Mr. Irrelevant: How the MLB Draft Can Become First Round Entertainment
This week, Major League Baseball once again broadcasted its annual Snooze-Fest Telethon on its very own network. Bud Selig prefers to call it the “First Year Player Draft,” but either title would be fitting. Unlike the NFL and NBA, MLB’s draft goes fairly unnoticed year in and year out. Even many of the most diehard MLB fans don’t know much about the players available and probably don’t care. Many of the few who do know the Garrit Coles or Anthony Rendons of the world only know what they read on Baseball America the day of the draft.
Baseball’s draft will always have its disadvantages compared to the NFL and their hugely successful marketing machine. While football fans tune in to the draft to see who could be in next year’s starting lineup, baseball’s minor league system makes it so that virtually all draft picks end up spending a few years on the farm before making it to The Show. Marketing obstacles like this would be impossible to get around but that doesn’t mean the MLB draft needs to remain nothing more than a footnote of every baseball season.
Here are a few suggestions, some of which may soon be on the horizon, which could help make the MLB Draft a significant event on every fan’s calendar:
Allow Trading of Picks
This one isn’t the no-brainer that it appears to be. Too frequently small market teams end up having to pass on some of the draft’s biggest prospects because of large signing bonus demands. By allowing teams to trade their draft picks, prospects could gain even more leverage.
If a top prospect knows there’s potential for a team like the Yankees or Red Sox to trade up, there’s no reason for him not to ask for a contract that only those teams could afford, forcing the hand of small market teams. High revenue clubs that already rule the free agent market could also be able to stock pile draft picks as well, further increasing baseball’s competitive balance gap.
On the flip side, there may be small market teams wanting to sell off their draft picks in an effort to save money. It’s not unheard of for teams to sign “Type A” free agents just so they can forfeit their draft pick, or teams “punting” their pick by drafting an unsignable player. Giving trading power to a team would make the surrendering of draft picks even easier.
With all that said, denying teams the ability to do what they wish with their assets seems fundamentally unfair and for every small market team trying to trade away their picks, there would likely be another one trying to move up in the draft in order to improve their farm system. It could allow teams in “win-now” mode to trade for some major league ready talent or simply allow teams to get something out of their pick in a year with an under-whelming draft class.
And of course the most obvious benefit from the change: more draft day drama! Few things fascinate sports fans more than rumors of trading draft picks. Giving teams the flexibility to move picks would go a long way in increasing fan interest.
However, with a rule change this significant there would have to be a few corresponding changes as well, such as….
Hard Slotting System
Currently MLB only offers “suggestions” for what kind of bonuses to give prospects, based on where they’re selected in the draft. Teams that go over this “suggested slotting” will be reprimanded harshly…by getting a strongly worded e-mail from Bud Selig, or something like that.
Beyond that, teams can spend basically however much they want on whomever they want. The ever-increasing signing bonuses that have resulted are the primary reason small market teams are at risk of losing out on the best players on the board. The solution here is to simply turn these slot suggestions into mandates.
Believe it or not, this is one salary cap that the Player’s Association may be in favor of.
The increasing signing bonuses in recent seasons have started to cut into many team’s major league budgets, meaning some players who have actually made it to the Bigs are getting paid less because some kid fresh out of high school wanted another couple million. Looking out for their current members may be what brings the MLBPA to the table on this issue.
From the team’s standpoint, the incentive is obvious; make players more affordable. Teams would not have to put as much weight on “signability” when selecting a player. It would also force the hand of the prospects, seeing first round talents fall into the later rounds because of salary demands would be a thing of the past.
A hard slotting system would essentially allow the draft to do what it was created to do in the first place: let the worst teams be able to sign the best young talent. However, with both trading picks and capping signing bonuses, one more element would likely have to come into play…
Reduce the Number of Rounds
Sooner or later the draft, which is currently a whopping 50 rounds, will likely be shortened. It’s an easy way to throw a bone to the MLBPA. Fewer rounds means more undrafted players who are free to sign with the highest bidder, and if the league is implementing a hard slotting system, teams will likely have more cash to spend on amateur players anyway. Less players drafted also means less times fans have to look at the draft board as say “who?”
By the latter rounds, some teams have never even scouted the players their rivals are selecting, so the need for a team to claim the rights to these players via a draft pick is minimal. Reducing the number of rounds also would increase the need for the power to trade picks since some years a few teams may have a greater need to stock their farm system than others.
Finally, less rounds means a greater probability that entire draft may one day be televised. More on that later.
