“Fixing” the draft

Jayson Stark rolls out the usual column. It’s basically a brief in support of the owners. I’ll grant that there are many problems with the draft, but an argument which boils down to “we need to fix the draft because these guys are making too much money” is a decidedly one-sided one.

He also throws out a bunch of specific ideas, all of which we’ve seen before. Two that are particularly stupid:

• WORLDWIDE DRAFT — We’re not sure if this on-again, off-again idea will ever fly. But it’s gaining momentum again, because it needs to. A system that allows the Yankees and Red Sox to outspend everybody on any player they really want, with no limits whatsoever, doesn’t serve anyone except the Yankees and Red Sox. Whether baseball can figure out a way to navigate all the unique laws and circumstances of every country with a baseball talent pool is a massive question. But we now sense more interest in getting those international signings under control than we’ve sensed in years.

As many around here have noted before, there will be way less talent coming out of Latin America if there’s an international draft because there will be no incentive for any team to find talent and set up academies to develop it if the competition is going to turn around and draft them. The imposition of the draft in Puerto Rico has dried up the flow of talent from that island, and it would do the same in the Dominican Republic. And if you think Hugo Chavez is going to allow the Americans to limit the power of his people to make the deals they want to make, you’re crazy. Also stupid:

• THE CONTROL ROOM — Another idea that’s been building steam beneath the surface is a way for teams to wriggle out of the embarrassment of being held hostage by 17-year-old high school kids. What some people in the sport would like to see is a draft system similar to the hockey draft, which would allow any team picking a high school player to control that player’s rights through his college years. “We need something to that effect,” said an exec of one team, “just so you don’t feel like you have no leverage as a club in those negotiations. So if you draft a kid out of high school and he says he’s not ready to sign, after his sophomore year you can try to sign him again. And after his junior year you can try to sign him again. And then, if he still doesn’t sign, after his senior year of college, then he goes back into the draft.”

Except the baseball draft has about eight million rounds, and teams can draft anyone they want, regardless of whether a player actually makes some formal declaration to make himself eligible for the draft. It’s one thing to render a willing signee the property of a single team for six years. It’s another thing altogether to tell every high school senior with game that they’ll never have even a modicum of say as to how their career will pan out. Not to mention the fact that such a rule would utterly kill college baseball. That said, I’d be fine with the rule if the control ended the moment the player finished college. How about this as a compromise: players become total free agents the moment their college eligibility is over. You gotta give something to get something, so how about it?

The draft is bad enough as it is from a freedom-to-ply-one’s-trade perspective. Adding wrinkles that take away incentives for teams to develop talent and turning kids into branded cattle is ridiculous.

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  1. Nicholas Frankovich said...

    Re your objection to the worldwide draft: How do you answer Stark’s observation about how the lack of it affects mid- and small-market teams? In either the domestic free-agent market or what is essentially the global free-agent market, a Kansas City can’t compete with a New York. Granted, that’s immaterial if your only interest is how a player can maximize his earnings. But it matters if you care about parity in MLB, which of all the pro sports has been slowest to address the disparities in purchasing power between franchises that sell to large markets and those that sell to small markets.

  2. J.R. said...

    I never really understood the “freedom to ply one’s trade” argument. First of all, there are any number of places around the world where aspiring baseball players can play the game. They may not be paid nearly as much as in MLB, but hey, that’s life. The various MLB clubs don’t exist in a typically competitive marketplace, where each competitor has the impetus to drive all others out of business, securing the entire market for themselves. MLB clubs have a more symbiotic relationship, needing the health of the others in order to prosper, and as such are more akin to franchises of a single large entity, like, say, McDonald’s, where each local organization is trying to make as much money as they can, but without doing harm to the others. If McDonald’s suddenly decides to pay their fry cooks $1 million apiece, but they only hire those that they decide upon according to their own internal rules, would they not be allowed to do this (as long as they’re not discriminating based on race, sex, etc.)? I really don’t know, I’m just asking. Every fry cook in the world would want to work for McDonald’s, but only a select few (selected and apportioned by McDonald’s) would make the cut. I’m sure there’s some basic legal concept that I’m missing here, but that’s how I’ve always viewed it. Nobody is forced to become a baseball player, and the “trade” only exists because MLB exists. I don’t really see why they can’t just set whatever hiring rules they want, as long as there’s no illegal discrimination involved.

  3. Bob Tufts said...

    The top 0.1% of an industry are getting paid close to fair market rates for their services thanks to leverage in the bargaining process, and shocked sportswriters indulge in whiny tirades against the greedy players.

    Once signed, these players have no leverage until arbitration at the 3 year point of their MLB career and the 6 year poitn and free agency. Assuming a three year minor league career, management has a nine year span of economic restrictions to help recoup their investment.

