Baseball's amateur draft is held over the telephone. The number to listen in is 1-800-ZZZ-ZZZZ.
Seriously, it is that boring. A man who sounds like HAL 9000 says which team is up. A representative from the team robotically reads the player's full name and his identification number, which makes the player sound like a robot, too. And this goes on for 1,500 picks, long enough to make even the most discerning baseball geek give up.
The baseball draft needs Mel Kiper Jr. It needs someone with an immovable helmet of hair and an equally rigid attitude on the good and the bad players of its amateur draft, a guru who can make the benign into a cottage industry – most of all, a promoter.
Because the baseball draft – which, you probably didn't realize, starts Tuesday and continues through Wednesday – could be big. Not NFL or NBA draft big. We're familiar with those players from college. But it certainly could be bigger than MLS (which has held its draft lottery on ESPN) and the NHL (which, with its financial situation, picks its draft order out of a hat, right?).
Right now, the breadth of the baseball draft's coverage takes place on MLB.com. It's better than the alternative – nothing – yet seems shy of the draft's potential. With a little arm-twisting, ESPN certainly would publicize its college baseball games and play up the stars. Repetition of names breeds familiarity, and that, combined with a glitzy backdrop, a dais, a green room, a 5-minute running clock for first-rounders and competent analysis would make the baseball draft a gotta-watch event at least once.
Promotion is the most obvious of improvements to the draft. To gauge the feasibility of other changes and whether they would enhance the draft, we spoke with a cross-section of personnel men, scouting directors and agents.
Internationalize the draft
In theory, it's a great idea. Rather than allow street agents in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to control the flow of players based on bonus dollars offered, baseball and the players' association would help centralize its future constituency by including all players from the world in a draft. Baseball's draft started in 1965 because some teams couldn't keep up with the bonus race, and the same culture exists in Latin America and among the top Asian free agents.
The union, in fact, informally acquiesced to the idea and was ready to talk about it following the last collective bargaining agreement. Baseball never pursued it, and from talking with executives, it's obvious why.
"It would not be good," one scouting director said. "The staff you'd need for an international draft would significantly increase the budget, and teams wouldn't be allowed to put on the type of staff you need to cover to world."
"I don't see how you'd administrate it," another said. "The hoops you'd have to jump through. Here, we're able to go to college games, junior-college games. In those other countries, it's too many headaches to know who's playing when and where."
"Plus," added a third scouting director, "the date-of-birth verification. Plus the changing of names. And worst, it would open up a can of worms for people to hide players."
That's right. Say a scout finds a 16-year-old Dominican player from a small town. He could promise to select the kid if he simply stays out of sight for two years, then choose him in a late round and offer a pittance in return.
"It seems to be an idea whose time has come and passed," one executive said, "and hopefully it's gone for good."
The verdict: No
In a way, baseball already does this. It sets a number for each first-round pick and advises the teams not to exceed that figure in its signing-bonus offer.
"It's collusion at its finest," one agent said.
Pretty much. And while it has had one intended effect – keeping bonuses from spiraling – it doesn't always funnel the talent toward the top. Two years ago, San Diego took high school shortstop Matt Bush ahead of Jered Weaver (now with the Angels) and Stephen Drew (soon to be with Arizona) because of signability concerns with both.
The baseball draft can't be like the NBA's, where the union agreed to slotted bonuses in exchange for a shorter free-agent incubation period. Considering the rarity for a player to go from the draft to the majors – there won't be any this season – the rules limiting baseball bonuses make sense only to the owners whose money the rule would save.
"The thing is, players don't have a whole hell of a lot of bargaining power," another agent said. "Sitting out a year or going to go back to school ain't too much."
The verdict: No, but a new rule should say …
Anyone a high school senior and older can declare
Not that baseball ever makes much sense, but if a player gets chosen out of high school, doesn't sign and goes to junior college, he can be signed later as a draft-and-follow. If that high school player goes to a four-year college, he can't be chosen until after his junior year.
Why force a player to attend junior college if he wants to prove himself further in one season? Give him the chance to play for Texas or Cal State Fullerton, to learn from a great coach and experience life, and if he feels ready after a year or two, allow him to declare for the draft.
One caveat: Once he does declare, he's in, which means he'll have to think long and hard. The only in-and-outs worth anything are the Hokey Pokey and the hamburger joint.
The verdict: Yes
Trading of draft picks and players
The biggest no-brainer of all.
Draft choices are commodities. Otherwise, Oakland would not have acquired free agents-to-be whom it had no intention of signing just for more compensatory picks.
In 2002, the A's drafted seven players in the first round. Nick Swisher is one of the best outfielders in the American League. Joe Blanton is in their rotation. Mark Teahen helped them get Octavio Dotel. With their fourth first-rounder in 2004, Oakland took its closer, Huston Street.
Point is, smart personnel moves allow teams with lower revenue streams to succeed, and denying them the ability to swap draft choices and players with less than one year in an organization is draconian.
"With a club like ours, if we were out of it in July, we'd be more likely to get draft choices than a top prospect," one scouting director said. "It would be great."