The benefits of an International draft are obvious. Significantly great quality of draft classes and increased competitive balance, however this draft rule change is probably the least likely to occur, simply because of the countless complications it adds.
Currently only players from the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico may be selected, with the rest of the world’s amateur players essentially being free agents. The majority of players acquired on the international level hail from either Central America or Japan. Both regions could be greatly affected by a worldwide draft for different reasons.
In Central America teams obviously work independently of each other, meaning players who are scouted and signed by some teams might be completely unknown by others. Under an international system, it would be necessary for the MLB to have documentation on all players prior to the draft. Correctly documenting Latin-born players has already caused headaches for several baseball teams but that wouldn’t necessarily make incorporating those players into a draft impossible.
Baseball would also have to resolve a disparity in age requirements (drafted players must be at least 17 in order to sign a contract, international players only need to be 16) and it may also find some resistance from the Central American nations themselves. A draft, potentially coupled with a hard slotting system, could mean significantly smaller signing bonuses for their citizens-turned-professional athletes.
The Nippon (Japan) Professional Baseball league could also be affected if the MLB opens the draft to their players, although their complications may be easier to get around. The draft would again mean smaller contracts than with free agency for Japanese players and players under contract with a NPB club may be restricted from entering the draft. It’s entirely possible that MLB could simply make it so that NPB players are not subject to the draft since; after all, they’re already professional players.
If a worldwide draft does happen it will come with countless contingencies. For now let’s get back to the US.
Move the draft back to ESPN
ESPN has more than its share of faults; draft coverage is not one of them. The NFL certainly deserves a lot of credit for making their draft the major event that it is today, but ESPN has been just as big a part of that. As annoying as Mel Kiper Jr. can be he certainly does offer a fair degree of insight on many of the prospects on the board and what teams are looking for. His dynamic personality and helmet hair also provide for some compelling television. The rest of the NFL draft TV crew gives ESPN’s coverage a well-rounded perspective.
Meanwhile, over on the MLB’s own personal network, the most provocative thing you’ll ever hear someone say is that a team made a “risky” pick, and even that analysis is likely to be softened with some positive reinforcement. Not that all draft coverage needs to focus on the negative, but at times the MLB Network leaves you wondering if you’re watching a sports channel or attending a self-esteem-building seminar.
It’s fair to point out that critiquing a baseball draft is a little more difficult than a football one, given how long it takes before those players will make an impact. However, if some of the previously listed factors do indeed become a part of draft day there’ll be plenty more to talk about and plenty of opinions to hear from. That’s one thing ESPN can better provide than MLB Network.
Also, not that is isn’t something MLB Network couldn’t be doing already, but given ESPN’s large family of networks, it would also be easier for the “world wide leader in sports” to provide full coverage of the draft (assuming there's a few less rounds to cover). Bed Selig doesn't have to make his way to the podium for every pick, but just like in the NFL, the latter rounds could be spent getting more analysis while still getting pick-by-pick updates.
It would be difficult to pry the MLB draft from the MLB Network, but as ESPN is a more established network, it is clearly more capable of producing compelling television. If these factors create the opportunity for baseball to make some additional advertising revenue MLB would certainly consider it.
But fear not, MLB Network, there's still one major contribution you can make when covering the game's future stars.
More Coverage of College Baseball
Here’s one where everyone is dropping the ball. College Baseball (yes, they play baseball in college now) lacks popularity due largely to the same reasons the draft does; because prospects are so far removed from actually making the big leagues. However, that doesn’t mean it needs to be completely ignored by virtually all sports networks until the last three weeks of the post-season.
Even with ESPNU televised college games are few and far between. You’re more likely to find college lacrosse or women’s softball on the ESPN networks than NCAA baseball. Here is where the MLB Network can step in.
The college season starts in mid-February, around the time Spring Training begins. Yet despite this, MLB Network covered just two college games all season in 2011, both on the same day, and even then one of the games was briefly preempted by a Yankee spring training game. The only thing baseball fans may find more boring than the current draft set-up is spring training baseball. The college game plays for six weeks before MLB’s opening day, wouldn’t covering a few more of those games be worth a shot? How does MLB Network expect fans to be interested in the draft if the vast majority of viewers have never seen the prospects play?
High school players are also on the draft board so televising some showcase games might also be worth looking into.
This is another cue the MLB can take from the NFL: the more the fans know about the players being drafted, the more probable it is they’ll be glued to the TV on draft day; likely while groaning over the fact that their team picked the wrong guy.