been overly-concerned with the salaries of their top earners and not concerned enough with what the bulk of the players, the bench guys, the borderline starters, etc. are making. Instead of arguing against salary caps and whatnot, they should be getting the minimum salary increased, limiting the control teams have over young players' salaries, and generally encouraging salary inflation for the mid-level players.
One idea I've been kicking around would be similar to a salary floor in that teams have a maximum number of players on the 25-man (probably barring injury replacements) that are under team control years.
If a team had to roster at least, say 15 players, who are past the arbitration nexus, salaries will be there for established MLB players, without necessarily driving up salaries for replacement level types. A player past his 6 years may only be worth the MLB minimum, but can still count towards the vet rule. That would also serve to create a new potential market inefficiency for players who had washed out in one way or another.
On a side note, although it wasn't meant to be a funny line, I laughed out loud when I read this: "the draft simply isn't fulfilling it's primary purpose, a balancing of talent." I got a vivid mental image of a certain Prospectus Today writer doing a spit-take when he read that line.
Next time someone wants to accuse BP writers of "group-think", please remember this line, and revert to accusing them of hating your favorite team!
As a result, the split for talent normalization isn't as good since Tampa Bay may have picked early in 2006 to help balance the talent but in 2009, when many of those 2006 picks are starting to bloom, Tampa Bay isn't a bottom wrung team.
One thing that might help with the talent balance would be for MLB themselves to draft the players and run the minor league levels (or at least the levels up to AA) and let teams draft more from the MLB pool of minor league players. Then when a team is ready to draft a player they have to place them on their 40 man roster (or whatever modified roster they get - maybe even signing them to major league deals). So if you are willing for a player to come to the majors early (because you are the Nationals or the Pirates) then you draft the guys slightly younger, get them on your clock, but are drafting older more mature guyrs. And if you are the Yankees or whoever and don't have bench slots or 40 man slots you can't take a young guy who is still 3 or 4 years from being ready because you can't protect them that long.
The owners may like this better because when most of the talent, even in the first round, is being drafted by MLB then of course they get exactly the slot amount. So you don't have these bonuses that owners have to pay out.