The recent announcement that Major League Baseball plans to move the date of the MLB Draft from June to July comes off as a surprise, especially given the amount of tinkering the draft has gone under in the past ten years. The draft has changed a lot since 2004, and it has become more and more obvious that Major League Baseball wants to make it even more interesting so that it can hold up to its other Big Three counterparts. Given the amount of development time players take, not many fans are interested in the future of the team. Whereas a bona fide college basketball or football star has the opportunity to immediately play for the team that drafted them, Major League baseball’s minor league system is a drawn out process, and very few players completely bypass this system. The last one who did was Arizona State pitcher Mike Leake, who immediately pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in 2010 after being selected in the 2009 draft. Carlos Rodon, arguably the best prospect in the 2014 draft, may have a quick trek to the majors that may end in 2015, but he still is going through the system.
The sweeping changes that have constantly reshaped the draft started in 2006, and it seems that every year, something changes because an established precedent is constantly broken, and someone finally decides to examine it.
1. The draft was originally more of a metaphysical event. Done entirely by conference call, with minor awareness by the fans who would watch the picks scroll by on the draft tracker on Major League Baseball’s website, people knew about it, but didn’t have the chance to actually see it. In 2007, the draft was made into an actual televised event, covered on ESPN2. The first televised draft hit the ground running as well, with analysts, invited prospects (Ross Detwiler, Phillippe Aumont and Josh Vitters) and Commissioner Selig announcing the picks. Since then, the draft has moved to MLB Network in Studio 42, and there are many invited guests, mostly high schoolers, although there have been two collegians and one JuCo player in attendance. ESPN even has had some degree of coverage of the draft on Sportscenter the day after.
2. Unsigned first round draft picks used to be a rare occurrence. In the new millennium, prior to 2008, there were three major instances of it happening: John Mayberry in 2002, Wade Townsend in 2004, and Luke Hochevar in 2005. While compensation for lost unsigned first rounders wasn’t an entirely new occurrence, it wasn’t until 2009 when teams were given a first round pick for not signing their pick from the previous season. Since the ruling officially came into effect after the 2007 draft, a grand total of 14 picks, including Brady Aiken, the top pick in the 2014 draft, have elected not to sign.
3. Originally, teams were allowed to spend whatever they wanted in order to get their prospects, and rightfully so, given that Scott Boras was the agent for a lot of these players. Signing bonuses went through the roof, in fact, Stephen Strasburg made a lot of money off his original deal. In addition, there were instances of the “Major League” contracts. These deals allowed players to immediately be kept on the 40 man roster, and allowed teams to keep them from being tabbed for the Rule 5 Draft. Since then, Major League Baseball has put the kibosh on free spending, implementing a hard slotting system and eliminating the Major League contracts. Granted, there are teams that still go over slot for picks, but more often than not, they compensate by drafting no-leverage college seniors earlier so that their hotshot prospects can be signed for late first round money. See the Kyler Murray article from earlier this month for reference.
4. What was originally a 50 round draft has since been trimmed to a 40 round draft. Many of these later picks were “favor picks”, picks mainly used to draft marginally talented players who have family ties to the organization, or friends of other players. Mike Piazza was an early example of this, and the same went for Mike Flacco, the brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who was drafted by the Orioles. Of course, there are some heartwarming stories about paralyzed players being drafted so they can live out their dream somewhat. Three notable examples are Cody Hahn of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011 and Johnathan Taylor and Buddy Lamothe of the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros in 2010. Incidentally, Taylor was the college teammate of Texas’ first round pick that year, Zach Cone. Because there’s plenty of room for error, not to mention the extensiveness of the minor league system, it’s absolutely fine that teams do this. Of course, there’s the occasional novelty pick, like Johnny Manziel in 2014. Major League Baseball elected to trim the amount of selections in the hopes of giving more undrafted free agents a shot in the minor leagues. While it hasn’t curtailed the “favor picks”, it certainly has made it less of a chore to watch or listen to the last picks on the draft tracker.
5. Finally, the signing deadline. What was originally a flexible deadline, (College players had until the following draft to sign, while high schoolers who didn’t sign by the end of the summer went to college) eventually became more hardline (All players with the exception of college seniors had to sign by July 31st) to the point of giving players even less time. (Currently, all players have until July 15th to sign). Assuming the new proposal comes into effect for the 2015 draft, players and teams will have a two week period to negotiate, as the draft will be on July 1st, and the deadline will stay at July 15th.
The idea here is that the new draft date, set after the College World Series, will allow players to be ready to hit the negotiating table immediately. Not only that, but it may allow more collegians to attend the draft itself. While the draft does have an admittedly impressive list of attendees, including Mike Trout and Andrew Heaney, the problem is that many of these attendees are high school kids. The only collegians who could attend the draft are those whose teams have either not made the NCAA tournament, or who were bounced early. Fresno State and Oklahoma State, while both impressive schools on the diamond, did not have good years in 2013 and 2012, allowing Heaney and Aaron Judge to attend. This makes it seem like attending the draft is like a consolation prize for a bad year, setting a poor precedent. The idea of moving the draft so that more college players on good teams can make it to Secaucus is smart. It allows these kids to be seen wearing their future team’s jersey. We all enjoy seeing college football stars putting on draft caps, walking on stage, shaking hands with Roger Goodell and holding up the team jersey for the NFL draft, and ever since Trout donned his first Angels jersey in 2009 in Studio 42, it’s been cool for the MLB draft fans to get what NFL draft fans already have. Imagine if Stephen Strasburg had attended the draft in 2009, heard his name called, and walked to the stage with a new Nationals cap and jersey. How about Bryce Harper, Gerrit Cole, Mark Appel and Carlos Rodon?
While the move does seem to have its benefits, especially on the aesthetic side of things, there are, of course, some logistical problems. Mike Axisa points them out in this CBS Sports article. While the draft would be increasingly beneficial for NCAA players and coaches, Major League Baseball, and Minor League Baseball, by extension, would be adversely affected. For one, having to sign 40 players within a two week period is a major crunch of energy in a limited amount of time. Not every late round pick is going to be a low ceiling, low floor candidate. Top high school players selected late will almost certainly bolt for college, and contract framework and negotiation with higher picks will have to be put on an accelerated pace. Considering the agents who work for these players and their bonus demands, it would seem as if there would be plenty of eleventh hour deals or abandonment of contract talks, allowing players to bolt and teams to have extra picks, leading to another cycle of this problem by next July. Another problem pointed out is how the lower level teams will be affected, Short season teams begin their seasons in June, and end in August, with playoffs in September. Having to wait a month, potentially a month and a half, will most likely force these teams to move back their season to July, or extend it, defeating the purpose of short season ball. Even collegiate summer ball teams would be affected, as certain junior or JuCo players who are drafted may abruptly leave in the middle of the season, adversely affecting said team in the long run. Whereas under the current structure, a player can leave as early as the day before the season starts, forcing a manager to recruit a replacement but with more time, under this structure, the options are thinner, a manager has about less than three weeks to get a replacement for said player or just leave the roster spot empty.
The new proposal does have its advantages and disadvantages, but as of right now, nothing is concrete. While the idea in theory is good, it will be much better to see how it goes in execution. At best, it allows for more exposure of the draft and current prospects, while at worst, it’s a logistical nightmare. One hopes that the MLB Draft however continues to build up the exposure that it has so desperately craved from its big four counterparts.