Rather than restrict themselves to one team's pool of prospects when talking trade, personnel men would value a draft pick for what it's worth: unlimited potential.
Of course, there are worries about a team pulling a Ted Stepien. (Likeliest candidate: San Francisco, which would love to pawn off its first-round pick and save the money.) The solution is to limit the window of trade. Tell teams they can trade only the next season's picks. And that if they ship their first-round pick, they can't get rid of the second rounder.
And then watch around the trading deadline as the Yankees sacrifice part of their future – a No. 1 pick – for a current player and interest in the baseball draft actually builds.
The verdict: Yes
Award compensatory picks
The draft is about stupid rules, and this is one of the worst.
The intent was geared toward smaller markets: If a team loses via free agency a player deemed Type A by the Elias Sports Bureau, that team receives the signing team's first-round pick (so long as it's in the second half of the round) and a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds.
Problem is, because of arbitration rules, only a handful of those players stay with the poor-revenue teams through their sixth season. Kansas City, knowing it couldn't sign Carlos Beltran or run the risk of offering him and paying the arbitration necessary for compensatory picks, traded him.
Thus, the poor teams stay poor (because their second-round picks are in the mid-40s instead of the early 30s) and the rich … well, you know.
The verdict: No, and in fact …
Shorten the draft altogether
Fifty rounds is a long time. Too long, probably. And though the result could be precarious in the short term, the viability of a shorter draft in the long run would significantly strengthen baseball.
By cutting the draft off after a certain number of rounds – say 15 – it almost guarantees the best players go toward the top. It would virtually eliminate the draft-and-follows and give players the incentive to spend their time at four-year colleges, where they may declare at any time.
For those who go undrafted, free agency will be a gift. Rather than allowing the draft to tether players to one organization, they can negotiate with whom they please – in many cases a team near their home. The more teams build regional roots, the likelier they are to identify with a fan base that major-league free agency disaffects.
Scouting directors worry about fielding enough players for their short-season and rookie-league programs. Fact is, they could come even cheaper as free agents, much like the NFL and NBA bring undrafted free agents to minicamp.
Those who don't stick can move onto independent leagues, which would receive an instant credibility boost and serve as a proving ground for those who might be stuck behind prospects.
No, there won't be any more Mike Piazzas, 62rd-round wonders, and that's OK. Progress takes sacrifice.
The verdict: Yes, and while you're at it …
Abolish the draft
An agent proposed this idea. Big surprise.
"What it comes down to is proper apportionment of resources," he said. "This actually gives teams another way to get creative and win."
Here's his rationale: In the current market, where disparity among payrolls leaves lower-revenue teams scrambling for alternatives to lavish spending, any option – no matter how unorthodox – should be something they embrace.
Instead of spending $18.6 million this year on Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek, Scott Elarton, Doug Mientkiewicz, Tony Graffanino, Joe Mays and Paul Bako, Kansas City, in this scenario, last June could have landed No. 1 pick Justin Upton ($6.1 million), current Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman ($2.975 million), almost-there Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki ($2.3 million), Cleveland outfielder Trevor Crowe ($1.695 million), a pair of Minnesota pitchers, Matt Garza (7-1, 1.60 ERA, 80-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio, $1.35 million) and Kevin Slowey (2-1, 1.33 ERA, 82-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, $490,000), and, for good measure, Luke Hochevar for around $3.7 million, which is almost certainly less than he'll ask for if the Royals choose him No. 1 overall Tuesday.
Now, this is play-acting. As the Travis Lee-Matt Harrington-Bobby Seay debacle proved, draft picks in an open market prompt the same type of overpaying the regular free-agent market does every winter. Ultimately, though, each team has a finite amount of cash, and the team that finds the right formula the quickest will benefit the most.
Capitalism rewarding intelligence is the goal, after all, right?
"No," the agent said. "It's whatever makes people money."
And though draft money spent might turn into money earned, it's also money risked. The major-league free-agent market is generally full of knowns. By his production, everyone knew Alex Rodriguez likely would keep up his Hall of Fame pace. By his history, everyone knew A.J. Burnett was an injury risk. Generally, you get what you pay for. What makes scouting such an imprecise science is its reliance on projection. They talk about tools, which is baseball-speak for potential. They grade on a scale, which lists where they are now and what they might grow into.
Neither baseball nor the union wants money funneling away from its current product and into something so hazy. And to declare every player a free agent and give teams a limited budget to sign who they want – spend $7 million on two players or give 70 players $100,000 – would allow for imagination, sure, but it still would set an artificial ceiling that goes against the beauty of the free market.
Though the premise of reopening the amateur world to pre-1965 is alluring and some of its results would drive creativity, the uncertainty, at this juncture, outweighs the benefits. The Yankees, with their budget, could corner the market on top talent. Kansas City wouldn't get Upton or Zimmerman or Tulowitzki or Hochevar because, frankly, no one would want to sign with a dead-in-the-water franchise.
The Royals would be remembering the day there was an amateur draft – fondly.
The verdict: No