    I’m more concerned about hourly legal fees that I may be forced to pay than I am about what the Nats decide to pay their # 1 draft choice. Sorry, Craig!

  4. DonCoburleone said...

    In the end there is going to be roughly $180MM in total bonus/signing money going from MLB Teams to amateur talent from this years draft.  That averages out to only $6MM per team! $6 Million P-E-R T-E-A-M. 

    In other words, 1/3 of Barry Zito’s salary this year gets you 50-60 excellent amateur players. And of those 50-60 players, if just 1 becomes a star the entire cost of that years draft is a RIDICULOUS bargain! Hell 1 fourth outfielder and a league-average starter would more than offset the cost of the draft in a given year.

    MLB definately has a competetive balance problem, but the draft is about #500 on the list of reasons why.

  5. P said...

    “The Mariners showered a package on their top pick, Dustin Ackley, that can be worth between $7.5 million and $10 million. That’s more than Bobby Abreu, Orlando Hudson or Ken Griffey Jr. signed for last winter”

    I don’t think Stark understands that drafted players are under the team’s control for several years. Also, players are generally paid what teams think they’ll be worth in the future, not what they’ve been worth in the past (at least, this is how smarter teams do it).

  6. lar said...

    I can like Stark when the topic is irreverent enough, but his serious pieces are pretty hard to like. A lot of that has to do with the ridiculous comparisons he makes. Hey, I probably like a good comp more than most people because it can really clarify something, but bringing in Griffey and Abreu is just silly.

    He might as well say “that’s more money than Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton made on the fantasy camp circuit last year!” It’s about as relevant.

  7. Neil said...

    I just started following baseball closely a couple years ago, but I have followed hockey for several years.  Why is it that baseball can’t have a similar setup vis a vis its draft as hockey? Have an international entry draft. Have a rookie cap.  Allow players to reach free agency earlier (or have some sort of restricted free agency).

    I’m not sure if this kinda what basketball does, but their system seems to work ok.

  8. Diesel said...

    Not every team has a baseball academy in Latin American countries and a lot cannot afford it. It would allow all teams access to the talent there.

    Sir, that is quite possibly the most inexplicably crazy thing I have ever seen anyone write. I am assuming that this is evidence of a level of sarcasm that simple men like me cannot understand.

    Folks, why do we insist on this myth that baseball teams are poor?

    This is overly snarky and rude, I know (sorry Craig!), but I’ve had my fill. The demonization of 20-year-olds trying to cash in just a little within a terribly crooked system is perhaps the most sickening trend in baseball writing I’ve ever witnessed. All of these grown, well-paid sycophants like Jayson Stark should be ashamed, and that goes double for anyone who buys into this crap. I think we should have a salary cap and a “control room” — doesn’t that sound Skinnerish — for writers who insist on lazily trotting out the company line every time MLB administration doesn’t get it’s way.

  9. Bob Tufts said...

    “Liar’s Poker” was not like a draft. The people who joined Solomon Brothers had the ability to entertain offers from other firms and choose where they wanted to work….and go work anywhere else if they changed their mind.

    The assignments done by Wall Street firms after rotations through different cost centers were usually based on one’s abilities – the hot money making area (the most powerful – think Yankees) took the best candidates, and these candidates also got to be part of the bonus pool of the well-producing division.

    Baseball isn’t broken – stop listening to whiny billionaires who operate franchises – and the reporters who don’t undersdtand economics or labor law.

  10. Greg Simons said...

    There’s so much wrong with Stark’s piece that I don’t think I’d ever have the time to pick it apart properly.  Utter trash.

    JayJay, I’ve had a problem with Stark’s royal “we” (that sounds funny) for years.  If he’ writing this on his own, get rid of the “we” stupidity.  If he has co-writers, given them credit.

  11. Motherscratcher said...

    @ Jay Jay & Greg – Hey, lay off Stark a little bit.  He’s just the bag man.  He’s not talking on the phone, driving the car, handling the money, and writing the column all by himself.

    Hasn’t that ever occured to you man, sir?

  12. mando3b said...

    Actually, both sides to this argument are beyond tedious. I’m so tired of hearing words like “screwed” bandied about to talk about privileged 20-yr-olds being paid 7-figure annual salaries to play a sport. For heaven’s sake, you’d think we were discussing underage coal miners working 10-hour-a-day shifts! There has to be a way to intelligently discuss baseball economics without pretending that these are “workers” toiling away in an “industry”. To date, neither side of the divide has ever tried to find it; but baseball is NOT the steel industry, and it is disingenuous to pretend that it is.

  13. Greg Simons said...

    @mando3b – it’s a matter of degree.  This is about dividing up $6 billion among a few thousand people in a way that makes everyone happy.  When the stakes are that high, everyone wants the biggest piece of the pie they can get.  So, in that sense, no one wants to get “screwed.”  But, certainly, no one drafted and signed in the first round of the MLB draft should ever have to worry about their finances again, barring stupidity.

    Still, how would you like it if your employer said everyone was getting a 10% pay cut because he wanted more money for himself?  I wouldn’t be happy, I’d feel like I was getting “screwed,” and I don’t make a seven-figure salary.

    Again, a matter of degree.

  14. JayJay said...

    I don’t understand how so many people can comment on a Stark piece without making fun of his use of the royal ‘we’.

  15. varmintito said...

    Stark’s “Abreu, Hudson and Griffey” argument is not just lame, it is also deceptive.  The bonus paid is a one-time deal, not an annual salary.  Thus, in any honest accounting Strasburg’s record-setting $ 15 million bonus should be amortized over the six team control years (i.e., $2.5 million/year).  And this is for one of the most promising prospects in terms of polish and ceiling EVER.  Does anybody doubt that Strasburg would see Dice-K numbers (except Strasburg would pocket the posting fee himself) if he was not restricted to bargaining with one team?

    I like some of Stark’s stuff, but he should either learn to use numbers intelligently and honestly, or stick to other ways to talk about the game.

  16. mando3b said...

    Greg—good point, well made: I’m not trying to absolve anyone of malfeasance within the bounds of this particular system; but my essential point remains—in “real-world” terms, no one is suffering here, and it would be nice if our rhetoric could reflect that (while remaining partisan for one side or the other, if desired—that isn’t really my focus here); but I would go on to argue that all parties have done their part to make the current system dysfunctional, and blaming one side more than the other simply seems dishonest to me—greed and arrogance are greed and arrogance, no matter who displays them; more importantly for the current discussion, there are aspects to baseball that simply make it very different from other, more traditional, industries: there are 30 MLB teams; it is in the interests of everyone involved to have them more or less equally capable of succeeding—success on the field translates to economic success for more players; baseball would not be well served by having three or four championship-calibre teams playing 26-27 variations on the Washington Generals; one way to avoid that is to have a draft that gives all teams access to the best available talent, and a chance to develop that talent; having reptiles like S. Boras manipulate the system the way they do, if followed to its logical conclusion, would mean that all the best players went strictly to the highest-paying teams—otherwise, they’re getting “screwed”. I fail to see any “unfairness” in, say, the Pirates paying a young player with no MLB experience a six- or seven-figure salary for the first few years of his career; it’s the team’s job to make it worth his while to stay after that, of course, but they should at least be allowed a reasonable shot. Of course, here I’m not talking about front-office stupidity, cupidity or venality: if teams can’t take advantage of the system, they have no right to whine about teams who can. And, yes, there are lots of reptiles in the owners’ suites, too . . . Even so, Steven Strasbourg is not Tom Joad—or you or I, for that matter—and it’s silly to pretend he is.

  17. Neil said...

    “Also, if I’m not mistaken, player who hasn’t been signed during the control window becomes free agent (but also subject to the same signing rules as drafted players).”

    I think a player can refuse to sign, but he still must re-enter the draft if he does not sign with his original team.  Those who are undrafted may sign with whomever they like.

    With respect to the number of rounds, why doesn’t baseball just off a few rounds? Past the 10th round, aren’t teams mostly stabbing in the dark anyway?  Let all the rest of the kids become free agents (subject to rookie signing rules).

  18. Davor said...

    I just started following baseball closely a couple years ago, but I have followed hockey for several years.  Why is it that baseball can’t have a similar setup vis a vis its draft as hockey? Have an international entry draft. Have a rookie cap.  Allow players to reach free agency earlier (or have some sort of restricted free agency).

    NHL has 7 rounds (210 players drafted), baseball has 50 rounds (1500+ players drafted). World-wide draft with control years would give way too much power to the clubs to block prospects they aren’t even interested in. Control years in hockey weren’t meant as a way to control players and make them take less, but as a window for talent evaluation. Also, if I’m not mistaken, player who hasn’t been signed during the control window becomes free agent (but also subject to the same signing rules as drafted players). That would open lots of room for imbalance – high-schooler doesn’t want to play for Washington, so he plays goes into college, spends there 4 years and signs for a team he likes. He avoids minimum 3 – 4 years in the minors and (if he is good) can join major league team within a year.

  19. Andy H said...

    I tend to agree with J.R.  I think it makes more sense to view MLB as a single entity, and the draft is where you get assigned to various ‘departments’ within the company.  I read Michael Lewis’ “Liar’s Poker” not long ago.  They system in which new hires were assigned to various departments/cities within the investment bank was not unlike a draft.

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